What Is ‘Paying The Rent’ & How Does It Actually Support First Nations People?

If you're reading this, you're probably feeling quite disheartened right now and wondering how you can continue to show up for Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples in the wake of the Voice to Parliament referendum. It's important to remember that this is not the finish line — you can, and should, still be an ally to Indigenous Australians and continue to push for change until reconciliation is achieved.
One way you can start showing your support to First Nations peoples is by opening your wallet. This can include supporting small First Nations businesses, buying from Indigenous fashion and beauty brands — and by contributing money to Indigenous communities through mutual aid and 'paying the rent'.
Mutual aid is a system where members of the community voluntarily contribute money to assist in other people's care — which could include healthcare, housing, education and other support services. Mutual aid differs from charity, as mutual aid programs are run by community organisations and volunteers, and all the money goes directly towards the people who need it.
Pay The Rent was first developed as a mutual aid policy by the National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation (NAIHO) in the 1970s and since then it has been implemented through a range of programs across the country. Paying The Rent is a mutual aid concept that directly benefits First Nations people, as Pay The Rent programs are run independently by people from First Nations communities, without government interference, meaning that the elders can direct the money to the Indigenous communities and individuals who need it the most.
Paying The Rent is important because non-Indigenous Australians are living on stolen land, as the sovereignty of First Nations people was never ceded. It's an enormous privilege to live in Australia and consume food harvested on Indigenous land or from Indigenous seas and drink water that flows across or under Indigenous land. Paying The Rent is a small step towards acknowledging these facts and making right the wrongs of the past.
In the 1990s, Indigenous rights activist Robbie Thorpe ran a Pay The Rent program in Fitzroy, Melbourne. In 2019, he told Buzzfeed he started the program as a "rational, reasonable, responsible means of reconciling 200 years of unchecked genocide, as far as I’m concerned".
While Thorpe eventually shut down the program, the Victorian-based Pay The Rent Grassroots Collective was later established, which encourages non-Indigenous Australians to make a voluntary, one-off or regular payment to a sovereign body made entirely of First Nations people. The money received by this sovereign body is then distributed to Indigenous communities in Victoria to help cover the costs of housing, healthcare and education.
The Collective works under the ‘Sovereign Body, Corporate Arm’ model — which means a Sovereign Body of First Nations people make the decisions about how the money is used, and a Corporate Arm of non-First Nations people do the administration and logistical work to make sure the money gets where it needs to go.
Ted Wilkes, a Nyungar elder of the Wilak clan and lifetime advocate for Indigenous rights, says Pay The Rent "offers all Australians an opportunity to work outside the government to right the wrongs". Author and commentator Clementine Ford, who is a supporter of the program, says “We need to stop paying lip service to decolonisation and start paying the rent to the First Nations people".
If you'd like to start Paying The Rent, you can make a one-off payment or schedule regular payments to come out of your bank account. The Collective is based on the lands of the Kulin Nation in Victoria, Australia but you can make contributions from anywhere in Australia.
While Pay The Rent Collective is Victorian-based, you can support First Nations grassroots organisations in other states, too. First Nations Futures supports various First Nations community-driven initiatives across Australia. In Queensland, you can contribute to the Balaangala Community Group's Pay The Rent program, or donate to the NPY Women’s Council, which delivers health, social and cultural services in the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) region of Central Australia.
Many people across Australia are struggling financially at the moment, so you may not be in a position to Pay The Rent right now. But you can still support First Nations Australians by encouraging other people to Pay The Rent, learning more about the Indigenous culture, language and stories of the land you live on — and sharing that knowledge with others, volunteering your time or offering an 'in-kind' service. You can also read our article to find out more about how you can show up as an ally to Indigenous Australians today and every day.
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here!

More from Politics