Byron Williams. Pic: CATH BOWENByron Williams didn’t come to the land of troubled youths from a place of disadvantage.
He enjoyed a privileged upbringing in Sydney, studied industrial design at university and played music. But then disillusionment set in.
“Mum and dad weren’t rich or anything, but there weren’t any major catastrophes or traumas or any major issues in the family,” Byron said. “But I tend to be very indecisive so I think this (Byron’s foray into youth work) has been more of a path of least resistance for me. I say that, but obviously this has been a choice.”
This path began when Byron finished uni.
“I sort of realised that no one in my course was getting jobs in Australia so I went overseas for a year-and-a-half with some friends and when I came back to Australia I ended up in Darwin, as many people do, and that’s when I started working in music with indigenous communities,” Byron, 36, of Newcastle, said.
“One of the biggest lessons I learned, going to indigenous Australia, is that you can’t choose your own family or where you are born. If you are born into a marginalised community the odds are well and truly stacked against you.”
For the next four to five years Byron – now a community awareness and engagement officer with Headspace in
Maitland – conducted hip hop workshops throughout different communities across Australia and from here he started working in youth and mental health.
“I developed this wealth of experience but I didn’t have the qualifications or the education on my side,” Byron said. “So the aim was to get back to Sydney reconnect with family and friends, because I had been off the radar for four years out in the bush so to speak, and get a position in a youth organisation where I could lap up the training and the mentorship that an organisation would provide.”
Soon after Byron ended up at a youth service in Bondi, he was working with young people battling serious mental health issues.
“I ended up in the more acute end of the spectrum working with people who were quite unwell and had spent time in hospital and I realised that, for a lot of them, the decisions were taken out of everything,” Byron said.
“They don’t choose what to eat, they don’t choose when they wake up, they don’t choose what they wear so working through art and music they are getting a small amount of that decision-making back. It’s a subtle recalibration of saying the decision process is yours.”
And through almost everything Byron does there is music.
“There has always been music in my life. Dad played guitar at home and there was always music around but I was always discouraged from doing music, studying music, not necessarily through family but mainly through career advisers,” Byron said.
Then in 2001 Byron, along with a group of friends, formed Sydney hip hop outfit The Herd.
“This was at a time when everyone was making music on their own in their bedrooms,” Byron (known as guitarist Toe-fu in the band) said.
“We knew there was a small chance, if any, of us getting anything released through a big label so we started our own record label and so Elefant Traks – now a well-known independent label – was created with the aim of releasing compilation music of individuals writing and releasing their own music.
The politically orientated band’s first CD sold 200 copies and in 2007 they performed at The Big Day Out.
“The Herd is something that I’m quite proud of in the sense that I hold the same values with my music that I do with my work with young people and it’s quite nice to have that consistency,” Byron said. “Young people keep
your ego in check because a lot of the young people I work with don’t really care about The Herd so that’s quite good to have them chop you down like that.
“I have a really fortunate existence that I’ve been able to maintain. And that’s the main conscious decision I’ve made for my own health and wellbeing. All the money in the world isn’t going to mean anything if you don’t have time for others.”
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