Meet Rita – Tenants' Advice Service Coordinator

Published on 30/11/2018

Rita Wilkinson is the Tenancy and Financial Inclusion Manager at Metro Assist, and the Coordinator of the Southern Sydney Tenants' Advice and Advocacy Service. This interview was originally published by Metro Assist as part of their spotlight on dedicated, long-serving staff, who have been with the service for between 10 and 20 years. We'd also like to extend our congratulations and thank Rita for all the great work she does!

Tell us about when you started at Metro Assist?

Rita Wilkinson
Rita Wilkinson, Tenancy and Financial Inclusion Manager, and TAAS Coordinator.

I started working at MetroAssist in the late 1990’s as a casual tenant advocate.  I had experience as a tenants advice worker from the early 1990’s when there was no Tenants Advice and Advocacy Programme, except for two part-time services – one at Redfern Legal Centre and one in Maroubra funded by Randwick Council.

When I started work here, Metro Assist was known as Canterbury Bankstown Migrant Resource Centre.  At that time the only programs were the settlement service, and the tenants advice service. Southern Sydney TAAS was CBMRC’s first venture into a service that was not centred on assisting newly arrived migrants.  It was a very big step for a migrant centre to consider delivering a regional mainstream service.

What has made you stay with the organisation for so long?

Metro Assist has always been committed to delivering relevant services to migrant communities, and has been open minded and innovative in how those services deliver. Since I started work here not only has the name changed, but we have expanded our services to meet the needs of small and large CALD communities through CALD and mainstream services. We now offer family services, employment programs, a NILS service and financial counselling.

The other reason I have stayed is that is a good place to work, and has a strong ethos about how we deliver services. And the teams engage with each other to create pioneering services.

What has changed over the years in terms of the landscape of the sector?

The sector is changing, but many services in the landscape are still there.  What is important is that regional and local services talk with other, and collaborate to ensure the best possible outcomes for our clients and communities.

As a Tenant Advocate the work is very much that of a paralegal. There are lots of law firms that do provide very good advocacy for their clients. But law firms have a choice of whom they employ. When you work in the community sector you do not do it for the money. Oftentimes you are the guide, but you work with so many clients who put their lives on the line and keep you going, even when you think it is hopeless. Working with lots of people who have only their principles in mind and a belief in standing firm is a good reason to keep working in the sector.

I have very fond memories of Mary, a refugee from Sudan. Mary had little English and even less education. A real estate agent insisted she was in rent arrears because she didn’t pay a rent increase for over twelve months. Mary said she never received the notice of increase. She had kept enough records to prove that she told the agent she never received the increase notice, and she won at the Tribunal. I told her those cases never win but she stood by herself and her principles that she always followed the rules. Thank you Mary for having faith in me; and thank you so many others like Michael and Stella.

What has changed about this area in the time you’re worked here?

Has Canterbury Bankstown changed since the late 1990’s. Not really. Different migrant communities have moved through, and onto elsewhere when they could afford to buy a property.  The area is like a well-woven carpets with layers upon colours of stories, dreams and resilience when things go wrong.

What has been your most memorable experience while working at Metro Assist?

There have been lots of memories – there were times that Metro Assist thought we would lose a funding grant, and sometimes we have. But we have been resilient and persevered, and we have grown. I think the biggest change has been the attitude of government.

Since the 1990’s there has been a massive campaign to denigrate migrants and those that are different. We love eating at various ethnic restaurants, but we forget the collective stories behind those restaurants. And I think it is very sad that we have become less compassionate towards those that do not have peace and well being in their home countries. I trust that will change and when we start to receive asylum seekers fleeing their homes due to rises in sea levels and diseases, that we treat them with compassion and respect, and welcome them to this migrant nation. Cazaly couldn’t speak English but he could play aussie rules, and his name is still shouted at the MCG.