I am from both the Bardi and Gija peoples of the Kimberley. My mother, her mother, and all my mothers before her were Aboriginal women. I am the product of past polices and practices, but also of love and reconciliation.
I grew up all over Australia. My family never really settled and looking back, I think it was the pull between black and white, between my mother’s country in the Kimberley and my Gudiya (non-Aboriginal) father’s place in the Blue Mountains that replicated my own inner turmoil in understanding Aboriginality.
In all honesty, I don’t think it was until I reached my mid-30s that I could actually reconcile where I stood as an Aboriginal woman in Australian society today. I can say, however, it was education that enabled me to solidify my strengths as a black woman, and come to clearly see the current situation for our people in this country. I see education as essential to our freedom and self-determination.
When it comes to the determinants of health and wellbeing, Aboriginal people draw the short straw every time. On the one hand, high incarceration rates, poor health, disproportionate suicide rates, and low education outcomes are, in many people’s minds, our fault and synonymous with being Aboriginal. On the other hand, if we get too smart and finish school, or go to university, or get a good job, or even live in the city, then we are somehow less Aboriginal, or not Aboriginal, or not Aboriginal at all.
To make matters more complex Aboriginal people are also blamed for the internalised racism that sometimes shows itself as lateral violence, “like mudcrabs in a bucket, pulling each other down”.
I’m no Steve Irwin, but as far as I know mudcrabs belong in mangroves, not in buckets. We need to look closer at the system that puts the crabs in the bucket, and ask why. It’s not an easy task, but until systems actively address colonisation, intergenerational trauma, powerlessness and the ongoing experiences of racism and discrimination that Aboriginal people face daily, we will not see parity of health or other social determinants, so often flung around in Australian gap-closing policy discourse.
It is with this background, and as a mum, community member, trained teacher, and the recently appointed Team Leader for Aboriginal Education at Catholic Education Western Australia (CEWA), I can offer some views on Aboriginal Education.
Truth, justice and reconciliation: an educational approach
As an undergraduate teacher at the University of Notre Dame in Broome, I was lucky enough to be a student of Professor Patrick Dodson. Prof Dodson taught me that reconciliation is a process, a three-part puzzle built on spiritual principles like truth (confession), justice (atonement) and forgiveness (reconciliation). So for me, pushing solely for forgiveness (reconciliation) is not unlike applying a bandaid to a deep cut and ripping it off, reapplying a new one and tearing it off again. The bandaid creates a raw sore that scars, and takes much longer to heal.
Throwing funding at education programs that attempt to “fix the Aboriginal problem” by focusing narrowly on attendance, or correct parenting courses, or one-off scholarships lays blame exclusively with Aboriginal people. It is like saying to Aboriginal families, “If you only made your kids go to school, or knew how to parent properly, or weren’t so poor, then you would succeed. Just try harder”.
I’ve heard school leaders say that “solving the Aboriginal problem” was just a matter of funding: “Give me the dollars and I can get Aboriginal children to school and educate them”.
Comparably, force-feeding school staff with umpteen cultural awareness courses, or raising the Aboriginal flag once a year, or having kids paint coloured hands in the school quad and posting pictures in the school newsletter are also not solutions. As far as I am concerned, educational outcome parity is not solved with deficit-based programs, an open cheque-book, or token Aboriginal events, but rather by doing more with what school communities already have using the three-part puzzle approach.
An education system that is prepared to examine itself and determine the truth of its readiness and ability to teach Aboriginal students is courageous and innovative, and can achieve two outcomes.
The first is effectively teaching Aboriginal students. The second is ensuring that all students and staff understand Aboriginal histories, languages, spirituality and cultures. At a minimum, school leaders must connect with their system’s Aboriginal Education team to assess their school-wide cultural competency.
The CEWA Aboriginal Education Team has formulated a situational analysis grid that we work on collaboratively with schools to assess their cultural competency. The grid considers the school’s Aboriginal Education Plan, the implementation of the CEWA Aboriginal Education Policy, the teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, AITSL Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, use of Personalised Learning Plans, adherence to The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy 2015, and the schools engagement with their Aboriginal Teaching Assistants.
It is a process that requires trust, truth and time in order to establish an essential foundation enabling schools to move forward in proving equitable education for Aboriginal students.
Equality does not always mean justice, as the well-known cartoon depicts:
Once the past has been understood, and the situation of now has been realised, then strength-based, high expectation programs can be implemented. The key to programs like this are consultation and engagement. Here’s a tip about Aboriginal people and a big reason why a plethora of programs fail: we are sick and tired of having things done TO us, rather than WITH us.
Schools must engage with the local Aboriginal community. Every education system has an Aboriginal education department and that deadly squad will have connections to the local school community, along with suggestions for culturally appropriate, strength-based school programs and teaching approaches.
At CEWA schools, Aboriginal Teaching Assistants are essential links to community, not only supporting Aboriginal students, but also fostering school-community engagement and connections. ATAs help teachers implement effective teaching and learning practices and the integration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures in the school curriculum.
In addition to ATAs, affirmative action that increases the number of Aboriginal people on school boards, committees and throughout education systems should be implemented. To affect systemic change, more Aboriginal people need to be employed in leadership roles, and Aboriginal staff need to be spread out across schools and organisations, not just in the “Aboriginal” spaces.
We need cross-system programs that look beyond Aboriginal people’s “natural sporting ability” as a means of engagement and towards using our culture as a way to develop academic excellence. These programs need to be time-rich and truly academically engaging.
Celebrities wearing cool jumpers, random non-Aboriginal mentors, and a trip to a university once a term does not cut it. In addition, we need more programs that intrinsically motivate Aboriginal girls to succeed in science and math, to become teachers, doctors or engineers, beyond sporting or modeling choices.
We need to deal with attitudes of low-expectations that get many Aboriginal students pushed down non-Atar pathways, because teachers believe students can “get into university via an Aboriginal pathway (bridging course) anyway”.
Education systems must stem the tide of low expectations. The Aspiration Initiative’s Academic Enrichment Program is an example of such a program, which provides community-based, academically-focused support that not only strengthens Aboriginal identity, but also empowers and motivates students to achieve educational success.
Reconciliation, as part of an educational approach, will only develop with a whole system commitment to addressing unresolved education issues that have stemmed from the colonial hangover.
This commitment requires genuine dialogue. It means teachers, principals, and education system employees at all levels actively learning about our histories, languages, cultures and spirituality, and understanding that racism (both systemic and otherwise) makes Aboriginal people sick.
Reconciliation can only occur after schools and school systems address whiteness and actively move from non-racism to anti-racism. There are many anti-bullying policies, but do school systems have anti-racism policies? Training educators and education staff how to take a stance to become anti-racist will assist to remove the shadow of paternalism, strengthen student ability, and lift teacher and system expectations of students.
A day will come when the word “decolonise” is clearly understood, not as an attack on non-Aboriginal Australians, but as a crucially important process to ensure an equitable education for Aboriginal Australian children, which will benefit everyone.
Reconciliation in the education space requires non-Aboriginal people to share a part of themselves, rather than just the other way around. It is an authentic conversation, a reciprocal relationship based on two-way learning that recognises the power imbalance.
As part of the three-piece puzzle, reconciliation in schools can look like community-run NAIDOC week activities, elders engaging in classrooms, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, languages, cultures and spirituality embedded in the classroom curriculum, reconciliation action plans, Aboriginal language classes, the recognition of Aboriginal English use in classrooms, two-way learning, Sorry Day events and acknowledgement of country at every assembly.
Reconciliation means different things to different people in different contexts. A truth, justice and reconciliation educational approach is one way to look at building a more equitable education system.
It is time to move beyond merely improving the old education model; it’s time for education systems to transform. The opportunity to stop ripping the bandaid off and begin by dealing with the wound is now.