The Learning Press
Changing the story for Indigenous kids
It’s hard to be proud when you’re defined by a spit hood and a cartoon showing your drunken Dad doesn’t know your name.
It’s only halfway through 2016, and confronting images of youths being hooded, restrained and beaten at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre have followed the closure of an Aurukun school in response to threats from axe-wielding Indigenous teens.
Just last week, Bill Leak’s controversial portrait of a drunken Aboriginal father being handed a delinquent son he can’t name appeared in The Australian.
Business as usual, then, for Indigenous boys who have spent their lives portrayed collectively as losers, victims and criminals.
There are thousands of people in communities and schools all over the country chipping away at the barriers to confidence that Aboriginal kids hit daily.
But in a modern Australia which celebrates diversity, why is it that the first people here are often the ones who feel least at home?
And how do young Indigenous males throw off the stereotypes that continue to define them despite decades of determined reconciliation?
Chris Sarra says the Bill Leak cartoon took him straight back to 1970s Bundaberg where he and his siblings were regularly labelled ‘black bastards’.
The son of an Aboriginal mother and Italian father, Sarra says his parents fought to instil in him a sense of worth in a community where he was denigrated daily.
He says of the cartoon: “It’s grossly offensive.
“And what’s disturbing about it is that it can appear in a national newspaper and somehow there’s a whole bunch of people who are just OK with that, not realising that what it says to us as blackfellas is ‘we can cast you as despicable in this way and that’s OK’.
“Our sense of outrage is rendered invalid by people saying ‘you’re just being too sensitive’ or ‘just let people have freedom of speech’ - I don’t have a problem with freedom of speech as long as it’s not hurtful to others.
“It was so OK for the guy over the back fence to call us ‘little black boongs’ and not ever be held to account for that, and if I had a problem with it, I had to get over it.
“Somehow it ended up being our fault for being hurt by those sorts of words.”
Sarra is a Professor of Education at the University of Canberra and NAIDOC's Person of the Year for 2016.
He has spent most of his adult life working to change the attitudes and outcomes of young Indigenous schoolkids.
His Stronger Smarter Initiative, while it has its detractors, has been rolled out in some 500 schools throughout the country and is responsible for helping some of the least advantaged kids on the planet achieve an education they never imagined possible.
It argues that high expectations relationships lead to elevated education outcomes for kids who commit to refuting stereotypes of Aboriginal underachievement - an approach he developed in his eight years as a school principal in the Aboriginal settlement of Cherbourg in rural Queensland.
He says: “Stronger Smarter is about getting Aboriginal kids to understand that we have a choice about how we define ourselves and we don’t have to let ourselves be defined by these negative messages and stereotypes about being Aboriginal.
“Thankfully, teachers, Indigenous parents and kids are starting to understand this and we are transcending that negative stereotype together.”
It is a noble sentiment, but the boys detained at Don Dale are a long way from bucking those negative expectations.
After all, Australia’s pre-eminent Aboriginal leader, Noel Pearson, says: "I can tell you those kids with a bag over their heads…those kids are going to end up in prison as sure as night turns to day.”
Pearson says a Royal Commission will do little to fix the picture without a concentration on empowering Indigenous communities to take responsibility for their children - a point at least partially made in the contentious Leak cartoon.
“How do we stop these children from entering that system? How do we make sure that the children are protected at the earliest stages from ever leading that kind of life?” he said on the ABC’s Lateline program.
"We're united in relation to the outrage about the end consequences, but we're divided over the question of whether Indigenous responsibility is a crucial part of the solution. And I say it is.”
Sarra agrees the response to Don Dale must be about taking responsibility - a burden he puts on all Australians.
“The fundamental problem is there’s a disbelief in the notion that humanity exists within those children and it’s awful to watch, not only because the humanity of those children is undermined, but those prison guards are undermining their own humanity.
“If we let that kind of behaviour go unchecked as a nation, then our overall humanity as a nation is undermined. We are all diminished in that circumstance.”
Save the Children Australia has put humanity at the core of its approach to offenders at Tasmania’s Ashley Youth Detention Centre.
It has seen a 63 per cent reduction in detainee numbers since 2011 - while the Northern Territory’s ‘tough on crime, tough on kids’ approach has produced a 38 per cent increase in numbers over the same four-year period.
The Tasmanian model involves one-on-one mentoring to support children through and after detention and while they’re on bail - an approach which has won praise from local police for contributing to a recidivism rate standing at 20 per cent below the national average.
“The relationship between the youth worker and the young person is central to the success of our programs,” says spokeswoman Lisa Cuatt.
“We operate in a sensitive and trauma-informed way, recognising the young people we’re working with have suffered psychological harm, abuse and neglect in their life.
“We also make a commitment to a young person over a long period of time. Maybe one year. Maybe two years. Whatever it takes.”
“Being tough on crime doesn’t mean being tough on young people,” adds Save the Children’s Dane Paulsen.
“The opposite of crime isn’t punishment. The opposite of crime is connection to community.”
Connection to community is at the heart of both Chris Sarra and Noel Pearson’s efforts to persuade Indigenous kids they can change the message on achievement.
Pearson’s three Cape York Academy schools run a ‘culture curriculum’, engaging students in their Indigenous history with a strong focus on ancestral languages (Pearson is literate in both his mother and fathers’ ancestral languages).
For Sarra, the key is matching rhetoric about Aboriginal pride with action.
“The very first thing I said to kids at Cherbourg was ‘the most important thing you’ll learn from me is that you can be Aboriginal and you can be successful’,” he says.
“Then I got them hooked on the mantra of being strong and being smart and when they bought into that, it gave me the leverage to say to them ‘you can’t tell me that you’re going to be strong and smart and then act like something different’.
“‘If you subscribe to that belief and say it so enthusiastically, then your actions have to match the words. Don’t say it and then play up for the teacher or go missing from school’.
“At the same time, it was a conversation with teachers and Aboriginal aides saying ‘we can’t sell this idea to the kids if our actions and behaviours and beliefs are not matched by the words coming out of our mouths’.
“That lays the foundations for a high expectations relationship and that has to be matched by the quality of the learning experience I’m offering the kids.”
The question remains, though, why despite extra resources and an increased focus on Aboriginal achievement, high numbers of Indigenous kids hit high school and begin a rapid slide into disengagement and poor behaviour.
While there may be numerous causes for that disconnection - lack of role models, curriculum irrelevance, self-fulfilling prophesises, social circumstances, family breakdown, drug and alcohol problems and history among them - Sarra says they come down to one root cause.
“All of those things ultimately I would describe as Indigenous teachers and families colluding with the negative stereotype they are so bombarded with.
“And again, thankfully, that’s changing because teachers are starting to realise and Aboriginal parents and kids are starting to realise that we don’t have to be that stereotype.
“At Cherbourg, we just created a school where kids knew that if they turned up they would have the opportunity to grow strong and to grow smart, and attendance grew from 62% to 94%.
“Remarkable things happen when you can shift expectations - and for those kids, their home circumstance didn’t change a lot.”
Noel Pearson says the greatest barrier to achievement at high school is a poor primary school education.
“Indigenous kids have much higher hurdles to overcome than most kids, from racism to family breakdown,” he says.
“Our initial work in Cape York focused on restoring social and family norms. This is incredibly important work, but we found that it needs to go hand in hand with an effective primary school education.
“Primary schooling in remote communities has long been a disgraceful scene. This disaster follows on in secondary schooling as night follows day.
“It is four decades of schooling failure that has seen youth delinquency and disengagement become such an endemic feature of remote community.
“In 2009, before we started our primary school reform, there were only six or so kids from Aurukun at boarding school.
“This year there are 57 Aurukun kids succeeding at boarding schools. Eight of these students are on scholarship at some of the best boarding schools in the state.
“There is nothing I am prouder of than the achievements of the Aurukun students.”
Sarra is highly critical of Pearson’s approach to education in the Northern Territory’s Cape York Peninsula, saying: “If I look at the Direct Instruction program being delivered in Aurukun, what that says to me is those kids are being perceived as only capable of a remedial program.
“I believe absolutely that in every Aboriginal community in Australia we can have a circumstance where Aboriginal children can achieve at national minimum benchmarks.
“I’ve seen kids come from households where all of what Noel Pearson can describe about Aurukun is true, and worse, and they still turn up to school.
“So I don’t accept for one moment this notion that he tries to pedal that those kids are so retarded that they can’t learn as well as anybody else.”
Pearson refutes the accusation that Direct Instruction - an American-designed program of explicit instruction based on scripted lesson plans - fosters low expectations.
“Chris and I both want a good school environment and a high quality and high expectation education for Aboriginal kids,” he says.
“I credit Chris with promoting higher expectations for indigenous kids around Australia.
“But Chris isn’t from remote Cape York. He hasn’t been in the Aurukun school over the last six years. He has never seen any of the Cape York Academy classrooms in action.
“We started our model in Aurukun in 2010 and the first thing I noticed was the increase in our students’ self-esteem after the introduction of Direct Instruction.
"For the first time our students were achieving success in the work presented to them, and they were progressing.
“Chris’s approach is about mindset and attitude and ideological outlook, rather than teaching. My approach is about instruction: the detail of what happens between a teacher and a student in the classroom.
“We didn’t design our own literacy and numeracy program, rather we looked at the evidence, and found people with much more expertise than us. This led us to Direct Instruction.
“I believe instilling high expectations in Aboriginal kids and teachers is essential. But to instil these expectations without furnishing kids and teachers with the means to achieve them is cruel.”
While two of our most prominent Indigenous leaders are at odds over how to lift educational outcomes and expectations, another is using sport to get the message across.
Johnathan Thurston is ambassador for Cowboys House, a $9.5 million, 50-place boarding home in Townsville (provided through an alliance of the North Queensland Cowboys, the NRL and state and federal governments) designed to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teens from remote areas access to quality schooling and jobs.
The rugby league great describes nurturing school achievement among kids from the bush as a “tricky space” saying: “There seems to be a lack of respect or trust for education in these communities, perhaps some parents feel that this system did nothing for them.
“I think trust, and understanding the value of what education can provide, need to be reignited with the wider communities, the families and the kids.
“Perhaps it’s in the way we present it.
“The saying is ‘you can’t expect change if you never do anything differently’.
“I think NRL Cowboys House is a ‘different’ and non-tradition approach giving a great opportunity for Indigenous boys to access equality in education choices - I hope it’s a start.”
The new Melbourne Indigenous Transition School boards Indigenous Year 7 children from remote communities, providing intensive daily numeracy and literacy lessons inside the Richmond Football Club to help them transition into scholarships at high-performing secondary schools.
Funded through state and federal governments and donations, MITS is run by a team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff who help students make connections with future schools through extra-curricular activities, monitor their wellbeing and ensure that cultural identity is celebrated in relationship with partner schools.
“Experience has shown us that often the step from a remote or regional community into a big Melbourne school can be a really, really hard step,” says director Edward Tudor.
“It prepares our kids for those next years and beyond when they’re out in the mainstream Melbourne schools.
“They can feel strong about who they are even if they're 4000 km away from home."
So while media representations of Indigenous boys have hit a real low in recent months, they have also allowed us to shine a light on the steps being made away from the spotlight, every day, to raise the expectations of Indigenous boys.
How do we tip the scales enough to change the narrative of collective failure?
For Sarra it’s about high expectations: “The formula is very, very simple, but the work is very, very hard and there’s no backing away from that. To deliver transformative change in our schools is do-able, but we have to be prepared to sweat blood and be committed to high expectations relationships.”
For Pearson, it’s about the practicalities of core skills: “For our culture to endure, and for a future which allows choice and opportunity, we have to start with the ability to read: in our families’ languages, and in English.”
For Thurston, arguably the most high-profile and successful of them all, it’s about delivering a message to the kids he inspires daily.
“Remember high school is all about you - take advantage of it.
“Look at it differently - not as a place you ‘have to be’ because you have been made go there, but as a place full of people who want to help you and want you be in a position to make your own choices in life.
“Education is freedom, and although I probably didn’t see it that way back then, no one ever explained it to me that way.”
For those who argue there’s a lack of male role models for Indigenous boys, there can be few finer examples than the ones quoted here.