4 ways to change your school’s attitudes towards Indigenous culture
The ways in which Indigenous history and culture is taught in schools has come a long way in recent decades. When I look back to my own schooling on Sydney’s North Shore, I struggle to recall much more than a general white-washed history and a lot of talk about The Mabo Decision.
Students today are learning about the myriad Aboriginal nations and languages from a young age and engaging with current Indigenous issues in the classroom, yet despite this progress, many schools still struggle to meaningfully change the attitudes and values of their wider school community towards Indigenous Australia.
During my time at Red Earth working with schools across Australia and travelling to remote communities on immersions, I have seen a wide range of approaches to changing attitudes and values within schools. From student-led programs such as the Closing the Gap Committee at Brisbane Grammar School and the Firecarrier program at many Victorian Catholic schools, to physical representation such as Aboriginal art, artefacts, and names across campuses, the schools I see making positive change always incorporate 4 key strategies.
1. Regular, meaningful Acknowledgments of Country
By now, most of us have become used to hearing an Acknowledgement of Country before ceremonies and events in the media, as well as in many schools. What is often missing is an understanding of the context – why is it important to acknowledge Country, and who are we even saying it to?
It’s easy for an Acknowledgement of Country to become part of the rigmarole at the start of an assembly or information night at school, a hastily-recited, tokenistic statement not dissimilar to shushing the noisy students at the back. Reframing this as a meaningful gesture for everyone in the room, Indigenous or not, and the beginning of a formal event will help to reinforce its importance in the minds of the school community.
Students need to engage in discussion about the purpose and meaning and history of the Acknowledgment of Country. What are the differences between an Acknowledgment and a Welcome to Country? Why should we learn the name of the Traditional Owner group/s in our area? Why do we need to say it every time we have an assembly?
2. Invite Aboriginal elders and guest speakers to your school
Representation is hugely important. It’s a concept often discussed in relation to equality in work environments and diversity in the media, and it is equally applicable in the context of students being exposed to First Nations people.
Many students, especially those living in metropolitan areas of large cities, might never have had the chance to listen to or have a conversation with an Indigenous person. There are likely even some young people in inner-city areas whose only exposure to Indigenous people is those affected by homelessness or mental health issues – the most ‘visible’ in our society.
Having guest speakers at assemblies, meetings or events can help establish regular dialogue between students of all backgrounds and Indigenous Australians, and the interaction does not need to be centred around a guest’s Indigeneity. It is important that students are exposed to a wide range of successful, healthy role models to develop a broad understanding of what success and health can look like.
There are organisations in most capital cities that can help connect you with guest speakers, or even a quick Google search will return myriad Indigenous people in your city with backgrounds in arts, business, politics, sport, and more.
Establishing a relationship with your local elders or Traditional Owner group will also help students appreciate the significance of Aboriginal history in your local area, something I’ve seen in action at many schools such as Aquinas College in Melbourne. When most people think of Indigenous Australia they think of the red sand of Uluru, but we all have Aboriginal history and culture at our doorstep. Connecting with local traditions and customs through Elders in your area will bring the concept of Indigenous identity back to your area.
3. Professional learning and development for staff
Engaging students in meaningful discussion about Aboriginal histories and culture is a lot easier with the right tools and the right experience. Having an educated and experienced staff is imperative to meet the requirements of the cross-curriculum priority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and culture.
There’s a wide range of professional learning opportunities for school staff now to suit all budgets. You can organise an incursion with facilitators from your area to help deepen staff’s understanding of your local area’s Indigenous history, and to develop methods for introducing Indigenous perspectives into course material. Similarly, there are external courses and resources such as those organised by Cultural Infusion.
At the other end of the spectrum is an immersion to take a small group of school staff to remote Indigenous communities. So much of Indigenous culture and identity is connected to place, and remote communities are often home to Elders and Traditional Owners who have maintained that connection to place and history as active custodians of their family’s history. Red Earth runs immersions for school staff to stay on Country in Arnhem Land, Central Australia, and Cape York to develop an understanding of what life is like at the intersection of traditional culture and modern life in remote Indigenous Australia.
4. Offer an immersion to remote Indigenous communities
In the words of Buru Elder CJ, “Doing something together on land is the most powerful way of closing any gap”, and having been on immersions myself with students from many different schools, it’s hard to disagree.
The changes I have seen in students over the course of 10-day immersions is nothing short of staggering, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have been a part of such formative and transformative experiences for so many young people.
To be immersed in Aboriginal culture in a remote community is to put a human face to the concepts we talk about in the classroom and the media. Topics such as inequality in healthcare and education, or the stolen generation evolve from mere words in a textbook to three-dimensional, personal stories around the campfire. The power of hearing personal stories and histories which are inextricably connected to place is moving for adults and students alike, and can bring about fundamental change not only in the minds of a travelling group of students, but in the broader culture of a school.
Those students who are lucky enough to go an immersion tend to come back to school and speak ad nauseam about their time on Country to just about anyone who will listen, be it their friends, classmates, or family. Over time, the growing cohort of immersion alumni can become a socially conscious group of advocates for Indigenous people and issues at your school, leading the student body in acknowledging the important role we all have to play in reconciliation and creating a just and equal Australia.
August 20 2020 | Posted by Daniel Carson