Reconciliation

Contributed by Jackie Huggins, Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia

What is Reconciliation Australia?

Reconciliation Australia is the independent, non-government and not-for-profit foundation established in 2000 by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation to continue to provide a national focus for reconciliation.

The organisation has four main functions:

  • encouraging, informing and resourcing the Australian community to do the work of reconciliation;
  • identifying and promoting 'good practice' examples of reconciliation in action;
  • 'brokering' partnerships between sectors to explore creative new ways of approaching persistent problems; and
  • reassuring the wider community, through independent monitoring of Australia's progress towards reconciliation, that this important process is serious and ongoing.

A wide range of Reconciliation Australia resources, publications and speeches can be found on our website at http://www.reconciliation.org.au.

The website also carries the Reconciliation in Action database which captures the scope of reconciliation activities taking place across Australia. Teachers and students are encouraged to use the database to get ideas and to submit their own activities so that others gain a sense of how schools are contributing to reconciliation.

What is happening in reconciliation?

Progress on reconciliation must be judged against all measures, practical and symbolic, and on both of these measures clearly we have a long way to go before Australia can say that reconciliation has arrived.

But, across the country, people are getting on with the business of reconciliation, in their communities, their workplaces, and in schools and universities. Public awareness of the issues of reconciliation has increased significantly in the last decade, and racist attitudes and behaviour are less tolerated (witness Big Brother). This has created a climate in which all sectors of society are more mindful of adopting measures to improve relations with Indigenous people – ideas to help us live together more harmoniously.

The Prime Minister's recent summit on Indigenous family violence represented significant progress for reconciliation, both in a symbolic and a practical sense.

True, there has been concern in the community in recent years that the reconciliation agenda in Australia has run into the sand. After the emotional triumph of the bridge walks in 2000, some people believed that reconciliation had arrived.

But the reality was that, significant as they were in a symbolic sense, the bridge walks masked the harsh reality of a lot of what we call 'unfinished business' – issues tied in with reconciliation that have not been resolved.

Education is the key

Education is the key to reconciliation.

At its most obvious, education is the key to turning around the appalling gaps in literacy and numeracy standards between Indigenous students and the rest of the school population in Australia.

But education serves to promote reconciliation in a far broader sense. It provides the tools and self esteem to triumph over disadvantage in other areas of people's lives – in employment, for instance, and in health.

It is increasingly well recognised that different aspects of disadvantage are linked; that one problem predisposes us to the next and the next until it becomes virtually impossible to break through and take some control.

Education is the key to reconciliation because it's hard to achieve any measure of equity or self worth, any sense of belonging in the real economy, without education.

And then there's the aspect of education that promotes reconciliation among non-Indigenous Australians, the young and also the wider adult community, its decision makers and those who might contribute to the process in their work, their relationships and their local communities.

Decision makers and people who provide services, including teachers, also need education to be in a position to work effectively and respectfully in partnership with Indigenous Australians.

Education of the wider community, in particular non-Indigenous young people, is the key to making reconciliation into something real and enduring. It's the only way we can acknowledge the history of dispossession and thereby understand the context of current disadvantage.

So if we agree that education is the key, what is it that teachers can do to promote reconciliation?

Those teachers who have no Indigenous pupils enrolled in their schools can commit to ensuring that students develop an informed understanding of Australia's Indigenous peoples and their cultures, and of the importance of reconciliation.

They can promote face-to-face contact between young people from different backgrounds, probably the best stimulus for reconciliation.

Through the 'Dare to Lead' project of the Australian Principals Associations Professional Development Council, principals from schools with Indigenous students have committed to a 10% improvement in literacy levels, in the case of primary school students, and a 10% improvement in Year 12 retention rates in the case of secondary schools.

'Dare to Lead' resources recognise that improving outcomes for Indigenous students is not rocket science. Getting them to attend school is already a big step in the right direction.

What teachers won't read in the manuals but will probably know in their heads and hearts is that the real issue is about providing an educational environment which is going to engage people. And that is where teachers need to keep that holistic picture of Indigenous disadvantage in mind because it provides the context from which many students come.

  • Life expectancy at birth – 76% of other Australians.
  • Imprisonment – 16 times higher than other Australians.
  • Unemployment – almost 4 times higher.
  • Hospital admissions for women following violent acts – 24 times higher.
  • Median family income – 68% of other Australians.

So how are teachers to provide an environment that, as far as possible, takes in these harsh realities?

Gumala Mirnuwarni is an education project in the Pilbara in Western Australia, with another six replica models currently being trialed around the State. It grew out of the wish of Hammersley Iron to offer skilled work opportunities to Aboriginal people.

Developed in partnership with the Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation, a small charitable body, Gumala came about by bringing all relevant stakeholders to the table – everyone who might share an interest in seeing the local children succeed. They included parents, government and school authorities, three resource companies who wanted to engage with the Aboriginal community and the Polly Farmer Foundation.

In the first five years, 7 students have matriculated and gone on to university, 15 have entered traineeships and not one of the 70 participants has been in trouble with the police. Attendance figures for the Aboriginal students are now comparable with those of the rest of the school community.

The thinking behind Gumala involves understanding and taking into account where students come from and the other factors in their lives that are affecting their schooling. This might involve home support, access to homework centres, help when inevitable problems emerge, teacher belief and a clear explanation of the rewards on offer through educational success.

These are the kinds of supports and messages we provide to our own children but we need to share them out among children who are not getting them from elsewhere.

These issues represent a challenge. But it is a cop-out for anyone, anywhere to suggest that it is a challenge that can't be met.

When the patron of Reconciliation Australia, former Governor-General Sir William Deane, delivered the inaugural Vincent Lingiari Lecture back in 1996, a landmark address that laid down a pathway towards true reconciliation, he finished with a question:

'How can we go forward together as friends and equals if our children's hands cannot touch?'

The fact is that we who are committed to reconciliation need teachers' help in building teams of people who, together, can make a difference. And if there was ever an area crying out for partnership, it's education.