Dr. Chris Sarra is the Director-General of the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships. He is an internationally recognised Indigenous education specialist and is the founder and Chairman of the Stronger Smarter Institute.
Nearly four years ago, I posted a blog on my Sharing Culture website which included a section from Chris Sarra’s article Delivering Beyond Indigenous Policy Rhetoric which appeared on the NITV website. Here are those words important words again. They are not just important in relation to education, but also in relation to healing and to helping Aboriginal people improve their social and emotional wellbeing.
We as Aboriginal people want to be on a journey with you. This journey however, must be one that enables us to be the best that ‘we’ want to be, not a journey in which we are forced to be who ‘you’ want us to be.
When Cowboys coach Paul Green, set about conjuring a way to win the NRL [National Rugby League] Grand Final, he collaborated seriously with his Indigenous captain, Johnathon [Thurston]. He did this because Thurston has wisdom and sophisticated insights to offer. He did this because he had an authentic belief in the strengths and knowledge that were obvious, and sometimes not so obvious, in his team’s captain.
A key pillar of the stronger smarter approach is high expectations relationships as opposed to high expectations rhetoric. Sometimes high expectations rhetoric espouses lofty ideals that are often imposed with good intentions from the outside rather than negotiated with the individuals to be affected.
I mentioned earlier the fundamental importance of understanding that as we contemplate the challenges we face together, we are in a relationship in which we must ensure that it is healthy and a source of mutual benefit.
My greatest intellectual insight of the last two years, I think, is understanding the profound difference between high expectations ‘of’ Aboriginal people versus the notion of high expectations ‘with’ Aboriginal people; high expectations rhetoric versus a high expectations relationship.
I can assure you that we as Aboriginal people want to be on a journey with you. This journey however, must be one that enables us to be the best that ‘we’ want to be, not a journey in which we are forced to be who ‘you’ want us to be. Let me assure you that as Aboriginal people we have an interest in being the exceptional people that we can be and often are. None of us aspire to be downtrodden, uneducated, disempowered and dysfunctional.
It is often the case that sometimes well-intentioned non-Indigenous Australians make fatal mistakes at the very genesis of their relationship with Aboriginal Australians. Imagine you and me preparing for an important journey together, standing alongside each other, and calibrating our compasses for a stronger smarter destination. Even just to stand together, we must have purged from our relationship the toxic stench of low expectations, mistrust, and stifled perceptions of each other. From this point we have a chance of getting our compasses aligned.
If you stand beside me well intentioned, but in this relationship feeling sorry for me, as if I have to be rescued, the relationship is contaminated from the start, leaving us a few degrees out from each other and destined to become parted in the long run. [My bold – DC]
You might come to the relationship assuming that I must change my ways and become ‘like’ you in every way, emulating your way of existing… assimilated if you like. In this circumstance you assume you are superior to me and I am inferior to you. With this as our starting point the relationship is again contaminated and we calibrate our compass in a way that gives us no chance of taking an honourable journey together.
In some ways this analogy explains why we spend billions on Aboriginal affairs and achieve no appreciable gains.
If however we start the relationship in which our strengths and humanity are acknowledged and embraced, and we are convinced of an authentic sense of hope for all, then our hearts can truly beat closely together, and our compasses can be calibrated for an exciting, sometimes bumpy, yet honourable journey into the future.
In a practical sense this means identifying and embracing local community leadership that is proven, rather than anointing Aboriginal leadership that will only tell you what you want to hear.
On the Aboriginal education landscape, if we have the courage, it means acknowledging that Aboriginal parents DO want the best for their children and being bold enough to offer those parents who work in partnership with schools to get their children to school for more than 85 % of the school year, the guarantee that their child will achieve the national minimum standard on all Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 benchmarks.
Beyond year 9, if we are bold enough, it means offering a guaranteed service outcome in the form of a job, a place in training, or a place in a university to all Indigenous students who complete Year 12 with better than 85% school attendance.
It means doing whatever it takes to inject exceptional school leadership into remote Aboriginal community schools.
This is honouring and embracing humanity. This is offering hope. This is doing things with people not to them.
In some ways the three things I have articulated here, can in essence be seen as the triple bottom line for Indigenous policy analyses. My critics may well want to accuse me of being overly philosophical but after 17 years as a very successful educator on the Indigenous education landscape, I have nothing to prove.
As an educator I said I wanted to change expectations of Aboriginal children and today expectations have changed. Today there is no place to hide for any teacher with low expectations in any classroom in any school in Australia. Of course they are still out there, but it is only a matter of time before they are exposed and challenged.
If however we start the relationship in which our strengths and humanity are acknowledged and embraced, and we are convinced of an authentic sense of hope for all, then our hearts can truly beat closely together.’
These are powerful words, indeed!
One of the major themes that has emerged whilst I have been writing about the Carrolup story is that of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people walking alongside each other as equals. I’ll write more about this theme in relation to the story of Carrolup in a future blog.
For now, I leave you with the last sentence from our project promotional pamphlet:
We wish that many more Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people walk alongside each other on equal terms to help create a society where people have an improved wellness, are more respectful, caring and empathic towards their fellow man, and more protective of our planet.