For many of Australia's Aboriginal people, education has often
meant one of three things: assimilation, exclusion, or irrelevance.
Generations of the continent's indigenous groups have been
schooled to drop cultural patterns and adopt European ways. Some
government policies went as far as to keep native children
But these often-heavyhanded attempts to stamp out indigenous
culture have in fact fostered something quite different: a drive for
self-determination. And as part of a broad effort to change
longstanding patterns of discrimination and low achievement,
Aboriginals are working to build outlets for education that connect
more emphatically with their culture - whether it's by telling
stories through art, teaching about pre-colonial history, or
fostering an indigenous perspective on healthcare and law.
"People are constantly in this poverty cycle," says Yvonne
Jackson, director of studies at Tranby Aboriginal College in Sydney.
"There's often that notion of, 'Why should I go on? There's nothing
out there for me.' "
At Tranby, adults who have slipped through wide cracks in the
educational system, or who simply want a school that has echoes of
home, learn in a hands-on way by doing research in their own
communities much of the year.
At another school, the Eora Centre, students can combine
Aboriginal studies with basic literacy training, or earn diplomas in
visual or performing arts.
Both schools offer degrees akin to those from American community
colleges. And they help create a bridge into Australian
universities, which have also been making strides toward supporting
The negative cycle that has trapped so many indigenous people can
be linked back to policies that forced Aboriginals to live on
missions and reserves, disconnected from their way of life. State
directives spanning the decades from the 1930s to the 1960s also
removed some Aboriginal children from their homes and placed them
with white families.
"It's only since 1972 that Aboriginal children were in any way
guaranteed an education," says Pam Gill, Aboriginal Programs Unit
director at the Department of Education of New South Wales.
Today, adult education addresses the needs not only of older
people who were offered no education, but also of younger people who
simply have become disillusioned with school or haven't yet mastered
the basic skills.
At Eora in Redfern, a part of Sydney with a concentrated
Aboriginal population, most of the roughly 400 students are
Aboriginal. The school is the result of a merger between a community
center and the Sydney Institute of Technology, part of a state
system known as TAFE (Technical and Further Education).
Many Aboriginal learners find entrance to college-level study or
jobs through TAFE because of its vocational focus. "There were a lot
of people in the communities who wanted to do a course where they
could study their own culture ..., and these courses were developed
[to start at a level where] there is open access - there are no
barriers in terms of literacy and numeracy," Ms. Gill says.
Tranby has been providing Aboriginal-directed education since
1958. It was founded by an Anglican minister in cooperation with
Aboriginals, and it has gained a more politicized focus since it
took in its first students, three natives of the Torres Strait
Islands (at the northern tip of the continent) who wanted to enter
the baking industry.
Armed with a new level of awareness, alumni of schools like Eora
and Tranby frequently become ambassadors of sorts in the process of
reconciliation between white and black Australians.
My art is a voice
Take Jason Shaw, a young man with close-cropped hair whose
paintings were recently exhibited during a "Common Ground" cultural
night that Eora sponsored for the community. …