For more than 25 years, Grace Gordon has dedicated her life to working in the frontline of Indigenous issues.
Currently working as an Aboriginal consultant at Brewarrina College across seven remote communities in North West New South Wales, the Ngemba woman says her role is to help set up training programs for students.
“Education opens a lot of doors for our mob. In today’s society, information holds the power so it’s important for us to be educated. This stops injustices in our community and ensures our people get a fair go.”
"When you see someone who couldn’t write or hold a pen read a full sentence - that’s when you know just how important literacy is to people."
Grace dropped out of high school and only pursued university after she became a mother in her late-20s. As a mature age student, she's all too aware of the challenges of being an adult in education, which is why she decided to help people who were once like her.
"The big issue is that older Indigenous people feel ashamed for not being able to read and write, so they don't want to do the class because they don't want people to know they are illiterate."
Working alongside the Literacy For Life Program, Grace says it's one of the first times she's ever seen an educative project involving a community effort that works for Indigenous people.
"People between the age of 15 to 70 are learning in an environment together and there's no shame, it's all about encouragement and being able to read and write and share that knowledge with your community. That's why having a supportive classroom is so important for teachers - it puts students at ease to learn."
Illiteracy rates amongst Aboriginal Australians are estimated at around 40–50 per cent - and even higher in some regional and remote areas. Poor literacy adds to disadvantage, making it more difficult for people to find work, manage their health, be involved with their child’s schooling and participate in the management of their communities.
Literacy for Life
For the last 30 years, Nyngan man, Jack Beetson has been on a mission to further enhance his education and pursue his studies.
The Executive Director of the Literacy for Life Foundation wasn't always the best student himself, but that hasn’t let his thirst for knowledge stop him.
“I was expelled from school when I was 13-years-old. I was a bright child but had difficulty learning in a classroom so I moved to Sydney and just worked to survive.”
It wasn’t until several years later, at the age of 25, when Jack decided to brush the dust off old textbooks and head back to the classroom.
“I remember the day I told my brothers and mates that I wanted to go back and study. They thought it was ridiculous and that made me stronger to do it.”
Similarly to Jack, Grace believes there was an issue with the education system, one that prevents several Indigenous people from studying.
"I left school in Year 9 because I wasn't interested in what they were teaching and how they were doing it. I had a lot of support to study, so I ended up completing a social science degree after having children," she said.
"I’ve seen the power of education in our community. Our people start to go out and ask questions before they couldn’t even read paper work sent out to them and now they can."
"If you can’t read and write you can see the gap, you don’t even know there is a gap."
At the age of 60, Professor Jack Beetson still believes more than ever, that education is the way of the future.
"Unless we close the gap with literacy, we’ll never close the gaps that are trying to be closed...If you can’t read and write you can see the gap, you don’t even know there is a gap."
Yes I Can
Five years ago, in the small rural town of Wilcannia, Jack helped kick off the ‘Yes I Can’ adult literacy campaign, a community based project aimed on empowering mature aged students to study.
“We graduated 16 people out of the first intake. They were the first people to graduate from Wilcannia in more than 20 years.”
After flourishing in the remote communities of Bourke and Enngonia, Jack wanted to give back to his hometown of Brewarrina – a place that has recently reaped the benefits of the adult learning program, as featured in Erica Glyn’s new documentary, In My Own Words, which showcased at Sydney Film Festival.
Not only does the project provide literacy and numeracy skills, but it also has reduced crime in the community, increased school attendance and schools are seeing a lot more involvement from parents. When it comes to adult literacy programs Jack says it's about reducing the stigma and making it a community effort to care.
"What makes any teacher is someone that actually cares. At the end of the day, if you’ve got teachers that care about people learning then they will always make a good teacher," he said.
"These people care because they are teaching with their own communities and their own families. A Cuban advisor comes to the town to train local Aboriginal people, who then take that knowledge and pass it on to the students."
Unlike other Indigenous adult literacy campaigns, Literacy for Life Foundation, based on a revolutionary Cuban education method, has a holistic community approach, with a three pronged approach.
“Low literacy affects everyone in the community. It affects the economy, the health system, the legal system."
The first stage engages the community with household surveys and discussion about literacy. In the second phase, local Aboriginal people tutor reading and writing lessons and the final stage is based on assisting further training for future jobs.
Learning to read bridges the gap between unemployment and employment. Both Grace and Jack say the main focus now for Indigenous students is their next step.
"What we need now is to ensure people go from their education to a proper job. Having that pathway to provide students with their next big move," Grace said.
Jack says with a driving licence and white card you’ve got ‘more work opportunities, better quality of life and you’re less likely to end up in court.’
“Low literacy affects everyone in the community. It affects the economy, the health system, the legal system. People with low literacy are far more likely to need and access a whole range of other services.”
The 60-year-old has achieved several things in life but he says providing an education to Indigenous communities is by far the most rewarding job.
"At the end of every course there is a graduation ceremony and when you see someone who couldn’t read a word or hold a pen properly be able to articulate a full sentence - that’s when you know just how important literacy is to people. No matter how many graduation ceremonies, I still cry with joy every time."