My grandmother was Nyikina from out near Fitzroy Crossing. Having received no formal education, she was illiterate in terms of reading and writing - but she was certainly literate when it came to reading the world around her.
I believe my granny had a really hard life because she was black. My mother and her two sisters were removed from their family when they were eight, six and four. My mother was the middle girl. They were taken from Derby, shipped to Perth and put into a home.
People couldn’t challenge their children being removed – it was just done! But I think that the cruellest thing for my grandmother would have been that, because she was illiterate, she couldn’t keep in touch with her daughters. People didn’t have phones in those days so she had no part in her daughter’s childhoods. I think it was as a result of that, that my mother was a very quiet person.
I was born and bred in the Kimberley. My mother had eight children, four boys and four girls. I was the oldest and the youngest was born a couple of weeks before my 11th birthday. As a result, I was really, very close to mum, and had a lot of responsibility from a very early age. It was a bit tough raising all those children.
There were no secondary schools anywhere north of Geraldton in those days – mid-1950s. When you had finished primary school, you could stay at the school and do another two years by correspondence. But that was it – your schooling was over at age 14. Of course, the children of poor working class families expected to leave school and start work, in manual labouring jobs, as soon as they were able. My mother wasn’t having that for her children. She believed in the power of education.
At that time, the State Government would pay anyone who wanted to send their children south for secondary education £80 a year to cover the cost of schooling plus a return airfare once a year. So I was sent off to the nearest High School – Geraldton. It wasn’t easy, especially after my father died four months after I commenced first year. But my mother wasn’t giving up.
I was reasonably bright so in the top class. I had always wanted to be a teacher and so, during my second last year at High School, I applied for a Teaching Bursary (similar to a scholarship).
Half-way through my fifth year, when I still had no news of being awarded a bursary, my mother wrote me a letter telling me that I needed to leave school and come home as she could not afford to keep me there. What was I going to do?
I racked my brains. I remembered hearing something on the radio about a Dr Robertson who was the Director General of Education for Western Australia. I sat down and wrote a letter telling him my story. I was from a family of eight, my mother was a widow, I was doing well at school but I needed a bursary in order to become a teacher.
My bursary arrived in the next mail. And that’s when I discovered that you can make things happen, if you really want them. But, it’s up to you to find out how to make it happen!
So that’s how I ended up becoming a teacher. I taught in a lot of different places – Shark Bay, Katanning, Christmas Island, where I met my first husband, Papua New Guinea and Saudi Arabia . . . and I had some fantastic experiences.
While teaching in Broome, I set up a one-year intervention program for children who were struggling as a result of their lack of language. My students were drawn from Grades 1-3, and my focus for the first half of the year was to get them all talking! Many were from large families where they didn’t need to talk – someone else always did it for them! I worked closely with the families, in establishing an out-of-school support group that met regularly to talk about what was happening for them, sharing their problems and successes, over a barbeque and lots of discussion. It was fantastic.
Having set up my own education and training consultancy, I applied for and was awarded a DEET funded national Gender and Violence Project - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, in 1994. This was part of the Federal Government's Stop Violence Against Women community education program and was one of the projects that targeted schools. I undertook a national consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents and students in remote, rural and urban locations across government and non-government systems. As a direct outcome of this project, I subsequently wrote a professional development package for teachers based upon the findings of the national consultancy in schools.
Ultimately, I developed a package entitled "Getting It Together" which I then used to conduct a program targeting Indigenous teachers and other personnel employed in government and non-government schools. In developing a training package to use at the school level I was focusing on the needs of both teachers and Indigenous communities. This was the first federally-funded program that developed materials designed to train Aboriginal presenters to deliver training about Indigenous-issues in schools across Australia.
Having completed my Masters, I decided I had had enough of studying. Eighteen months later I embarked upon my PhD.
It took some time to decide on the focus of my PhD study but I eventually decided on Indigenous success in education. Without doubt I was influenced by my personal experience as a teacher. I had been a teacher for a long time – teaching in many different places and teaching many Indigenous students. I was tired of hearing all those stereotypes around Indigenous failure! So I decided to undertake a study that would reveal the truth about Indigenous success in education.
One of the most important outcomes of my study was that it highlighted the long history of institutional racism, including within Australian universities. I used that literature review to highlight how education had been a critical tool of colonisation, used to deliver the reality of the situation that exists in most of our contemporary universities.
I focused on universities because I wanted to highlight the reality faced by those of us working in the sector. Despite our continual focus on trying to encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples into tertiary teaching, we have had limited success!
I sought to undertake my study in a way that would allow me to be close to the issues I was seeking to investigate. Hence, I interpreted the data through a framework of our colonial history, revealing how that had shaped the long-term outcomes in Australian education.
When I commenced my study, few Indigenous Australians expected to go to university and I, personally, had never undertaken research at this level. Small wonder that my engagement in this study was so empowering – although I did not realise this until much later.
I planned to interview as many Indigenous students as I could about their educational experiences. So I began. Before long, something happened that I will never forget.
One of my questions was to ask individual students to describe success. One of my early respondents, an older woman, just sat there for a long time, head down, thinking. Finally, she looked up at me and said, “Nobody’s ever asked me that question – in my whole life”.
I was stunned but managed to say, “Well - somebody’s asking you now!”
And she said, “Well – I can’t answer, because I’ve never thought about it.” She was crying, tears just streaming down her face . . . after a while, I suggested she go away and think about it and come back and talk to me when she had an answer. And she did – the next day!
After that, before asking that question, I would tell interviewees that they may not have an answer to the next question but it was fine if they wanted to go away and think about it – and I really would like them to come back to me when they had an answer.
It was quite amazing. Once I started using that approach with the students they really responded. They engaged in the process and set out on their own journeys of empowerment.
That was a long time ago but I’ve never forgotten how effective that engagement was for so many of those students.
In my current roles as Pro-Vice Chancellor – Indigenous Education and Foundation Chair of Indigenous Studies, at Charles Sturt University, I have developed a process that I call “Collaborative Conversations.” When I am working with community groups, whether inside the University or externally, I use this process. In general, it results in a positive engagement once we have discussed the meaning of collaboration, the idea of a conversation and the value of respecting one another. In acknowledging the need for mutual respect, we can begin to appreciate and accept that everyone sees the world a different way.
Personally, I believe it is important to engage in such processes, in the University, for it is through such explicit practice that Indigenous Australians – students and staff – develop the capacity to see themselves as a part of a global movement. They create a space where they know their knowledge and their ways of being are just as valid as those of other peoples. They begin to understand and value their similarities and their differences. And they begin to use their knowledge and understandings to determine ways of working more effectively together. It is within that process that they become valued members of those wider knowledge communities located within the academe and broader global settings.
Having seen what happens to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples who become empowered through engagement in their education, I can attest to the fact that it really is an amazing transformation.
Professor Jeannie Herbert AM completed her Doctorate in Philosophy at RMIT in 2003. She is the current Pro-Vice Chancellor – Indigenous Education and Foundation Chair of Indigenous Studies at Charles Sturt University, NSW.