My grandmother is Nyikina from out near Fitzroy Crossing. She was illiterate in terms of reading and writing, but she was certainly literate when it came to reading the world around her.
She had a hard life because she was black. My mother and her two sisters were removed from the family when they were eight, six and four. My mother was the middle girl. They were taken from Derby and sent to Perth and put in a home.
I think the cruellest thing for my grandmother was that because she was illiterate, she could not challenge her daughters being taken away. And people didn’t have phones in those days. So she didn’t see her daughters’ childhoods. My mother, as a result of that, was very quiet.
I was born and bred in the Kimberley. My mother had eight children, four boys and four girls, in 11 years and I was the eldest. So it meant that I was really very close to mum, and had a lot of responsibility from a very early age. It was a bit tough raising eight kids – I had seven brothers and sisters!
There was no secondary school in the whole region – nothing north of Geraldton essentially – just primary schools. So you could do primary school and then do two years of correspondence. And that was it, you’d finish at age 14.
Then the Government offered to pay anyone who wanted to send their kids to get a secondary education 80 pounds a year and an airfare once a year to pay for boarding school – so that’s where I went.
So I went to high school in Broome. I was reasonably bright. I was in the top class.
I had always wanted to be a teacher and eventually I applied for a bursary (similar to a scholarship) - and I didn’t get it.
I wracked my brains. I’d heard this thing on the radio one day that Dr Robertson was the Director-General of Education for Western Australia. So I went home and wrote him a letter.
I told my story – that I was from a family of eight, my mother was a widow, I did well at school but I needed a bursary in order to become a teacher.
I got my bursary in the next mail. And that was my first discovery that you can get things if you really want them. You’ve gotta find out how to make it happen.
So that’s how come I ended up as a teacher. I taught in a lot of different places – Shark Bay, Christmas Island where I met my first husband, and also New Guinea.
I worked on one of the early programs in Broome helping where we had a lot of kids who were really struggling. So we set up a one-year intervention.
We met with the families, working out how we could support them. We had a monthly barbecue at one of their houses, and some of the year seven kids came and babysat the kids so we could have our meeting. People talked about what was happening for them. It was fantastic.
Later I worked as part of a national taskforce on a research program called National Gender-Based Violence in Schools, with my work focusing on Indigenous people.
As a result, I wrote the gender-equity framework for Australian schools [the first federal program of its kind], training Aboriginal presenters to take the training across Indigenous regions.
I finished my masters around the same time as my sister. She said, “That’s it! I’m never going to do any more study!” And I said “Me too! I’m over it! We’re not going to do it.”
Then of course I went and did my PhD about 18 months later!
It took some time to get to the subject of my PhD. I decided on Indigenous success, because I had been a teacher for so long and I had taught at a lot of different places and taught a lot of Indigenous kids.
There’s the whole stereotype that they couldn’t do anything and they were failures, all that stuff isn’t true. I thought well that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to show Indigenous success.
One of the things my findings really highlighted was the long history of institutional racism in existence in universities. I did a literature review that looked at the history of education in this country that highlighted the way in which education had been used to produce the situation that we had.
I wanted to focus on universities because we were trying madly to get people into tertiary teaching but it just didn’t happen.
I wanted to do it in a way that enabled me to be close to the issues that I was trying to investigate, so I framed it by looking at what history meant in the longer-term in Australian education.
And it was a time when there weren’t a lot of people who had been to university.
My research became, in a sense, an empowerment of me as well, which I hadn’t realised until later.
It enabled me to engage in a way that I hadn’t actually engaged in before. I interviewed a lot of Indigenous students about their experiences.
It was kind of amazing once I started going down that track the students started really responding.
One question I asked them was to describe success. I remember there was one woman that sat there for a long time thinking and she looked at me and said “Nobody has asked me that question in my life.”
So I said, “Well somebody’s asking you now!”
And that’s where I’ve come to now. I’ve developed this thing called “collaborative conversations.” And when I do it with communities, like kids in schools, I always talk about the meaning of collaboration and the idea of, what is a conversation. And then, the notion of respect.
And out of all this sprung a new approach – understanding that for Indigenous Australians to see themselves on a global, bigger picture level, they need to trust that the relationship is respectful.
We need to respect everything that anybody brings, because everyone sees the world a different way.
But if we can’t understand how we see that world differently, then how can we work together effectively? We need to understand that we’re all different, so that we can make it work.
My work as a teacher, and as a researcher – I haven’t finished yet. I don’t know what I haven’t finished. We’ll see.
For me, I have seen what happens to people who become empowered and that’s just the most amazing thing.
Professor Jeannie Herbert AM completed her Doctorate in Philosophy at RMIT in 2003 and was named Outstanding Alumni Award winner in 2016. She is the Pro-Vice Chancellor – Indigenous Education, Foundation Chair of Indigenous Studies, and the Head of Campus – Dubbo, at Charles Sturt University, NSW.