Joan always believed that education was the way forward. Now she is handing on her knowledge to others, of all nationalities.
The following is an extract from our brand new publication You Plus Me Equals Us available for purchase here.
Education has been the doorway for me – even though I came to it late – and for my children. Now my eldest has a social science degree, and my younger son has a science degree and an MBA. Another son hit the streets for a while, but he found his way at last, and is now qualified and helping TAFE set up computer courses.
In the last 50 years, I’ve always worked. It all revolved around supporting my kids. When I was saving up for college, I did shift work, so my husband and I could both look after them. I chose teaching partly because I could be with them in the holidays.
Putting people first
I see my role as working within the education system to make changes, and create space for Indigenous people. We have all the research, but I’m people oriented, and I often take the emotional perspective – looking at what it’s like to be in their shoes.
I manage education and training programs for equity and diversity at UTS, [University of Technology Sydney], working with staff and with students of all nationalities, helping them to become global citizens. We have peer networkers, second-year students who buddy up with new students, Indigenous and others, to guide and empower them.
Diverse nations and languages
We run an eight-week course about Aboriginal awareness for staff. We can’t go into any depth, but I like to give a personal perspective, to let them know that we’re not all the same. I’m from Wakka Wakka country in Queensland, and we call ourselves Murri's. But in Australia there are over 700 languages and maybe originally 350 countries – we’re not homogeneous.
When I talk to people country, I always say Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are as diverse as the peoples of Europe and Asia in language and culture. We have the responsibility of looking after our countries. This has been passed down for thousands of years – the country is our identity.
Country is my mother’s country or my father’s, where they have a sense of belonging. If you were taken away, it still remains embedded. Many languages also remain further inland, but the coastal ones were the first to go. A lot of language went underground because we were forbidden to speak them, but there is now a federal program to revive them. A few elders feel safe that they can share it.
I absconded from my community in Cherbourg (Queensland) because under the Assimilationist and protection policies I had to have permission to live there, to marry, to leave. English is my second language – I first spoke Aboriginal English. We had 49 languages, but weren’t allowed to speak them. I had been one of four selected to go to high school as an experiment, but after that I couldn’t get a job, only domestic service. I was in an institution, where we were called ‘inmates’. I came to Sydney alone, and had to find my own way.
I got married here, and after the referendum in the late 1960s I decided to go back to college. To save up, when the kids were small I’d work night shifts. Then I did a commercial course, and gained high distinctions. I completed a teaching degree, and a diploma in computing.
Teaching and leadership
I began teaching office administration at TAFE, where I was the only Aboriginal teacher. I knew what it was like not having any support, so I let people use my resources. I found I could help the new teachers, who were mostly non-Indigenous.
In the 1980s I set up and chaired a TAFE group for the Australian Teachers’ Union. At the moment I’m chair of an Indigenous advisory group for Canterbury Council, advising on programs for the 800 Indigenous people in Canterbury.
At UTS I chair the reconciliation working party. For me it’s being able to save Indigenous knowledge, and getting academics to acknowledge and value it. I feel we could do more – we’re setting up knowledge centres around the country. Some academics question the validity of oral history, but my perspective is that all history is oral: the first step is to talk and listen.
Helping the young …
Some young people lose their way – many of the community projects see the need to get them back in touch. We provide a social network for Indigenous students, one group who are doing mainstream courses and another who come three times a year from remote places. There’s also a police recruit program, helping young people from out of the city. They live in group housing and learn life skills, as well as getting into the police force.
… and the old
We now also offer a second chance for older people who have missed out. Sometimes an elder would say, I wish I could read stories with my grandchild, so we looked at literacy courses for them. They’ve been very successful. I asked one woman why she did the course, and she said, ‘I was always told I was dumb at school, and to sit at the back. Later I found I was partially deaf, which was why I couldn’t understand the teachers.’ This course offered her a new opportunity. Now we’ve set up the TAFE awards for mature-age students, to recognise their achievement in coming into a bureaucracy after unhappy experiences as children.
I would talk to the non-Indigenous teachers about how to teach maths to the mature students. I’d say, base it on their previous knowledge, use a context they understand. For instance, in dressmaking – they understand measurements, costing, profit and loss.
The role of an elder
I have five children and 10 grandchildren. Sometimes my family forget how old I am – I’m working full days, but what keeps me going is working with people and the intellectual stimulus. I’m not thinking about retirement yet.
They say I’m a living library – so now I’m being asked to talk to schools and tell stories to the children. The staff at UTS call me Aunty Joan. When you’re regarded as an elder, it’s not about age, it’s what you contribute and the standing others see you by. I’ve been here 50 years, and the elders in Cherbourg are all saying when are you coming back up to Queensland – so before too long I will go back.