Education changes lives and in time changes generations. Without it, Indigenous Australia will continue to be denied a strong and visible middle class in Australia and we'll continue a cycle of disadvantage. It's time we, and I do mean you and I, do something about it.
The Education Generation: In search of an Indigenous middle class
It’s 8.30am on an October morning in Maningrida, an Aboriginal community in the heart of Arnhem Land. The dusty red ground is already warmed up by the morning sun.
Stray dogs wander half way across the dirt road, lying down to soak up the warm sun, before moving into the shade when it gets too hot. Flys jostle for space in every damp crevice.
The community has a population of around two thousand people. If the census counted stray dogs, they would probably number about the same. Gazing down a single street, you could easily count 30 dogs. Blighted with mange, malnourished, limping and constantly scratching their raw, flakey, exposed red skin in a vain attempt to relieve the irritation from fleas and infection. Stories of dog attacks are common. The lady who drives the school bus was viciously attacked and had countless stiches to her body.
The dog wasn’t just protecting his patch, it was out to kill her.
Visitors are gravely warned to carry rocks and a stick at all times to ward off potential random attacks. One wonders what you are supposed to do when you have thrown your rocks within the first 100 meters and left with a stick, faced with a number of haunched, snarling dogs running towards you.
The world over, local dogs are a good indication of how the locals live. The pooches in Bellevue Hill prance with coquettish nonchalance, fluffed and groomed, often sporting the season canine fashion from Dogue, Buffy’s favorite shop, darling. Even one stray dog would be rounded up in hours in these parts, but apparently, such rules don’t apply if you are in Maningrida. A dog there has no name, no home, no bowl, no life. Life for the humans isn’t much better.
Police attend four or five instances of violence every day in Maningrida. Community policing is difficult, there are six different language spoken in the area. Locals have rallied consistently to stop domestic violence tearing up their community, but in a world of violent stray dogs and mass unemployment any message of optimism is met with scepticism .
Ask yourself this — how on Earth is that we are talking about the same country?
For many, surviving the day and dodging the relentless challenges of violence, crime and drugs consumes their everything.
Often the only thing on the minds of young Indigenous people in Maningrida is survival. Getting through the day and dodging the relentless challenges of violence, crime and drugs. If they manage to look ahead beyond making it to the end of the day, they may get to think of education, but even that isn’t easy.
It’s 8.45am on the same morning and the familiar sound gets louder and louder. The screech of 80’s Aussie rock music through dust encrusted speakers on the roof of the school bus from the same vintage. Like the Muslim call to prayer, the sound is all pervasive and impossible to ignore, except this is a call to education. The bus stops outside various houses to pick up kids and some mums who are waiting. One girl. Then three boys, then a mum with a baby. The bus fills up as it does the rounds, finally trundling round to school. The school is an oasis of calm, order and optimism in the very centre of the community. It achieves this through being completely encircled with a black 3 metre high steel fence with spiked railings and heavily padlocked doors. No dogs allowed.
Inside this fortress of learning are small areas of mown lawn, murals in bright colours and a sense of calm and freedom, almost a world away from the evils that lurk through the steel fence.
Many don’t go to school, not simply for lack of will but that surviving takes up all they have to give.
Surviving takes up all they have to give.
Kids are often teased, ridiculed and pressured into staying home to roam the streets. Many that do go give up due to the ongoing pressure. Best to conform and survive, after all, bar the institutional jobs for a handful of locals, there is no work, so what’s the point of an education?
On this morning, some kids are just too tired to go to school, as they were up all night throwing rocks at the guest accommodation. The steel dongas are inside the school fence, but easily within range to hurl a rock at it for hours on end. What’s all this got to do with searching for an Indigenous middle class? Well, very little.
It would be fair to say that currently not one single child in Maningrida has much hope of achieving the level of education and opportunity to become a lawyer, doctor or teacher. It’s as far away from their conscious as Buffy the Bellevue Hill Cavoodle is.
Yes, we have had plenty of successful Indigenous men and women, but most have found success from the world of politics and sport. Aidan Ridgeway, Nova Perris, Adam Goodes, Cathy Freeman, Warren Mundine to name a few. We also have the creative Archie Roach, the beautiful Samantha Harris and the learned Mick Dodson, but these are often the exceptions, not the rule.
The fact is that without a strong and visible Indigenous middle class in Australia‚ we will perpetuate the myth that this is the lot for remote communities.
We can change this.
I am hoping that this Indigenous generation is known as the ‘Education Generation’, that follows their parents who were the ‘handout generation’ and their parents which were the ‘Stolen Generation’.
The hope? Through education that we will finally achieve an Indigenous middle class.
Are we really talking about different parts of the same country?
Fast forward to Martin Place on a blustery morning in July 2030.
A face in the crowd is Matthew Cvetkovic, a young up and coming lawyer working for Freehills. Impeccably dressed, he is striding to work, having left his apartment in Rushcutters Bay half an hour earlier. He has many friends in the industry and is known as a hard worker who is intensely loyal to those he knows. He isn’t a man of disadvantage. Far from it. He went to The Scots College, where he was Head Prefect of Aspinall House and graduated from Sydney University, having spent three years at St Andrew’s College. His girlfriend is an Abbotsleigh girl who is an architect for Cox Architects, a short walk from Freehills. However, as well as being a proud Freehills man, he is also a proud Aboriginal man.
Unlike many of his friends, his life hasn’t always been like this. His family has experienced disadvantage and generational trauma going back decades, but that has stopped with Matthew. He has a friend, Tyson who was a couple of years behind him at Scots. He is meeting him for dinner that evening and they will be celebrating Tyson’s new job as Brand Manager for Gillette at Proctor & Gamble. Tyson loves his work, but also loves his home which is Mutitjulu, the desert community next to Uluru. He hopes to one day sponsor his little nephew, who is applying for a scholarship in six years time.
We are not here to provide token Indigenous students in posh schools. We are not here to relieve our own middle class guilt by giving selected relief to the welfare dependent.
And what of the kids from Maningrida?
Eleven boys have been through Scots and including other similar schools, nearly 30 boys and girls have gone through school onto uni and other further education. Nelson is a plumber, based in Maningrida, running his own business and Sasha, she is teaching in the school and has her sights on being their first Indigenous principal. Many others have burgeoning careers in Darwin, Sydney and Melbourne.
What is so extraordinary about our preferred future for Indigenous boys and girls is the utter lack of extraordinariness. Indigenous people in professions are a common occurrence. Everyone knows an executive, CEO, director and doctor who is Indigenous. Like other middle class professionals, they have the expectation that they will pay for their children to go through independent schools and they in turn will take on similar roles in business, medicine and law. Kids from Maningrida, Gapuwiyak, Mutitjulu as well as kids from La Perouse and Walgett all know of professional role models they can aspire to. Not all do, but they know that pathway is achievable if they really want it.
The Maningrida marauding dogs? With the new found pride the community has in its ‘Education Generation’, Maningrida has a new breed of dog. Cared for, owned, loved.
Hopefully I have got you thinking that things don’t have to be the way they currently are.
Education changes lives and in time changes generations.
We are not here to help Indigenous people get off the bottom rung of the ladder. We are not here to relieve our own middle class guilt by giving selected relief to the welfare dependent.
We are not here to provide token Indigenous students in posh schools.
We are here to help Indigenous Australians be successful in whatever they choose to do with their education. To be the best in all areas of employment. To lead, inspire and create a better world for their children.
Success is a key motivator to middle class life. The word belongs to us all.