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Dr Chris Sarra – Leadership in Indigenous education

The guest editorial for Gwalwa-Gai, October 2007, comes from Queensland educator, Dr Chris Sarra. Dr Sarra is the 2004 Suncorp Queenslander of the Year; 2004 QUT Chancellor's Outstanding Alumnus and Faculty of Education Outstanding Alumni Award Winner; and NAIDOC 2006 Scholar of the Year.

The youngest of 10 children Dr Sarra is from Bundaberg and has had an extensive career in education with a particular focus on pursuing his main passion; more positive and productive educational outcomes for Indigenous children. He was the first ever Aboriginal principal of Cherbourg State School in south-east Queensland where he facilitated many positive changes that saw increasing enthusiasm for student learning through dramatically improved school attendance and increased community involvement in education. Under Chris's leadership the school became nationally acclaimed for its pursuit of the ‘Strong and Smart' philosophy.

Dr Sarra is currently Director of the Indigenous Education Leadership Institute, based in Cherbourg, and designed to pursue stronger, smarter, student outcomes for Indigenous children throughout Australia.

As an educator who has spent eight years working directly with Aboriginal children in a very complex Aboriginal community I welcome any intervention to ensure their wellbeing. If the challenge is to be attended to properly we must invest substantially and seriously in this national crisis that sees Australia's most vulnerable children exposed to harm. They didn't ask to be exposed to this. They don't ask to be continually subjected to this, yet they remain confused and hurting. They definitely deserve to be set free from this!

Let's understand this hurt and confusion; then let's just get on with the task of addressing the challenge, without feeling the need to score political points along the way.

Most of us know, as well as the Prime Minister knows, that political parties do not win votes by fixing things in Aboriginal communities. We know that political parties even run the risk of losing votes by doing so. This brings me to what I think lies at the most fundamental core of this challenge.

In order for this challenge to be seriously addressed in Australia, much of the electorate has a need for this to be done so in a way that sees Aboriginal people portrayed as completely hopeless or completely despicable. It has to be in an election year; and the government must be staring down the barrel of electoral defeat.

This need to ensure that Aborigines are thought of as a hopeless, pitiable, or despicable form of 'other', is what makes it okay for a political party to announce dramatic intervention into child abuse in Aboriginal communities.

If the electorate can have it confirmed that Aboriginal people in communities are so despicable and hopeless, then it is okay for the Prime Minister to announce such dramatic intervention, and be seen as the 'big man on the job'.

This same need is that which has made it acceptable for Aboriginal communities to wallow in third world conditions.

This same need makes it acceptable to deliver second rate education, health, and justice outcomes to Aboriginal communities.

This is the need which validates the hypocrisy with which some say ‘lest we forget', but forget about Australia 's black history.

This need allows Australian Governments and their bureaucrats to treat Aboriginal voices of outrage and expectation with contempt.

This phenomenon is so sophisticated, it even recruits Aboriginal voices to satisfy this insatiable need to see 'my' proud people typecast as helpless, pitiable, or despicable.

Notwithstanding, and sadly, this is the same need that furnishes the desire of many Aboriginal people, not all, to cling to an undignified 'victim status' as a means of survival.

Decent Australians know that we are not hopeless, pitiable, despicable and evil people.

Clearly, there are challenges for all of us here. I won't pretend for a moment that this is an easy challenge to attend to or that many Aboriginal people in communities are without blame here. But show me an Aboriginal man who says it is okay to have sex with a child, and then I will show you a man who should be in jail. I can also show you white police and white magistrates who lack the courage or commitment to deal with such matters in a way that they would in a regular community. I could also probably show you some flash white lawyer trying to sniff out some legal loophole to pretend that there is some cultural dimension to child sexual abuse.

Let me make it abundantly clear there is no cultural dimension to child sexual abuse!

While such justice service providers think they do good things to keep harmony and good relations with communities by basically ignoring or passively condoning such dysfunction, they leave communities to endure a level of dysfunctionality that would never be tolerated in a mainstream community, and worst of all; they leave Australia 's most vulnerable children exposed.

If we are to have any chance of making significant progress to eradicate such disturbing degrees of dysfunction in Aboriginal communities, then we must purge the dysfunctional mindsets of those with real authority to make change and develop real capacity to attend directly with the challenges that we contemplate. We must purge our country of the need to see Aboriginal people as hopeless, pitiable and despicable.

I am not talking here about systems, bureaucracies and policies. I am talking about the mindsets and actions of all of us as individuals that are a part of those structures and processes. Each of us must realise the power and potential for change when an individual, armed with the right mindset, decides that things can be better, and rejects absolutely, the notion that second or third rate is good enough for Aboriginal children.

For more information on the Indigenous Education Leadership Institute:

Created: 03 May 2012 - Updated: 20 September 2012