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Wilcannia: The little town that said ‘Yes We Can’

An innovative whole-of-community method of improving adult literacy, which traces its origins back to Cuba, has taken root and flourished in the outback New South Wales community of Wilcannia with support from the Lowitja Institute.

The Adult Aboriginal Literacy Campaign pilot project took place during 2012 and is the first time the ‘Yo Si Puedo’ (‘Yes I Can’) adult literacy method has been used in Australia – with impressive results. According to the final evaluation of the campaign pilot, after just eight months the proportion of low-literate adults in Wilcannia had fallen by six percentage points to 34 per cent, and several of the graduates have since moved on to further training and employment.

The Lowitja Institute funded the pilot project in partnership with Australian and NSW government agencies, and the project evaluation containing all outcomes and findings can be found on the Aboriginal Adult Literacy Campaign webpage.

Based on the encouraging results from the pilot, and the well- documented links between literacy and improved health outcomes, the Lowitja Institute also provided additional funding to enable the National Aboriginal Adult Literacy Campaign Steering Committee to continue its oversight of the project and to help design the next stage of the research, a longitudinal study of the individual and community impacts.

In 2013 the campaign will expand into other NSW communities, with the support of the NSW and Australian governments. Should this expansion replicate and improve on the outcomes achieved by the pilot project, the Steering Committee will consider the feasibility of further upscaling to other parts of Australia.

If the international experience is anything to go by, the omens look good. ‘Yes I Can’ has been used in 28 countries since it was developed in 2000 and won a major UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Literacy Prize in 2006 due to its success in producing dramatic rises in literacy levels in several developing countries.

So how did the first Australian pilot of this campaign model come to take place in Wilcannia?

In the beginning...

The story begins more than 20 years ago, with a growing realisation among leaders within the Aboriginal community controlled health sector that the training of Aboriginal Health Workers was being hindered by a lack of basic numeracy and literacy skills.

According to the Lowitja Institute’s Chair, Pat Anderson – who at the time was CEO of the Darwin- based Danila Dilba Medical Service – the introduction of the National Training Reform Agenda in the late 1980s meant that all trainees had to meet a basic competency test.

‘Our health workers had lots of competencies but they fell down on literacy,’ Ms Anderson says. ‘We realised we had a problem and we set our sights on fixing it.’

Stephanie Bell, former CEO of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, which is a partner of the Lowitja Institute, and a long-time Board member of the Institute and its predecessor CRCs, says Congress ‘was exploring and discussing the importance of education to health from when we began in the early 1970s’.

‘People have to have education to get a job and employment is linked to better health, so we knew how important it was,’ Ms Bell says. ‘The challenge was how to get a policy framework to support that.’

That opportunity came with the launch of the first of our predecessor CRCs, the CRC for Aboriginal and Tropical Health (CRCATH), in 1997. Many of the key thinkers involved in the Wilcannia pilot came together for the first time on the steering committee of the CRCATH’s Health and Education Research program, including Ms Anderson, current Congress CEO Donna Ah Chee and University of New England (UNE) researcher Associate Professor Bob Boughton. The program supported research into the links between education and health in the Australian Aboriginal context and resulted in a number of exploratory studies that also took in the overseas experience of mass literacy campaigns.

‘Effective mass literacy programs implemented in other countries had been well documented but at the time no real work had been done in this area in Australia,’ recalls A/Professor Boughton.

‘The popular education approach – as opposed to the school-based education approach – needed to be explored and there was an agreement that the new CRC for Aboriginal Health (CRCAH) would try to keep this work going.'

After the CRCAH succeeded the CRCATH in 2003 it moved to establish a more structured programmatic approach to funding research, which included a specific focus on the Social Determinants of Health (SDoH). In July 2004 the CRCAH held a major workshop at Flinders University in Adelaide to set the overall goals for its new SDoH program, at which Ms Bell, A/Professor Boughton and medical researcher Dr Ben Bartlett presented a paper ‘Education as a Determinant of Indigenous Health’ that highlighted the need to trial a popular education model in ‘one or more’ Aboriginal communities.

‘Unfortunately that was one of the workshop proposals that did not progress at that time but it contained the central idea of what became the Wilcannia pilot,’ A/ Professor Boughton says.

The next piece of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place when A/Professor Boughton and adult education consultant Deborah Durnan began working with Aboriginal educator Jack Beetson on an Australian Research Council project in Timor Leste to assist the newly independent nation develop its adult education system.

‘It was there that we first came into contact with the Yo Si Puedo mass campaign model,’ A/Professor Boughton says. ‘The Government of Timor Leste had invited Cuban advisers to help them establish their national literacy campaign and we were highly impressed with the results they were getting.’

The campaign commences

The feedback from this experience was one of the factors that led the CRCAH to sponsor a national workshop in Alice Springs in April 2009, which was attended by key Aboriginal health and education leaders along with prominent researchers, educators and others. Together they examined the relationship between adult literacy and health, the international experience of the impact of mass adult literacy campaigns and the details of how such a campaign could be optimised for an Aboriginal community.

During the workshop the decision was made to undertake a pilot Adult Aboriginal Literacy Campaign, and the National Aboriginal Adult Literacy Campaign Steering Committee was formed chaired by Ms Ah Chee. A/Professor Boughton was put in charge of overseeing the campaign as Project Manager.

‘The key thing that we needed was a local champion to drive the campaign in a community, otherwise it would have just been another program imposed from the outside,’ Ms Ah Chee says. ‘Luckily we already had Jack Beetson on the Steering Committee and, when he
took over as Acting CEO of the Wilcannia Local Lands Council in 2010, the pieces fell into place.’

Adjunct Professor Beetson, a Ngembaa man from Brewarrina in western NSW, is with UNE’s law faculty and an adult educator who spent 20 years studying and working at Sydney’s Tranby Aboriginal College. He became the campaign’s on-site Project Team Leader.
‘We had literacy programs at Tranby but those don’t work in communities like Wilcannia, where you’ve got the legacy of colonisation, dispossession and marginalisation,’ he says. ‘It’s the campaign element of “Yes I Can!” that makes it work by alleviating the feelings of shame.

‘Before we began any lessons we spent months going door to door, mobilising the whole community, and because everyone in Wilcannia is connected in some way with everyone else it became a community event rather than an individual pursuit.’

The campaign pilot also put a heavy emphasis on ‘training the trainer’, with a Cuban trainer Chala Leblanch living in Wilcannia for months and hosting workshops so that the ‘Yes I Can’ course materials could be adapted for the community with local people trained to deliver the course.

‘There are three main fundamentals to any successful implementation of the Literacy Campaign,’ Mr Leblanch said in an interview with Wangka Pulka in late 2012.

‘First you need leaders in the community with the capacity to mobilise people. Then you need people to train locals in how to deliver the course materials. And, finally, you need enthusiastic locals to deliver the course to their fellow community members.

‘My experience of introducing the campaign in Wilcannia was very different to other countries where I have worked. The community is part of a developed country but so many issues within it are similar to those experienced in poor countries, so you have this contradiction.

‘However, this has been a fantastic experience and I hope we will see the campaign expand into other Aboriginal communities.’

Mr Leblanch returned to Cuba in late 2012 but not before witnessing the graduation of the first 16 Wilcannia Aboriginal adults to complete the course – a proud day for the community.

‘The wonderful thing about the campaign is that it has got people wanting to get engaged in learning,’ Mr Beetson says. ‘Before the campaign happened the TAFE (Technical and Further Education) people would struggle to get anyone to come along to their courses, now we’ve got full classes again. It is just fantastic.’

Ms Ah Chee says that the pilot project ‘has surpassed expectations’.

‘The final evaluation of the campaign pilot points to a very exciting future for this project,’ she says. ‘It’s taken ages to get here but we now have the evidence to underpin a further expansion into remote communities throughout Australia.’

Ms Anderson agrees: ‘We want this spread across western NSW, all over the Northern Territory, then onto the rest of the country. We now have the tools to address the literacy shortfall in a generation.’

Created: 07 May 2013 - Updated: 14 April 2014