Literacy program changes lives in rural community

June 28, 2013
Cuban ambassador Pedro Pedro Monzon with graduates from the literacy program. Wilcannia, May last year.

This is part two of an interview Green Left Weekly journalist Linda Seaborn conducted with Dr Bob Boughton who helped initiate a Cuban supported literacy program in the NSW town of Wilcannia. Part one of this interview can be read here.


How did it the literacy campaign change the lives of the graduates?

It is not just the students who are impacted, it is everybody. One woman has become an assistant facilitator in the next cohort. Another woman is now the coordinator of the campaign and she got a job in the shire for several months, which is the first time the shire had employed a local Aboriginal person.

Another group of men and women decided they wanted to use their new skills to set up an income generating business. They’re setting up a catering business to cater to public servants when they come to town and need sandwiches for meetings.

It has a ripple effect. One of the facilitators set up a men’s shed to work with men and talk about issues like health and violence.

What plans are there to continue the campaign in Australia?

The National Aboriginal Steering Committee — after their review of what it had achieved in Wilcannia — they decided they wanted to keep it going. Two other communities in the same region have asked to do the same campaign, so we’ve just started to work with those communities to develop it.

Another Cuban advisor is coming out, a woman this time. There’s also the possibility to try it in central Australia, in communities where English isn’t the first language.

Can you described your work in Timor Leste?

I was a member of the solidarity movement during the Indonesian occupation. In 1975, when Indonesia invaded, left-wing groups in Australia played a big role in supporting Fretlin – the independence movement. We had a relationship with Fretlin all through that period.

When they achieved their independence, members of the old solidarity movement were invited to a Fretlin congress, and we were talking about what we could do as a solidarity movement post-independence. One of the things they said they needed was to rebuild their adult education system.

Fretlin actually ran an adult literacy campaign before the invasion and it was one of the main ways which they built the popular support for the independence movement. We started working with the ministry of education to get this happening but until the Cubans came along we were floundering because we didn’t have a model.

The Cubans arrived with their medical people in 2004-05. That provided an opening for us to see they could help with literacy and a group of Cuban educators arrived in 2006.

I was lucky enough to get a grant to evaluate this work. We worked alongside the Cubans as they rolled out the campaign over several years. We watched the whole way they developed it. We thought communities in Australia might be interested.

People are amazed, they say “how come you’ve got a Cuban here?” They’re even more amazed when I tell them it’s because the Timorese showed us how to do it.

You’ve described literacy as a class issue, can you elaborate on that?

One of things that happens in education is it reproduces inequality. The people who come from working-class communities and backgrounds are regularly disadvantaged by the way the school system operates.

There’s a clear relationship between the level of inequality you’ve got in society and what you get out the other end in the education system.

It’s pretty obvious. People who go to private, well-funded schools, and go from there to sandstone universities and from there to highly-paid professional and executive positions, they finish up at the top end of society.

And people who come in with a lot less resources, and don’t do so well at school, come out with less qualifications and finish up in jobs that earn them less and have to face a lot more issues in order to survive.

The education system reproduces that inequality. A lot of people think it overcomes it, but it doesn’t. So what do you about it?

It doesn’t matter how much you invest in the education system. It’s going to be very hard for the people who come from the more marginal backgrounds to do well in it, because it’s a system that’s constructed around the needs of a different class of people.

You have to work with the adults in the communities that are educationally disadvantaged, so that they gain the skills to get the system to treat their children differently. They have to be able to assert the rights of their children.

People who haven’t had a good experience in school are often not confident in asserting the rights of their children in relation to the school, they think the school is doing what it should be doing.

It’s a class issue because if you don’t address the inequality amongst the adults, it’s difficult to break the cycle of what’s happening in the school system.

If you’ve got a mass of adults who have very low literacy, you’re not going to be able to build your society as an equal society.

What’s the adult literacy rate in Australia?

It’s a matter of debate because it depends on what you’re measuring and as each year goes by, what counts as being literate tends to move. Twenty or 30 years ago, you could get by with a certain level of print literacy and do a lot of things with that level whereas now the level of literacy required to operate has become a lot higher.

So over time, more and more people are being excluded from having the skills they need to operate in the modern world.

How literate you are depends on how literate society insists that you be. With that proviso, there is around 10% to 15% of the Australian population who have minimal literacy.

If you’re talking about how to operate in a modern service industry, or an industry where there’s a lot of technology, you might be talking about up to 30% to 40% don’t really have the skills to operate at that level.

People who have got good literacy don’t even know what they’ve got. It’s like whiteness, you don’t see your own literacy. Until you have to work closely with people who don’t have that level of literacy, you don’t realise how many barriers there are to even do the most ordinary things.

It’s not just what you can read. It’s what you can understand. That means being able to read between the lines, not just being able to read the lines. So you have to be able to read critically too, you have to be able to see that what you’re reading isn’t necessarily the truth, it’s just what someone else has decided to tell you is the truth. To be properly literate you have to develop that capacity to be critical.

Watch this interview below:

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