Radical Aboriginal literacy program holds seminar

Issue 

The Literacy for Life Foundation in partnership with the University of New England, hosted a one-day seminar on February 28 to discuss the “Yes I Can” Aboriginal Adult Literacy campaign.

This campaign has achieved notable success in raising adult literacy levels in three western NSW communities, using a model originally developed in Cuba. More than 80 people have already graduated in pilot projects in Wilcannia, Bourke and Enngonia.

The Literacy For Life Foundation was set up in 2013 to roll the campaign out nationally, following successful pilot projects. The foundation is a partnership between national Aboriginal health research body the Lowitja Institute, Indigenous education campaigner Jack Beetson and construction giant Brookfield Multiplex.

The new Cuban Ambassador to Australia Jose Montano was a guest speaker at the seminar, along with Donna Ah Chee, Literacy for Life Foundation chairperson; Dr Pat Anderson, Chairperson of the Lowitja Institute; and Professor Jack Beetson, Executive Director of Literacy for Life foundation.

The seminar was also attended by Lillian Lucas and Tannia Edwards, two of the community facilitators for the campaign; Kelvin Smith, a graduate and volunteer from the Bourke campaign; and Wayne Kelly, CEO of the Murrawarri Land Council, the lead agency for the campaign in Engonnia.

Beetson, a Ngemba man from Brewarrina in western NSW, highlighted the importance of adult literacy. “How can anyone expect Aboriginal communities to take control of their lives when anywhere between 30% and 70% of adults are functionally illiterate in English?” he asked.

“How can people deal with courts, police, job services, health providers, schools or any of the hundreds of agencies that get involved with their lives, when these agencies are almost always staffed by well-educated professionals who communicate with the people in ways that the majority are struggling to understand and make sense of?

“Adult literacy is the missing link in closing the gap. It has to be addressed first, because that’s the only way the people can get involved and become genuine partners in programs that are meant to help them.

“The Yes I Can mass campaign approach developed by Cuba has a proven track record in dealing with this issue in 30 countries around the world, where it has helped 8 million people get on to the first rung of the ladder of continuing education. This is where we have to start, and that’s what the Literacy for Life Foundation is doing.”

Beetson also emphasised that he considered Aboriginal people highly “literate” at reading and interpreting different things and the Yes I Can campaign model approaches communities with respect for their existing knowledge and expertise.

Montano said his government was committed to continuing its active support for the campaign in Australia. This includes licensing the Yes I Can model and materials to the Literacy for Life Foundation and providing Cuban-trained advisers to assist with the roll out.

“We are now in a new moment,” Montano said. “Cuba wants to work with all the political parties, from the right, the centre and the left. If we have unity among all the people working for the rights of Aboriginal people, then we will have good results. That is the lesson from our experience in other countries.”

The Literacy for Life Foundation is now running the fourth intake of Yes I Can in Bourke with 13 students. Work has also begun in Brewarrina.

The campaign aims to raise the adult literacy rate in rural and remote Aboriginal communities. Several speakers pointed out that raising the level of adult literacy is critical to addressing the drivers of disadvantage, social inequality, poverty, poor school performances, ill health and incarceration as well as removing one of the main barriers to gaining secure employment.

The Yes I Can campaign continues in a community until everyone who has expressed a need has had a chance to take part. The local Aboriginal staff are given ongoing support, training, mentoring and evaluation by a team of experienced educators and community development leaders for the duration of the course.

[For more information, visit Literacy for Life Foundation]


The Wilcannia community has congratulated the first 10 graduates from the new “Yes I Can!” Indigenous adult literacy program.

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