Education is Australia’s best chance to avoid US-style racial tension: academic

Originally published in the August 2016 issue of Australian Teacher Magazine

Education will be a key factor for Australia in avoiding the levels of racial tension seen boiling over in the US in recent months, according to a leading Indigenous academic.

Professor Gracelyn Smallwood, who has worked extensively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, says that while the nation is still a long way from closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents, better schooling is our best way forward.

“Education can help us strive for positive race relations and reconciliation, with compulsory learning about the true history of our country,” Smallwood said.

“Competence in cultural understanding creates harmony and means we will hopefully never reach the level of racial disharmony they have in the USA.”

But Smallwood also acknowledged the “appalling” statistics here at home, pointing to an Indigenous incarceration rate 14 times higher and an Indigenous life expectancy 17 years less than the general population.

“We should be talking about how we can come together as one,” she said. “We should have positive cross-cultural courses for students and teachers, providing safe spaces for talking about issues facing First Nation Australians.”

With NAIDOC Week celebrations now winding down in schools across Australia, a number of teachers have echoed the sentiment.

In a recent special report on Indigenous education, Australian Teacher Magazine found schools as far apart as Beaconhills College in Victoria and Cable Beach Primary School in Broome bringing Indigenous voices and issues to the forefront of their curriculum.

At Beaconhills, Indigenous co-ordinator Lynette George recalls a ten-year-old boy whose class research into the Australian Government’s apology for the stolen generation led him to declare before a whole school assembly: “I think we actually have a lot more to be sorry for.”

“Something like that makes you really proud,” George told EducationHQ. “…But there’s still a lot more we can do.”

Having now launched a whole-school Reconciliation Action Plan, she said a key aim was to increase the number of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander staff and students at the college.

Meanwhile, at CQUniversity’s Townsville campus, Smallwood said the institution had “set a benchmark with up to three or four times the [usual] percentage of Indigenous students”.

Smallwood was the first Indigenous Australian to receive a Master of Science in Public Health for her work in HIV education in Indigenous communities, and in 2014, was named Aboriginal Person of the Year.

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