Literacy leads to self-determination

I can’t imagine a world without books. Without the comfort of a quiet companion to keep me company on a lonely Saturday night, or on a long plane ride. A book to help me escape to another city, another country, another time in history. A book to help me plan my life, build my self-esteem and even see how the world might look differently from another perspective. Most importantly, I can’t imagine not being able to learn from books simply because I wasn’t able to read.

I can’t imagine my world without reading and that is why I am a passionate and proud Lifetime Ambassador of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF), alongside other writers and advocates like Jessica Mauboy, Kate Grenville, Justine Clarke, Shelley Ware and artist Alison Lester, among others.

The ILF is the brainchild of Suzy Wilson from Riverbend Books in Brisbane and is funded solely by grants, donations, volunteers and ‘in kind’ support from the Australian Book Industry – publishers, booksellers, authors, brilliant illustrators and even musicians. The groundswell of support for ensuring that Indigenous kids have the same opportunities as other Australian kids inspires me, not only an Ambassador and an Australian author, but as a Wiradjuri woman, because in my community I consider myself ‘privileged’ simply because I have had all the benefits that being literate can bring.

Through reading I’ve had the great privilege to connect with the incredibly important Aboriginal women writers like Oodgeroo Nnonuccal, Ruby Langford Ginibi, Pamela Freeman, Krissy Kneen, Susan Johnson…the list goes on. Each of these women continue to inspire my writing today.

As an author I have worked with a range of Indigenous kids; some are speaking English as a second or third language in remote communities, others are in the gifted and talented programs in urban NSW. The differences between both groups are obvious and often extreme. The ‘G&T’ kids know how to dream, they have grand plans for their futures, they have read about Australia, the world and other universes in books, they engage with the world at large on social media because they can. That is, they know how to read and write in English. And often their self-esteem is strong, it’s in entrenched, and it is heart-warming.

It is not always the same experience for young ones at the other end of the spectrum, and that can be heartbreaking if you believe that that all Australian kids deserve to have the capacity to dream.

It is well known that low literacy levels are a major issue affecting Indigenous communities, particularly those in remote areas. Being illiterate is a major barrier to education, employment, health and wellbeing and social engagement.

Only 35% of Indigenous Year five children in very remote Northern Territory meet the minimum standards for reading and writing, compared to 90% of non-Indigenous students living in major cities (NAPLAN, 2017). And people often ask me ‘Why?’ when they hear these kinds of statistics. The truth is there are enormous barriers and challenges to literacy in remote Australia, including lack of access to books in homes and not having books in their own languages. Often children are only encountering English at school for the first time, or encountering books for the first time.

What these statistics and challenges tell me is that these kids – in all likelihood – will go onto become adults solely reliant on non-Indigenous people to make decisions for them in key areas of their lives. This is the opposite of self-determination for Indigenous people.

And this is why the ILF is so important and their methodology the most helpful in empowering Indigenous Australians particularly in remote communities. The Foundation has three literacy-based programs that work with community engagement.

  1. They gift new and culturally appropriate books to over 200 remote communities that little to no books;
  2. Book Buzz is an early literacy program is designed to encourage reading in children under five
  3. They publish books written by community, some in their first language, with the support from many of Australia’s renowned authors and illustrators. Some are bilingual, and many are written by children. Others are in consultation with community elders.

Everyone can help give the gift of reading. You can support the Indigenous Literacy Foundation by going on-line here and making a donation or by purchasing a Book Buzz pack to go into one of our many communities. Or you can hold a Great Books Swap in your work place which is an excellent way to raise awareness and funds while sharing your own love of books. Go on, you know you want to!

Dr Anita Heiss is a proud member of the Wiradjuri Nation, an author, speaker and creative disruptor. Her latest novel is Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, and her most recent book as editor is Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia. She manages the Epic Good Foundation and currently lives in Brisbane.


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