Why Our Kids Need The Voice

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Why Our Kids Need The Voice

Rosalind Beadle

“Without a Voice” by Andrew Prickett is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

For the past twenty years, I have lived and worked alongside Indigenous peoples in the Torres Strait, Central Australia, the Western Desert and the Top-End. During this time, Torres Strait Islanders, Warlpiri, Warumungu, Ngaanyatjarra, Arrernte, Pitjantjatjara and Yolŋu people have educated me, challenged me and expanded my horizons in ways I never could have imagined in 2003 as a fresh white middle-class graduate under the impression that I was already pretty worldly.


The most important learning from my mentors is that Indigenous peoples have their own set of values, knowledge and skills. Indigenous children grow up in a social and cultural context through which they come to understand the world and operate within it in ways that are their norm, and which provide them with attributes that have sustained Indigenous peoples for millennia. As Australia grapples with the deteriorating global environment, learning about Indigenous ways of living and learning could benefit non-Indigenous children’s education and their capacity to adapt to a rapidly changing world.


Last year, my husband and I brought our young children to live in Arnhem Land. The kids are thriving on the knowledge that First Nations teachers and others so generously share with them. They are learning about respect for land and Elders, the centrality of family and relationships, the relative insignificance of material goods, and the richness of Indigenous languages. They are gaining knowledge about how to live off the land; the interconnectedness between people, plants and animals; how to recognise change in the seven seasons; and the importance of ceremony and ritual in life and death. And they are acquiring skills on how to live off the country: spear fish and crabs, build bush shelters, light fires without a match, collect ochre and use it for paint and medicine, and cut and seep bark from specific trees to use as a soothing remedy for a cold. Their growing values, skills and knowledge would put Gina Chick (Alone Australia, 2023) to shame.


Those like my Gen Y self and other generations who have grown up in predominantly white, middle-class communities are typically challenged by the concept of a different worldview. While as children we may have been taught to be racially and religiously tolerant, our actual exposure to cultural diversity was limited. In establishing our values, we acknowledged that “differences” existed, but this was often superficial and the possibility that whole groups of people’s lives were grounded in fundamentally different ways of being was never a consideration. Clearly, and in spite of acknowledged cultural differences, everyone aspired to be like ‘us’, right?  To follow the ‘normal’ trajectory of education so as to acquire a ‘respectable’ job, leave the home of the family who grew you up, contribute to the economy, accumulate material wealth and, ultimately, to thrive as an individual.


As a young person, my thoughts on the Voice may have gone something like this: we live in a democracy that I first saw in action and learnt about through Year Six eyes on a school trip to Parliament House in Canberra, a democracy that we proudly reproduced in Youth Parliament a few years later, and that represented all Australians and made decisions that were (must be) equitable, fair and representative of everyone. It wasn’t until a university second-year field trip with Marcia Langton to Arnhem Land that I had my first glimpse of an entirely different social reality: Yolŋu life, in a ‘country’, Australia, where I thought I’d mastered the social and cultural ‘norms’. How did I not ‘discover’ this until I was twenty?


Many Australians are still to make this ‘discovery’, although given Generation Z’s interest in the upcoming referendum, this necessary awareness may be changing. I’ve had the privilege of living and working in remote and urban communities in positions where Indigenous colleagues and friends have introduced me to alternative ways of understanding the world, of growing up and educating kids, of using and knowing the land, of working, of accessing and using services, of making decisions, and of sharing stories and being heard. These ways construct a lifeworld that vastly differs from my roots, and those of most elected members of governments who create policy for the delivery of services and programs into Indigenous communities; alas, a delivery which perhaps unsurprisingly, is mostly ineffective.


My work has been closely involved with programs for Indigenous people that have been designed to be developed, delivered, directed and governed on their terms. By enabling the embrace of the structures, strengths and values inherent in Indigenous families and communities, such programs have successfully contributed to social development and enhanced wellbeing, both for the individuals involved as workers, as well as the broader community. In contrast, government policies commonly contain expectations and parameters around program delivery that are shaped by a non-Indigenous lens unfamiliar with the lifeworld of Indigenous people.


When I first started working alongside Indigenous people, I frequently felt frustrated when my communication strategies were met with silence and complete ineffectiveness. I was, of course, assuming that ‘development’ equated with all people aspiring to being and doing in ways that conform to the Australian white middle-class ideal; it’s not. Developing the livelihoods of Indigenous Australians means drawing on the values, knowledge and skills that have sustained them for thousands of years. This is not about reverting back to the traditional way of living; inevitably historical circumstances associated with colonisation have forced change. What is, however, of crucial importance is the recognition that Indigenous Australians have existing structures that can positively influence their wellbeing, but which are generally ignored by those currently responsible for decision-making related to Indigenous welfare. Note the recent comment by Nyamal woman and Yes23 Coordinator Georgia Corrie (2023): ‘We have the solutions, we just don’t have the platform for them yet to be heard’. Every Indigenous person I’ve worked with in the last twenty years is testament to that.


Twenty-two years after Marcia Langton’s fieldtrip awakened me to a concept of alternative worldviews, I am now living and working on Yolŋu country. Yes, Indigenous housing is generally substandard, school attendance is low, and far too many people need to travel hundreds of kilometres to access health care. Nevertheless, I see families thriving in ways that nurture and educate kids, a society rich with knowledge about the surrounding country and its abundant traditional foods and medicines, and community members who adopt non-Indigenous visitors into their intricate kinship system to make them feel welcome in the complex and  interconnected Yolŋu world. There is much goodwill from outsiders who come here to work, but too many services and programs remain infected by non-Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing; a virus that can be traced back to the non-Indigenous program and policy makers. This virus paralyses Indigenous people because a symptom is disallowing them to function on their terms. Hence their disengagement, disempowerment and the abysmal statistics contained in the annual Closing the Gap reports. Having voices that truly understand these contexts at the start of the domino queue is the way forward to a cure; a cure that will benefit the reputation of an Australia that cares for its whole population.


During discussions about the upcoming referendum, my eight-year-old has been completely baffled by the absence of representation of Indigenous people in Australia’s ‘rule book’ (constitution): why wouldn’t they get a say to ensure decisions are not solely influenced by those largely unfamiliar with the livelihoods of the First Peoples of this land? Let’s hope we can all look back and recognise the change that came by voting ‘yes’ which led to Indigenous values, knowledge and skills having their rightful place in decision-making in the Australian parliament, and, in particular, a potentially brighter future for our younger and next generations.


I’m writing this not to advocate for Indigenous people (although that is a central part of my life’s work) but because of the divisive dialogue linked to the Voice campaign. I was driven to reflect on what I want for my children, and to use my experiences of the past two decades to create an understanding of the barriers, inequity and injustice that arises when non-Indigenous people oversee decision-making about and for Aboriginal people. The Voice to parliament will not only empower Aboriginal people, but it will also provide a foundation to bring the assets offered by them into the foreground of ‘Australian culture’ and provide valuable lessons to other Australians, an opportunity my children are so fortunate to already be experiencing.

About the Storyteller

Rosalind Beadle is a mother, community development worker and academic. She focuses on supporting Indigenous people to participate in work in ways that respond meaningfully to their social and cultural contexts. Rosalind and her partner intentionally moved to a remote Aboriginal community at the start of 2022 so that they and their children, now 5 and 8 years old, could deepen their understanding of the lifeworld of Aboriginal people.

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