Revolutionary solution to indigenous illiteracy

Imagine for a moment being unable to read to your child, sign a school permission slip, or understand the directions on a medicine bottle. Illiteracy is the scourge of Aboriginal communities all across Australia, but one program is having enormous success where others previously failed.

 In 1959, when Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba, more than 40% of the population were illiterate. Today, Cuba enjoys almost universal literacy and the model it used to achieve this has been exported around the world. In 2012, the national Aboriginal Literacy for Life Foundation paid $35,000 to the Cuban authorities for the teaching method, “Yes, I Can!”.

Launched in Wilcannia, the campaign has now spread to other NSW communities including Bourke, Enngonia, Brewarrina, Weilmoringle, Walgett and recently Campbelltown.

Helen Miller-Brown, a retired Hunter teacher of 30 years’ experience, learnt of “Yes I Can!” when she left primary school teaching to specialise in environmental adult education. Helen said the success of the program so far had been phenomenal.

“So much money has been spent on Aboriginal literacy over the decades for no results,” she said. “The big difference with this program is that it’s designed to empower Aboriginal people to teach themselves. The graduates become the tutors for the next program.”

Open to anyone 15 years and over, the course is made up of three phases and takes 12 months to complete. “The first three months of the program are spent working closely with the community — training and nurturing local Aboriginal staff recruited to raise awareness about adult literacy and its impact,” Helen said.

In Bourke, by the third intake of students, completion rates had risen to 80% — substantially higher than the current 25% completion rate for Aboriginal students in accredited Vocational Education and Training courses (such as TAFE).

Helen was so convinced of the program’s ability to change lives that last month she held a fundraiser for “Yes, I Can!” at the Hamilton Uniting Church that raised more than $4000. “These people aren’t criminals but are often in jail because they keep getting picked up for driving without a licence, and they can’t get one because they can’t read,” she said.

“Helping them get a licence is major for their self-confidence, and the police in these communities have asked the foundation not to leave because of its positive social impact.

“Obtaining a licence is followed closely by teaching them to write even one paragraph, which means they can write a note to their child’s teacher.”

 Liz Green is CatholicCare Team Leader for the Brighter Futures program established to assist families at risk of “significant harm” from domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and mental health issues. Liz said the program, which includes both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal families, provides strategies to encourage behavioural changes, but illiteracy is often an underlying issue.

“We’re observing literacy challenges due to a lack of formal education,” she said. “This means people can’t fill out forms and generally don’t have access to as much support and services as they would if they could read.”

Liz, who is familiar with the “Yes I Can!” program, said any campaign that promoted adult literacy was highly beneficial. “CatholicCare now partners with the Uniting Church in many different events that focus on assisting children and parents,” she said.

While “Yes, I Can!” has predominantly focused on remote and rural areas, Helen Miller-Brown said it needs to be widened to include urban centres such as Newcastle and the Hunter Valley.

“An Aboriginal woman from the Awabakal organisation attended the fundraiser and said she felt the program was greatly needed in this region,” Helen said. “The program runs on the smell of an oily rag but the results are amazing. I feel very strongly about it and would like to do more fundraisers to help. Literacy for Life’s aim is to take the program to every Aboriginal community in Australia.”

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