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Books gave me a safe haven in troubled times

by Dr Hannah McGlade Lawyer and Author

Hello – Kaya – it’s my pleasure to be asked to tell you a little about my own personal story of books and education. For people who don’t know me, I’m a Noongar yorga or woman, and I’ve been participating in Aboriginal higher education since 1986.

I graduated from Law School in 1994. Next was the Masters in International human rights law. And finally, after many years of writing, a PhD that concerns Aboriginal children’s human rights. Although I’m not an educator - That was the path my mother Mingli took in her life. And like

all Noongar people, I will tell you of something about my family and especially my mother. Mingli was born in the south-west country town of Gnowangerup in 1942, and at a time when the official government policy of segregation existed. This was when many Aboriginal children lived on the reserves

outside of town and were not permitted to attend schools with non-Aboriginal children. My mother mainly lived with her Noongar Grandmother and her Wadgella Irish Grandfather in the bush, they called her ‘possum’ because she liked to climb the trees. My mother was one


of the lucky ones, the Noongar children were allowed to attend the Ongerup and Kendenup primary school, so she did and had a primary school education. It was the public events and picture halls that were segregated, presumably to ensure the racial hierarchy of the day. My mother tells me that Aboriginal children were legally admitted to the schools in 1948. Mum was then offered a chance to attend secondary school in Perth, the Perth Girls High. Unfortunately, one teacher in particular did not think an Aboriginal girl child belonged in school and my mother remembers more time standing in a school passage way than she was actually inside with books, learning. The other teachers would just say to her - ‘decorating the corridor again are you’ ? Perth was changing by the 1970’s and in 1976 Mingli was able to enrol in the first Aboriginal Teachers training initiative. She graduated from Teachers College in 1978, and was part of the first wave of Aboriginal teacher graduates at that time. Other Noongars could not believe it and they thought she was a Teacher’s Aide. A Noongar woman teacher then was largely unknown. Upon her graduation Mingli did not always feel welcome in the schools, she was an outsider, Noongar but having to live in a white world. Imagine how the children felt? Education did not make my mother forget who she was, a strong Noongar woman, a Moorditj yorga. She took us with her as

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young children to the land rights marches, the street movement that finally resulted in a decision of the Federal Court recognizing Noongar people retained their culture and with it the right to country. Terra nullius no longer. This was in 2006, not so very long ago. I was fortunate that my mother instilled in me from a young age a very clear understanding that education and books were my future. My love of books started at an early age. My favourite memories are Enid Blyton, the Secret Seven and Famous Five, teen detective Trixie Beldon, Vampire stories (yes they were popular even in the 70’s) and last but not least, the wonders of Ancient Egypt. My mother did not have a lot of money, but she bought me books when she could afford it and the public library and second hand book swaps facilitated my young reading desire. Books were exciting. In the books I was swept away. Sometimes they took me away from unhappy circumstances, my family breakdown, Children’s Home and the trauma of institutions apparently set up to further Aboriginal education. They gave me another world away from that where being a Noongar child was to be looked down upon and too often, denigrated. In a way, the Books gave me a safe haven. I remember when I was a young teenager living with my mother in Kununurra and with my extended Mirriwong family in the mid 1980’s.

The school then was unofficially segregated as neither the black and white adults or children mixed with each other. I was not missed spending my afternoons hiding in the town‘s only library. It was cool there, and the books were fascinating. Growing up it was the Books and reading that gave me escape and reprieve from a childhood that included poverty, abuse and violence. I was entranced with the South American belle Scarlett O’ Hara from ‘Gone with the Wind’ , an outrageous but heartfelt heroine who created havoc all around her. And then there were the English classics, the Bronte Sisters, and while I could never tell you a great deal about their books now, I’m sure they left an indelible imprint, the imprint of the woman who is not scared to speak her truth. Like many Aboriginal children, I had little material possessions, but in reading my world became a very different place. I was lucky I found books and there is not a doubt in my mind that it was the books that led to my formal education. It was not too long before my 16th birthday that I found myself without a home and parents to turn to, There was no prospect then of school. School it seemed to me was for the lucky. No matter, through books and reading I had a head start and by age of 20 I was able to enter the ANU law school. I not only survived law school, I flourished. After Law School came

motherhood, and books were an important part of life for my baby son who loved me reading to him. I still remember his favourite baby book and the joyous look on his face when he could understand the words and picture and tell me himself, with such beautiful excitement, ‘That Moon’! To this day I have kept another of our favourite books, ‘Where the Great Bear Watches’ by James Sage. We always maintained that books were important and Mosh is now 16 and likes books a lot. He tells me his favourite book is ‘The Curious incident of the dog in the night time’ – it sounds very intriguing. My son will finish Year 12 this year and then to university. Too many Aboriginal kids don’t read books and they don’t make Year 12 and university. Still West Australia is a different place to when I was growing up. All governments have committed to ‘Closing the Gap’ on Indigenous disadvantage. And education is recognized as a key plank of the policy commitment. In 2008, the Coalition of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed to six targets to address the disadvantage faced by Indigenous Australians in life expectancy, child mortality, education and employment. This includes a commitment to: • ensure access to early childhood education for all Indigenous four year olds in remote communities by 2013; • halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children by 2018; • halve the gap for


Indigenous students in Year 12 (or equivalent) attainment rates by 2020. This year, five years on from the historic Motion of Apology in Federal Parliament, former PM Rudd marked the Indigenous apology to stolen generations by calling for better Indigenous education. Mr Rudd called on the Government to convene a summit on Indigenous education in order to boost outcomes for Aboriginal children. He said there has been a lot of progress towards closing the gap since he made the apology on behalf of the Federal Government in 2008, but more needs to be done, especially in the area of education. Rudd proposed a summit of ‘’the best and the brightest’’ after the annual closing the gap report showed only three out of eight reading and numeracy indicators were tracking as expected. This was rejected by Education Minister, Peter Garrett, who said that there was no need for a summit to look at why the literacy and numeracy of indigenous students is declining or remaining static. According to Garrett, Indigenous people did not need more talking, ‘’What we need to do is work together to make sure those things that are proven to make a difference are happening in every school with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.’’ I think both Rudd and Garrett are right, and we do need to do more talking and more working together to improve education for our kids. My mother has seen many Aboriginal children admitted to standard

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High School when they don’t have the literacy and numeracy standard to begin to cope. Underlining this is homelessness, health problems, poverty, alcohol and drug addictions and family violence. We need schools especially for these children, so they aren’t just left behind for good. In addition to the widening gap in education, we also see a widening gap in incarceration, which is still not an official Closing the Gap target. West Australian Aboriginal people, including children and youth, rank as one of the most highly incarcerated group of people of the world. In our wealthy state, Aboriginal youth are estimated to be 50 times more likely to be incarcerated that a

non-indigenous youth. Aboriginal children in our state now also make up close to half of all the children in state care. It was 5 years ago, on February 13, 2008 the Former PM Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generation saying, ‘We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities, their country. For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendant and for their families left behind, We Say Sorry’ There are more Aboriginal children removed from their families and communities today than estimated to have occurred in the history of the

Stolen Generations. My mother tells me the schools today still don’t include our Elders, who can teach children to read, learn and be proud of who they are. Surely Reconciliation means we keep talking and working together? Thank you for listening to my own story about books, which I believe are fundamental to human rights and our children’s important futures. Our Greatest Challenge: Aboriginal Children and Human Rights is published by Aboriginal Studies Press Our Greatest Challenge Hannah’s book received the Stanner award in 2012. It was recently reviewed with acclaim in the British Journal of Criminology. Review in full Review extract


Books were my safe haven