I was fascinated by a recent ABC Lingua Franca interview with Suzy Wilson, bookseller at Riverbend Bookshop in Brisbane and founder of the Australian Indigenous Literacy Project.
Now it really doesn’t take a genius to see the gap is pretty wide between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians here. In fact, some human rights organisations have reported that compared to indigenous populations in the USA and Canada, the socio-economic gap between Australian indigenous communities and the general population is widening.
But facts and figures are one thing, hearing the story as it relates to language, and more specifically reading, is another – all the more so because I heard it around the time I was celebrating all things wordy as a volunteer with the excellent Brisbane Writers Festival.
In the interview, Suzy Wilson explains that she found herself concerned a few years back when she heard somewhere that boys’ literacy levels were two years behind girls’. This set her thinking about what she could do, as a bookseller, to help close that gap. So when she attended an industry conference in 2003 and heard that only 7% of Aboriginal children were meeting English literacy benchmarks in remote communities of Australia, she was well and truly horrified. Spurred into action, she set up the Indigenous Literacy Project, working with education foundations, teachers and community elders to set up a range of schemes and initiatives to foster English literacy in Australia’s poorest communities.
Incidentally, Wilson also explains why community elders asked that English, instead of community or Creole languages, be the focus of the literacy project. She also explains the kinds of projects they are running to ensure support is truly effective, so have a listen if you’re interested in that aspect of it.
But a couple of years on and after huge support from the book industry and the reading population, we’re still only seeing the most basic of advancements in literacy levels. Wilson recounts how how only last year, on visiting a remote community they were horrified to learn that only 5 children out of a class of 75 had reached minimum literacy levels set for their age group. For their teachers, however, it represented a massive improvement – in past years, only 2 children out of 75 were reaching the benchmark.
Now, on what planet is this considered an acceptable level of education in a so-called developed country? Is it any wonder that compared to the general population, indigenous Australians report unemployment rates 3 times higher, infant mortality almost 4 times higher and life expectancy 20 years lower than other Australians? These are the statistics that show that poverty is a very real problem for Aborigines in Australia today.
Up to 2007, the previous Australian government was refusing to acknowledge a problem even existed. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology in February this year brought hope for many Australians that the gap in health, education and living conditions might finally be addressed.
I’m wondering how soon it will be before volunteers at the Brisbane Writers Festival will see this whole new section of ‘word nerds’ coming through the State Library doors.
Blog Action Day 2008