In his National Reconciliation Week lecture to the Parliamentary Library, Dr Lawrence Bamblett, Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, proposed an alternative way of understanding life in Aboriginal communities through the concept of Aboriginal advantage. He declared, ‘You can all do a lot to help us by changing the way that you talk about us’.
Dr Bamblett’s academic, teaching and community development work explores relationships between identity, representation and engagement in Aboriginal communities. He explains that telling positive stories can both change the unfavourable image that many Australians have of Aboriginal communities and transform how Aboriginal communities see themselves. This transformation, he argues, will ultimately lead to better outcomes for Aboriginal Australians.
Dr Bamblett is a Wiradjuri man from New South Wales and grew up in Erambie, a small Aboriginal community near Cowra that was established in 1890 as an Aboriginal reserve. According to Dr Bamblett, despite the common focus in Australia on the disadvantage experienced in Aboriginal communities, Erambie is a community brimming with promise and achievement. Erambie boasts a number of firsts, including the first Aboriginal people to sign a record label. Other members of the Erambie community, such as the late boxer Trevor Christian (Teddy Rainbow), and prison support worker Shirley Colleen (Mum Shirl) have been nationally recognised for their contributions to the Australian community.
Most significant to Erambie’s achievements, Dr Bamblett highlights, is that it is a community increasingly characterised by a love for reading. From a young age, Dr Bamblett observed community members as they told stories of their sporting and other successes. Several years ago, Dr Bamblett encouraged Erambie storytellers to begin writing these narratives down. Dr Bamblett’s recent book, Our Stories Are Our Survival, combines Erambie stories, traditions and oral history with his PhD research.
Prior to publishing his book, Dr Bamblett’s research had led him to the conclusion that ‘reading is just shared storytelling’. At the time, this idea provided a persuasive rationale for his community to invest in a reading program.
In 2009, Dr Bamblett launched the Read 4 Tomorrow project in Erambie, a reading initiative that utilises the resources and diversity of digital technology, narrative tradition and, most importantly, all groups in the community from preschoolers to elders. Read 4 Tomorrow was developed ‘to create a reading habit where there wasn’t one’, in response to what Dr Bamblett sees as a historical disconnection with education in Erambie.
According to Dr Bamblett, the slogan for Read 4 Tomorrow, ‘Tackle a Book’, builds on Erambie’s love of sport and provides an inspiring and symbolic slogan for participants. Read 4 Tomorrow is promoted using photo images of influential elders within the community, linking Erambie’s oral storytelling legacy with the reading program.
According to Dr Bamblett, since the introduction of Read 4 Tomorrow, the reading ages of school children in Erambie have increased two to three years, and Erambie children have scored in the top ten per cent in national literacy tests (NAPLAN). Further to this, Dr Bamblett argues that Read 4 Tomorrow is one way of providing Aboriginal children with the kinds of positive accounts that will ultimately lead to their better outcomes.
Dr Bamblett emphasises that the success of Read 4 Tomorrow rests on the whole community taking ownership of the initiative. The campaign’s greatest attributes are communal living and shared responsibility. Dr Bamblett explains, ‘we succeed because we’re Aborigines and not in spite of it’. The next goal for the program is to assist Erambie children to write books in the Wiradjuri language.
Dr Bamblett noted that Erambie stories are not without tragedy. As in many Aboriginal communities, the Erambie community has experienced many deaths due to substance abuse, social isolation and mental illness. Dr Bamblett noted that, while he was only 44 years old, he had experienced the loss of sixteen of his own relatives, many of whom were relatively young.
Nevertheless, Dr Bamblett stressed that ’it’s a small jump from talking about disadvantage and dysfunction to low expectations, and that’s the problem’. Dr Bamblett argues that the concept of Aboriginal disadvantage causes many Aboriginal children to grow up accepting a ‘victim identity’, and their resultant vulnerability increases their risk of premature death:
I know that telling people about their disadvantage kills them. It takes away their power and authority. It disengages them, it makes it ok for them to say no. And it frees people from obligation, and that’s the opposite of what we want. So I really think that the words ‘Aboriginal disadvantage’ are that bad.
Dr Bamblett challenges both his people and others to balance the bad stories with the good; to see not only the victims in Aboriginal communities but also their heroes: ‘That’s what we’re doing at Erambie’, Dr Bamblett states, ‘and that’s what works’.