For many of Australia's Aboriginal people, education has often meant one of three things: assimilation, exclusion, or irrelevance.
Generations of the continent's indigenous groups have been schooled to drop cultural patterns and adopt European ways. Some government policies went as far as to keep native children
But these often-heavyhanded attempts to stamp out indigenous culture have in fact fostered something quite different: a drive for self-determination. And as part of a broad effort to change longstanding patterns of discrimination and low achievement, Aboriginals are working to build outlets for education that connect more emphatically with their culture - whether it's by telling stories through art, teaching about pre-colonial history, or fostering an indigenous perspective on healthcare and law.
"People are constantly in this poverty cycle," says Yvonne Jackson, director of studies at Tranby Aboriginal College in Sydney. "There's often that notion of, 'Why should I go on? There's nothing out there for me.' "
At Tranby, adults who have slipped through wide cracks in the educational system, or who simply want a school that has echoes of home, learn in a hands-on way by doing research in their own communities much of the year.
At another school, the Eora Centre, students can combine Aboriginal studies with basic literacy training, or earn diplomas in visual or performing arts.
Both schools offer degrees akin to those from American community colleges. And they help create a bridge into Australian universities, which have also been making strides toward supporting indigenous students.
The negative cycle that has trapped so many indigenous people can be linked back to policies that forced Aboriginals to live on missions and reserves, disconnected from their way of life. State directives spanning the decades from the 1930s to the 1960s also removed some Aboriginal children from their homes and placed them with white families.
"It's only since 1972 that Aboriginal children were in any way guaranteed an education," says Pam Gill, Aboriginal Programs Unit director at the Department of Education of New South Wales.
Today, adult education addresses the needs not only of older people who were offered no education, but also of younger people who simply have become disillusioned with school or haven't yet mastered the basic skills.
At Eora in Redfern, a part of Sydney with a concentrated Aboriginal population, most of the roughly 400 students are Aboriginal. The school is the result of a merger between a community center and the Sydney Institute of Technology, part of a state system known as TAFE (Technical and Further Education).
Many Aboriginal learners find entrance to college-level study or jobs through TAFE because of its vocational focus. "There were a lot of people in the communities who wanted to do a course where they could study their own culture ..., and these courses were developed [to start at a level where] there is open access - there are no barriers in terms of literacy and numeracy," Ms. Gill says.
Tranby has been providing Aboriginal-directed education since 1958. It was founded by an Anglican minister in cooperation with Aboriginals, and it has gained a more politicized focus since it took in its first students, three natives of the Torres Strait Islands (at the northern tip of the continent) who wanted to enter the baking industry.
Armed with a new level of awareness, alumni of schools like Eora and Tranby frequently become ambassadors of sorts in the process of reconciliation between white and black Australians.
My art is a voice
Take Jason Shaw, a young man with close-cropped hair whose paintings were recently exhibited during a "Common Ground" cultural night that Eora sponsored for the community. "I like my art to be a voice for the indigenous people of this land," he says, standing in front of several works that combine traditional content (such as depictions of animals) with a modern flair from his earlier days, when graffiti was his medium of choice.
Mr. Shaw, whose light skin hints at the not-uncommon mixing between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, started in Eora's basic-education classes while still a teen (students can enter as early as age 15). He is now pursuing a three-year arts diploma. One of his small paintings shows connected circles that represent his family tree. It seems a simple design, but a closer look reveals subtle, skillful gradations of color.
Once a kid with behavioral problems, Shaw is now "going from strength to strength," says Eora campus manager Jason Darney. The school is considering inviting Shaw to teach when he finishes his diploma, and his artwork may soon appear on a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt.
"We try to go away from this thing of, Aboriginal art has got to be dot painting," Mr. Darney explains. "People talk about their stories from childhood, they'll talk about the stolen generation, or they may just paint a fruit bowl."
In the Aboriginal-studies courses, teacher Michael Amatto also emphasizes that there are many ways to express the culture, contrary to the popular notion that the only real Aboriginal people are out in the bush.
That range of expression is seen in the music program as well. Students play all kinds of instruments, not just the postcard-image digeridoo. For three young women who met at Eora and now have a band and their own CD, the only explicit reference to being Aboriginal is their name: the Stiff Gins. "Gin was a derogatory term for Aboriginal women," says Kaleena Briggs, a petite woman with a powerful voice. "We're trying to reclaim it. We're proud black women." The songs, reminiscent of the Indigo Girls, are not political - they are about being happy, she says.
Because Eora offers programs unique to TAFE, it attracts non-Aboriginals as well, and works to build understanding between people both on and off campus. "I've watched documentaries, but I didn't realize the extent of the emotion [around issues like displacement] until I hung out with people who've been through that," says Craig Manly, a white musician who plays in a rock band with some Aboriginal students.
Mr. Amatto sees Eora as a place where students can thrive, although many of them face difficult circumstances. "The college acts like a sponge sometimes," he says. "Coming and focusing on college takes their minds off problems at work or at home. They are happy to be equal to the challenge that we give."
Some alumni who were illiterate when they started at Eora have traveled abroad in their careers as artists or actors and have returned to build up talent at home.
The teaching style is what sets places like Eora and Tranby apart. At both schools, the students are sometimes also the elders of their community, and have a unique perspective to offer. "We have students here [at Eora] who are 65; they've lived through things I've only read about," Amatto says.
At Tranby, even the shape of the walls reflects cultural values. Behind the original house the school occupies, there are round classrooms to emphasize a less hierarchical form of learning.
"It's not about someone getting up in front of class and saying, 'This is what you have to learn.' It's more like a group discussion," says Robyn Ridgeway, an Aboriginal studies teacher at Tranby. "There are guidelines, but you pull on the people that are there as much as you can."
Tranby students come from all over Australia for intensive one-week sessions spread out over two years. In between, they go back home to conduct research and put what they have learned into practice.
While earning a community development degree, for instance, they may bring people together to lobby the government to fund a day-care center. And they learn how to defuse resentment that can arise when different factions compete for limited funds.
For Charlie Doolah, who travels from Darnley Island in the Torres Strait, one reason for coming to Tranby is "to get something on paper to let society, employers, know that I have the knowledge." He also hopes to set up his own business someday.
As part of its community outreach, Tranby runs Black Books, which offers a range of Aboriginal education materials, everything from children's stories to teacher training books. Non-Aboriginal students are also welcome to take evening classes.
Reversing a history of displacement
But what stands out at both Eora and Tranby is indigenous people's ability to reverse the history of displacement to some degree and come together as a family.
At Tranby, even the landscaping helps the 165 students feel comfortable. Jackson recalls one woman munching the red fruit of the lilly-pilly bush in the courtyard and saying it made her feel at home because the bush grows in her part of Australia. And young children of students or staff can often be spotted dashing around the campus.
The networking among different Aboriginal communities is something Darryl Mercy especially appreciates. A former policeman, he plays an administrative role in his Aboriginal community on the coast of New South Wales.
"I could have gone to New South Wales University or Macquarie [University]," he says during a communal lunch prepared in Tranby's kitchen. "Here I feel more at home. It's an extended-family feeling. That's important to indigenous people. That contact is there when you go to someone else's town."
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