For everyone First, we listen

Clockwise from bottom left: Teacher Tanna Draper Nagas; Neville Atkinson, Manager at VAEAI; teacher Jodie Fowler; Darryl Andy, DET Koorie Engagement Support Officer. Photos: Daniel James

The AEU’s inaugural First Nations Forum was an opportunity for union leadership to hear directly from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members and start building a shared agenda. Writer and broadcaster, Yorta Yorta man DANIEL JAMES reports.

You can’t be what you can’t see. Sure, it’s a cliché – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Generations of First Nations students have never had a sight-line to a teacher with any insight into their background, let alone the ability to be open to harnessing an Aboriginal student’s background as a learning opportunity for other students.

There are not many chances to learn, as a child, about the oldest living culture on earth from someone who understands what it is like to grow up in a system that has been hostile to Aboriginal kids. Poor experiences in education settings can result in generations of families becoming hesitant to engage with schools and, therefore, with their child’s learning. This is part of the cycle of disadvantage, and it can be hard to break.

That is why it is critical that Victoria’s First Nations teachers have modes of support, both within the school setting and more broadly through the community. The AEU has a role to play in this.

For Byelle and Kanaka woman and second-year teacher Tanna Draper Nagas, having teachers with whom you can identify is of critical importance for First Nations students. It sparked a determination to contribute, to improve outcomes for her people.

“I didn’t have any teachers at my primary school, or my high school, that were culturally appropriate or sensitive,” Tanna tells me. “It resulted in many casually racist encounters with people who were supposed to be my role models. It made me think I need to be a teacher. It reminded me of the old saying: ‘A good teacher doesn’t make you remember what they say, they make you remember how they made you feel’.”

“It’s inspiring to see so many superstar Indigenous teachers and educators come together as a collective and assert ourselves in our own space.”

Tanna was one of a number of First Nations members to attend the inaugural AEU First Nations Forum in May. The forum focused on how the union can better support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members at work – whether through improved industrial conditions, a more supportive workplace culture, or greater representation on AEU forums and committees.

Koenpul and Nunukal woman Darcel Russel is the AEU’s federal Aboriginal Education Officer. A former teacher, Darcel sees the forum – and future forums – as a way for First Nations members to etch out their own space within the union and in educational settings.

“I started teaching over 31 years ago; the world looked very different back then. It’s inspiring to see so many superstar Indigenous teachers and educators come together as a collective and assert ourselves in our own space. I see it as an act of sovereignty,” she says.

I was fortunate enough to attend the morning sessions of the forum. Just so you know, I’ve worked in and around Aboriginal affairs my entire life. I like to think I know what meaningful engagement with our mob looks like. I know that in any given engagement, Aboriginal people will be honest – but, in the right setting, that honesty is met with earnest vulnerability, a willingness to expose oneself in order to give back and to pay it forward.

It was clear that the members involved valued the opportunity to share their experience with one another. As Tanna explains, “I feel quite privileged to have come in at this point of my career, when I know there have been First Nations educators who have been trying to get change for such a long time.”

The union movement and the march for social justice for First Nations people in this country have been closely linked.

I noticed a great deal of care and effort had gone into ensuring the forum was a safe space in which First Nations members could meet and talk candidly. Darcel, who facilitated a morning session, said AEU organisers and the union leadership “worked so hard to get things right; they worked with a smaller group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members to plan the session; they listened, and not only did they listen, but they also acted on what they heard. As a virtue of that, I think the day was as good as it could have been. Particularly for our mob.”

The union movement and the march for social justice for First Nations people in this country have been closely linked. Legendary Yorta Yorta man and activist, William Cooper, was a member and delegate of the Australian Workers Union, after attending adult literacy classes. He would go on to become a spokesperson for the fragmented Aboriginal workforce in central Victoria and southern New South Wales. In time, he would form the Australian Aborigines League, whose spirit and ethos still permeates the activism of Aboriginal people today.

So, where to from here for the Victorian branch of the AEU and its engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members? Is there a way of formalising First Nations voices within the union?

“What the union leadership is very clear about is that this engagement is going to take time and it needs to take time,” says deputy branch president Justin Mullaly. “It has to be done with us listening properly and then working together to build a joint approach, agenda and work program.

“It’s taken us a long time to get here, let’s take the time to make sure we get it right. It actually comes as a bit of an internal clash for me as a union leader – I like to go faster and get things done – but I know taking our time is the right approach.”

These things do take time and there may be slip-ups along the way. But each slip-up will act as a learning opportunity to further build the relationship between First Nations members and the AEU leadership. The ultimate goal is to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators feel safe in their workplaces, both professionally and culturally. While the number of First Nations teachers is growing, they remain a rare commodity.

It is the likes of Tanna who will have to carry forward this momentum. As she says, Indigenous teachers can’t cater for Indigenous students unless they feel safe in their workplaces. “If we can’t take good care of ourselves, we can’t take good care with our children.”

Listen to Daniel James’s interview with Tanna Draper Nagas on 3RRR Melbourne.

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