The Future Of

Indigenous Youth Wellbeing

Episode Summary

Important changes in health and education could improve outcomes for Indigenous youth in Australia. Mental health researchers Rhonda Oliver and Michael Wright discuss what needs to be done. Please note this episode may be distressing to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Episode Notes

New research suggests that to meet the needs of Indigenous youth, Australia’s health and education systems must adopt practices that provide cultural safety and positive meanings about Aboriginality.

In this episode, David is joined by Professor Rhonda Oliver, Head of Curtin’s School of Education, and Dr Michael Wright, a mental health researcher and Yuat Nyungar man, to discuss what needs to be done to ensure the wellbeing of Australia’s young Indigenous people is improving.


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You can read the full transcript for the episode here.

Episode Transcription

David: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander listeners are advised that this episode may be distressing.

Jess (intro): This is The Future Of, where experts share their vision of the future and how their work is helping shape it for the better.

David: I'm David Blayney. New research suggests that to meet the needs of Aboriginal youth, Australia's health and education systems must adopt practices that provide cultural safety and positive meanings about Aboriginality. To explore this topic, with me today are Professor Rhonda Oliver, Head of the School of Education at Curtin University, and Dr Michael Wright, a Yuat Nyungar man and mental health researcher at Curtin and the Telethon Kids Institute. Thank you very much both for joining us.

Dr Michael Wright: Thank you.

David: Before we start, I think it is important, however, to acknowledge that we are recording this podcast on Whadjuk Nyungar country at Curtin University and I'd like to pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

David: Now, Rhonda, within your area of research, what would indicate to you in the future that the wellbeing and that education outcomes of Aboriginal youth are improving?

Professor Rhonda Oliver: There'll be a number of measures around this. And I think we will know that we're doing a good job when we have more Aboriginal teachers, when we have more Aboriginal people engaging in the workplace in ways that they want to in jobs – some of which won't exist at the moment – things that they can do, particularly on country. But, I think the main thing is that they feel pride and comfort in who they are. So, one of the key things for me is around their language and language use.

David: And how are we fairing in these indicators?

Professor Rhonda Oliver: Not particularly well at the moment. The reason for this is that a lot of our assessment protocols in schools don't recognise the culturally and linguistic diverse background of many people, including Aboriginal students. And so some of the test questions that are used are just inappropriate. They don't recognise the students' backgrounds. I'll give you an example. In the NAPLAN (Australia's National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) test not so long ago, students were asked to comment about a movie poster and to do a critical analysis of that in the writing test. Many students living in remote communities will have never been to a movie cinema, and then to actually see a poster would be outside their context of experience as well. So, you know, asking somebody to do something that they have no knowledge of is unfair – it's an uneven playing field to be testing students on.

David: Particularly given it is the NAPLAN. It's not meant to be a particularly specialised test.

Professor Rhonda Oliver: And yet it is. And yet it comes with a lot of cultural packaging around that, that makes assumptions that we all, for a start, speak English as our first language, and we don't. Many communities in Western Australia in particular have a diverse range of languages. If we look in the Kimberley, places like Didyadanga have six languages spoken today amongst their students. And English is another language. If we look in the Fitzroy Valley, there's five language groups. So you know, kids are coming to school, not with English as their first and dominant language, but in fact Aboriginal English as their first dialect or a traditional language as their first dialect. Creole is another language. And then they're being tested in English. If I was to turn the tables and test you using Aboriginal English, you probably wouldn't do very well either.

David: No. And that would reflect poorly in my NAPLAN results, not that NAPLAN is meant to be used as an individual –

Professor Rhonda Oliver: It isn't, but it actually gives some –

David: It's a litmus test for everyone.

Professor Rhonda Oliver: It is for everybody and it does give evidence for teachers about what they can do to serve their students' needs. But it's not being used that way. It's often used to say what schools are underachieving, which schools are achieving well, which was never the intent, but that's now how it's being used. We have this unfair playing field. We don't recognise students, the background, the experiences they have. And a lot of teachers in these schools are not necessarily trained in Western Australia. Some of these hard-to-staff schools get teachers from other states in Australia to staff the school and they just don't have the background in terms of Aboriginal education.

David: In terms of the provision of services by the government, there's quite a bit of translation and interpretation into languages spoken by migrants, but not so much in terms of Aboriginal languages.

Professor Rhonda Oliver: I think there's been attempts in a number of places to try and make material more accessible, but for me as an educator, one of the real issues is about using students' full linguistic repertoire in the classroom. And so that's some of the research that I've been doing on translanguaging. We've been recording children around Australia, particularly in Western Australia, and they have remarkable communicative competence. However, it's not necessarily in English. What we need to do is build on that expertise, that knowledge that they do have and bring it into the classroom.

Professor Rhonda Oliver: Again, I've got another example: when we were piloting for the study that I'm doing with staff from Melbourne Uni, ANU (Australian National University), Batchelor Institute (of Indigenous Tertiary Education) and myself here from Curtin, we went to a school in the middle of Australia and this little boy came up to me and asked me in quite standard Australian English, he was about five, 'What are you doing, Miss?' So I explained why we were there and what was happening. And he was really interested and made a few very relevant comments. And then the bell went and he turned to his friend and in very thick Aboriginal English said something like, 'Hey fella, we bing outside n' play'. He switched because the audience had changed. So, very appropriately he'd spoken Aboriginal English to his friend. But then, as he walked outside the door, he ran into his cousin and he switched to one of the traditional languages of that community. So in a space of five minutes, this little boy had moved across three languages, done so appropriately, done so effectively. And yet, I know in a few years when he's tested on NAPLAN, his results won't be as high as those other kids that are living in other parts of Australia who have English as their first language. And yet, how sad because he does bring such a rich resource to his background and what could be built on in schools.

David: So even though he has an objectively better linguistic ability than many of us, that will not be reflected in his results.

Professor Rhonda Oliver: There was a guy called Michael Clyne and he said, 'One of the problems in Australia is the monolingual mindset'. And we really, if you'd like, almost reprimand people for having more than one language. And it's sad because we could actually use these resources in many ways, making workplaces more culturally safe and also richer for others.

Professor Rhonda Oliver: There's a lot of tourism happening where people on country are taking tourists out and informing them about local traditions, about sites to see and about food to eat. The trick is that they can often say it in traditional language, but it's being able to slide across and that's something that we need to do in schools: to develop this full linguistic repertoire. Not in any way detract from them learning standard Australian English, because, for instance, in this tourism situation they need to use that. But, building on what they already have, rather than treating them as a deficit that they don't have language. Yes they do have language, just not English. Building on that, but also getting them to develop the ability, like this little five-year-old had, so that they could move across the place and use it according to audience.

David: And Michael, what would indicate to you that mental health services are becoming more effective?

Dr Michael Wright: In how they are already?

David: If we were to look in in say five, 10 years time, what would be different to now, that would show that the services are becoming more effective?

Dr Michael Wright: I think we can confidently say now that they're not. We have evidence in a number of ways to show that that's the situation as we are currently experiencing in the high rates of suicide and self harm with Aboriginal young people, which are still at unacceptable levels. This includes the Close the Gap report that the Commonwealth Government releases each year, which shows there's very little closing of any gap in terms of the mental health of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in the country. Partly the reason for that is I feel we still have a very Eurocentric view on how we deliver service and thinking 'one size fits all' is usually the current standard stock approach and a reluctance of fail on the part, even though the rhetoric says otherwise, that change invariably doesn't often happen.

Dr Michael Wright: So look, that's not answering fully your question. To go to that question, I think there's a simple answer: give us control to be able to find the solutions ourselves and allow us to implement what we think those solutions would be, and allow us to measure and find our own metrics in how we find those solutions in establishing the impact, but also establishing that there is another way of doing what we want to do. Until that occurs, we will stay mired in this to-ing and fro-ing as we've done in who's blaming who and why the situation is still as it is.

Professor Rhonda Oliver: Yeah.

David: Rhonda, you mentioned earlier translanguaging. What exactly is 'translanguaging' and why is it so important?

Professor Rhonda Oliver: Well, in the past people would often talk about 'code switching' and that's moving from one language to another. But, if you listen to people who are multilingual, they don't actually just speak only in this language and then they switch and speak only in that other language. Very recently, I was with the previous Head of School of Education from Curtin and she was on Skype to her mother. When they were speaking about food, they spoke Italian. When they were talking about what was happening today, they moved to English. And then when they were talking about a family member, they switched to Italian again. But this slipping and sliding is what proficient, multilingual people do. Code switching treats them as separate entities that have no influence on each other. And yet our brains aren't set up that way: if we are multilingual, we have these different places where we hold these languages. We have this common underlying proficiency where we understand things and what we do is access that from different linguistic and cultural perspectives.

Professor Rhonda Oliver: The other difference about code switching compared to translanguaging is code switching often actually means 'I want you to switch to my language'. So I'm the dominant language speaker. You switch and speak to me in my language. In schools, we often have people teach just to code switch. What that really means is just teach them to speak English, and sure they can use their own language or Aboriginal English at home or out in the playground, but in the classroom it's English. Yet, there's so much knowledge that's held; it just might not be in English. So, allowing them to move fluidly and use words that suit them doesn't mean the teacher has to use that language. In fact, it's really good to provide models of standard Australian English.

Professor Rhonda Oliver: Recently, I was on a Bush walk with little kids and one of them said pointed and said, 'Bulla bulla'. And I was like, 'Oh, what's "bulla bulla"?'. And they said, 'Oh, bulla bulla is snake'. And I said, 'Oh, bulla bulla means snake'. 'Yes'. So it wasn't about me making them leave their own language, but use that in a context to make meaning. And that's what good teaching is about: is making things understandable and allowing them to share their understandings with teachers. So code switching takes away from this sort of black and white view of the world, rather allows this fluidity around language use. One of my colleagues at Batchelor, Robin Ober in her PhD talked about slipping and sliding, because that's what a lot of Aboriginal people do. Linguistically, they often grow up multilingually.

David: And even if you're monolingual, that's not too dissimilar to how people change the way that they speak, depending on different contexts.

Professor Rhonda Oliver: That's right. So, as a monolingual person, we often have different registers. We wouldn't speak to our grandmother the same way that we would speak to our partners, for instance. We change. The difference is somebody who has a variety of languages or dialects can draw on all of those. And that really reflects what happens in traditional Aboriginal societies because I'm not sure that you are aware, but in many communities you weren't allowed to marry up, to partner with somebody from your own language group. It was a way to keep the genetics safe. The mother and father would have two different languages and that meant that the child of that union would have access to both their parents' languages. But that also means that their grandparents also had different languages. So, a child growing up in a traditional Aboriginal society would be exposed to four or more languages just within that network. And knowing that the family unit in Aboriginal society is different, the way that the non-Aboriginal people conceive it. So, you know, they are exposed to a broad range of languages. And what we're saying in this translanguaging space is 'Let's build upon those skills'. Rather than seeing Aboriginal language speakers as having a problem, being deficient, we're saying 'This is wonderful, let's celebrate this and use this in our teaching'.

David: Michael, how does cultural safety affect mental health outcomes and what needs to be done to improve mental health services?

Dr Michael Wright: Cultural safety is paramount as you'd expect it to be. Unfortunately, I feel that it's become somewhat overused and perhaps oftentimes misunderstood in what that actually means. There's a book about to be released by a journalist who [has chronicled the world's environmental crisis and] has got a quote from a First Nation Native American Cherokee man, who rather succinctly and very eloquently, says that the European settler mindset is 'I have rights', whereas the Indigenous mindset is 'I have obligations': obligations to family, obligations to country and invariably obligations to the planet.

Dr Michael Wright: That goes to the core of it. And if we're talking cultural safety, if you don't have an understanding of where your own worldview is, then you're not going to understand anyone else's worldview. And I think in the West, the dominant view is that it's the right view and that to integrate another view is wrong. What we need to look at really seriously is how sustaining that Western Eurocentric worldview is in the safety of all of us, the planet included, and the populations as included. There's lots to talk about there. If you're working with an Aboriginal client, you shouldn't say the best treatment is 'Do X, Y, Z. Tick these boxes'. You need to reflect on how your worldview is interacting with this other worldview and how he's making judgment of this other worldview. Because, that's what we're doing unconsciously and subconsciously all the time.

David: This sort of institutional mindset of of rights versus obligations and of not truly understanding the cultural mindset – how has this manifested in the situation that we're in where mental health services just aren't really working?

Dr Michael Wright: I think what goes to the core of it. There's a lack of seeing that the obligation it's not about what's good for me, but it's also how all impact on that community I live in. The kinship system is such an a very complex set of arrangements and unless you understand who has reciprocity to whom, it's a strange idea. It doesn't fit in with different worldviews, European worldviews, as I referred to.

David: This is a very individualistic mindset.

Dr Michael Wright: Totally, totally. And it's not just about sharing of that on a physical level, but sharing of ideas and sharing of views. And even this notion of holding people through grief and how people are held through all manner of situations and circumstances, transitions in their life is such an important part of holding culture together. And if that's not understood in a way it's meant to be, then you have these problems as I refer to. I think what we're trying to do is oversimplify what cultural safety is and we've come to these problems. Sometimes a little bit of knowledge is somewhat more problematic than having a lot.

Professor Rhonda Oliver: And can I jump in here because something that you asked previously (prior to the recording) is whether we should change signs in institutions so that everybody can understand it, well that's not simple, because within one community there will be different ways of speaking according to your kinship and who you're talking to. I love in some communities that son-in-laws can't speak directly to their mother-in-law. And I did hear a story where somebody did have to travel in the car together so they put a mattress between them so that they wouldn't have to interact. And it's a simple thing. But by then saying, 'Oh, in hospitals, if we just translate the signs, everything will be fine', what you're not unpicking is the foundation underneath that. That language is more than just a direct translation. It comes with all this worldview and understandings that we can't necessarily have. And that's why I come back to why translanguaging so important to give due credence to speakers and what languages they already have.

Dr Michael Wright: The official statistics from the Bureau (Australian Bureau of Statistics) make for pretty appalling reading. Thirty-three per cent of Indigenous people aged 15 to 24 said the most common place they experienced unfair treatment was in an educational setting as opposed to by the police or at home, at work or even by members of the public. Why is this?

Professor Rhonda Oliver: Well, I think it's some of those attitudes. I think it's some of the worldviews. People like to blame universities – that we don't train our teachers well enough for this. But people have to be receptive and willing to take onboard other ways of being and knowing and our curriculum doesn't encompass that. So, what we perceive as equal opportunities actually sometimes negate somebody's right to their cultural background. And, I'm not criticising this particular teacher because I'm sure the intent was a good one, but, in a remote community this teacher came and looked at the national curriculum, had to talk about endangered animals. So, he did a lesson on pandas. I'm sorry, that sticks in my mind. It was such a struggle to observe, where I wanted to say was, 'They could probably teach you more about endangered animals than you will ever know. Why don't you take the kids outside and get them to talk about the great knowledge they already have about the animals that live near to them?' So, I think it's beyond just a policy statement; it's around actually our willingness to open our minds and hearts to different ways of being.

Dr Michael Wright: Yeah, I think that's a great example. What we heard there in that story is an amazing disconnect to where I am – firstly, physically, I'm not in China – but like in this country, which in itself is experiencing a mass extinction of species. And this lack of awareness or lack of understanding or even a willingness to say to someone, 'I can't put myself in a situation where I'm vulnerable'. The problem with university education, whether it's in education, medicine, whatever, is that we inadvertently, whether consciously or unconsciously, believe we're special and that the knowledge we're accumulating makes us some kind of an expert. To walk away from being that expert is a huge thing. Age again plays a part in all of that. But my sense to this is also that White Australia has not made its peace with Aboriginal people, still. And I mean we talk about reconciliation, we talk a whole number of things that have happened, but truly that's all at a policy level, senior and otherwise. We really haven't come to that point where we truly want to meet and join with Aboriginal people in relationships that are on an equal standing. So, we'll always have this situation where these experts go to a community that hasn't experienced modernity and is not entirely unchanged from how it was 200 or 300 years ago, where people still practice what they do, it's still seen and viewed in ways through a prism that's –

David: They're seen as 'those people'. They're 'The Other'. They're 'not the same as us'.

Dr Michael Wright: Well, it's not just 'those people'. There's an Afro-American writer named 'James Jones'. I read him extensively when I was writing my PhD. He talks about a notion of cultural racism, of viewing culture through this lens of being deficient, of viewing culture as not being at the same level or standard as someone else's culture. We love Aboriginal culture when it's portrayed as paintings and whatever. But when we start talking about other cultural activities, we portray it as somewhat deviant or we pathologise culture in ways that we hear on the radio and other forms of the media. So there is still this real juxtaposition, this tension, if you like, in Australia, that we haven't fully resolved. When we will resolve it? I was listening to RN (ABC Radio National) last night to a program called 'The Drawing Room'. I implore everyone to listen to that. The host asked an Aboriginal novelist whether we will ever get to a point where we have full reconciliation. She said that, 'Yes we will. We must', but maybe not in her lifetime. And I include my own lifetime, but we will get there. But Australians will have to grow in their own maturity before that can happen. We're still very immature in these forms of relationships that are so important if we're going to move to that space.

Professor Rhonda Oliver: And it's beyond culture, it's around language as well. And, I hate to just put my point of view in there, but –.

David: No, no, please do.

Professor Rhonda Oliver: Because it's not just cultural racism, it's linguistic racism too. So when I go out and speak to some of the kids, I say, you know, 'What language do you speak?' And they'll say, 'Oh, I speak "Rubbish Talk", miss'. And I'm appalled that they think the name for Aboriginal English is 'Rubbish Talk'. That's come through generations where people would be saying things like, 'Oh, you just "talk rubbish"'. And so they now use in a number of places, that term 'Rubbish Talk' to refer to Aboriginal English. Aboriginal English is as sophisticated, grammatically complex as standard Australian English. It's just a different dialect in the way that Scottish English is a different dialect. But, we don't hear people – well, we do hear comedians making fun of different accents and sometimes some of the words people use – but they don't denigrate a whole linguistic code such as Aboriginal English by calling it 'Rubbish Talk'. And yet these kids... Can you imagine growing up and believing the language you speak as your first is 'Rubbish Talk'? It's appalling. We've got a long way to go and part of the way we do that I know in education is in embracing all linguistic codes and the culture that underpins them.

David: Well, I think we'll have to call it time now. Thank you Rhonda and Michael for sharing your knowledge on this topic. Before we go, remember that if you feel like you could use some support, you can phone Lifeline anytime on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636. You’ve been listening to The Future Of, a podcast powered by Curtin University. If you have questions about today’s topic, please feel free to get in touch, by following the links in the show notes. Bye for now.