‘I expected to come back from Yarrabah with loads of paperwork and ideas about programming. But that didn’t really happen. What we came back with was a deeply spiritual and emotional understanding that has been infinitely more useful.’
Allison Sullings, Senior Manager Children’s Programs at Belconnen Community Service believes educators can enrich their program by drawing on community knowledge and forming respectful relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Owners, groups or co-operatives.
The year 2012 was a big year for the sector and the journey Lauren Kapper, our team at Belconnen Early Childhood Centre and I embarked on to develop a more culturally diverse and inclusive curriculum was profound, encompassing our organisational values: curiosity, courage, integrity and individuality.
During a cultural awareness workshop, one of our educators talked to the facilitator about drawing on the knowledge and expertise of our community to enrich our program. He wasn’t from Canberra originally and suggested we contact a preschool that his children used to attend in Cairns.
We struck up a special friendship with Boopa Werem Kindergarten and Preschool in Cairns that extended to the educators, children, families and community. The children shared stories and photos via post and email, and had a ball getting to know each other. My colleague Carol and I were lucky enough to spend four days at Boopa Werem, furthering our understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing and being.
While there we met Aunty Maureen, an assistant educator at the service, who drove us to Yarrabah State School pre-prep for a day. Yarrabah is a remote Aboriginal community less than an hour out of Cairns.
The children were so welcoming and excited to see us. We took a tour of the service which was really well resourced and learnt about their outdoor space. After spending the day at the pre-prep we had fish and chips by the beach with Aunty Maureen where she spoke about her experiences growing up, being part of the Stolen Generation. It was something I’ll never forget.
I expected to come back with loads of paperwork and ideas about programming and things we could implement and teach the children. But that didn’t really happen. What we came back with was a deeply spiritual and emotional understanding that has been infinitely more useful.
When I reflect, developing this understanding was central to our cultural competence journey and I encourage other educators to engage with their indigenous community. Understanding this passion will help you to share it with your colleagues and children. Furthering your own understanding brings a richness and authenticity to the programs you develop.
How did we embed it in our practice? Our goal was to make our new-found understanding something that we would do and value every day.
Acknowledgment of Country
One thing that our educators often speak about in the preschool room is the Acknowledgment of Country, including what it means, why people say it, who says it and the importance that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people place around the environment, the land and the care for country.
“We wish to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on today.
We wish to acknowledge and respect their continuing culture, and the contribution they make to the life of this city, and this region.
We would also like to acknowledge and welcome other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who may be attending today.”
The children in the preschool room not only learn the wording but are developing an understanding of its meaning. They also learn important concepts such as what a custodian is, what tradition is, and what Ngunnawal means.
As educators we understand how important it is to build relationships in the community and keep them strong.
We met Tyronne Bell, an advocate for the recognition of Aboriginal culture and language, and founder of Thunderstone Aboriginal Cultural & Land Management Services, on a local bush walk. He now visits three long day care centres in our organisation each month, sharing artefacts and stories about hunting and gathering, and leading activities like basket weaving and painting. It’s quite interactive as he invites the children to touch and experience each object, to talk about it and to share their thoughts.
For National Tree Week, we invited Adam Shipp, an indigenous restoration officer with Greening Australia, to build a bush tucker garden with the children. The children learnt about the different medicinal use of native plants and which ones you can eat – they loved it.
Last year we organised a National Sorry Day ceremony in the local park with the children, children’s families and community members. Tyronne’s mother, Aunty Ruth, and his sister attended. Aunty Ruth gave the Welcome to Country, followed by the children’s Acknowledgment of Country. It was a special day, with damper, stories and songs. Aunty Ruth spoke about her experience being part of the Stolen Generation and was gracious that our centre had made a commitment to respect that time in Australia’s history. The day was a real highlight for me; to see how far we’d come on our journey and the community recognising and celebrating our country’s history and cultural identity.
Lauren Kapper (now Director at Belconnen Early Childhood Centre), the team and I have created lasting, positive, respectful relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the community. Drawing on their knowledge and expertise has enriched our learning program and furthered our understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing and being. We’d like to encourage educators to attend events in their community and to know that there are so many people out there to meet and learn from.