Improving engagement with Indigenous communities starts in our schools

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

NAIDOC Week 2022 is upon us, and this year’s theme of Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up! has me thinking about how we can support the next generation of Indigenous youth to shine. 

Celebrations like these are an excellent reminder that we all have a role to play in connecting with Australia’s Indigenous past, present and future and, indeed, in improving outcomes for our Indigenous communities. But, of course, change isn’t achieved in a single week. It’s the result of years of hard work and collaboration between communities. 

To achieve long-term sustainable outcomes for all Australians, I believe change must start in our schools. And today, I want to recognise the achievements of our Aboriginal Youth Leadership Program, which is contributing toward this important goal.   

Delivered in three Orange-based schools, the program supports Indigenous students to explore their post-school options while connecting to culture and community.

Supporting Indigenous students to walk in two worlds

For Indigenous students, being part of a school community means they must walk in two worlds every day, finding ways to blend their long-standing traditional culture with the dominant one in their environment, and this is not without challenges.

Proud Dunghutti and Anaiwan man Andrew Olsen summarised it well for KPMG, saying, “for most Indigenous people operating in two worlds is something that we have grown accustomed to doing. We understand that both worlds overlap, however, both worlds are never truly aligned. We often feel that we are in a constant battle going back and forwards in order to feel that we fit in.”

Led by proud Wiradjuri woman Mary Croaker, VERTO’s Aboriginal Youth Program aims to help young people address these challenges. The program immerses students in Aboriginal culture while also supporting them to remain engaged in education and subsequently achieve their full potential in further education or employment.

Alongside supporting them with their studies, Mary leads students in a variety of cultural activities, such as painting and dance, and the program culminates each year in a much-loved NAIDOC ball where students celebrate the achievements of their peers both academically and sporting. They also take time to reflect on the year and to celebrate their culture.

Increasing cultural understanding amongst non-Indigenous students

The program also aims to increase understanding of Aboriginal Culture amongst non-Indigenous students. Students participating in the program are given opportunities to showcase their culture to the broader school community and open up channels for discussion.

These opportunities also help Indigenous students to communicate pride in their culture, a great confidence-builder that can help the students in all areas of their lives.

For me, increasing understanding of Indigenous culture is a key tenet to improving outcomes in the long term. I’m proud to be part of an organisation that is playing a role in progressing the conversation.

Engaging students’ families

Since its inception, a key objective of the program has been to find ways to engage parents, carers and families in the program so they can support and encourage their child’s educational journey. This goal was recently realised with the innovative ‘Tidda’ Tradies program, Tidda meaning ‘sister’ in the Wiradjuri language.

Delivered in conjunction with Orange Women’s Shed, the students’ mothers are invited to participate in a range of workshops on home maintenance, learning a range of skills such as hanging pictures, painting a wall or fixing a door. This is about more than DIY skills, too. It’s about meeting like-minded people and creating a community of local women who can support their children and each other, addressing challenges and celebrating successes.

Improving outcomes for the next generation

So, as I reflect on NAIDOC Week 2022, I think of Aunty Mary and her students. These young people are tomorrow’s leaders who will play an important role in carving a path for future generations.   

I know I speak for the entire VERTO team when I say how proud we are to deliver the Aboriginal Youth Leadership Program. We can’t wait to see what’s next as these students forge ahead, getting up, standing up and showing up.