Indigenous Literacy Day: Not just about the books

Indigenous Literacy Project development facilitator Debra Dank

Today, thousands of school children, together with hundreds of bookshops and publishers, libraries and organisations around Australia will celebrate the fourth Indigenous Literacy Day.

To date, the annual event has raised more than $800,000 since its first national fundraising day in 2006, and the involvement of remote Indigenous communities has grown—from the three communities originally involved in 2004 to 160 this year.

As awareness of and involvement in the annual event grows, the ways in which the Indigenous Literacy Project (ILP) is supporting literacy development in remote Indigenous communities is also expanding and adapting.

‘ILP is developing an ear for hearing the needs of communities where it works,’ says Indigenous Literacy Project development facilitator Debra Dank, based in Darwin. ‘The Buzz Books program and the Community Identified Projects are responding to those heard needs.’

‘In [Book] Buzz, ILP provides sets of twelve books as resources but then works to build community ownership,’ she says. In the case of Warburton, a remote community in Western Australia, Dank and colleague Maddy Bower worked with elders in the community to include local translations, stickered into the books.

‘The real sense of involvement and participation which community people can feel is significant to the overall rollout of the project and creates a unique and distinct Buzz face at each project site,’ says Dank.

Community identified projects

Other Community Identified Projects (CIPs) include support for the Junjuwa Women’s Centre in Fitzroy Crossing, the GurrindinDalmi Community in Katherine; a Maningrida book project with award-winning author Leonie Norrington, support for the Central Australian Honey Ant Readers and the Barkly Tablelands Ringers Project.

‘Several of this year’s CIP’s do not have an obvious literacy look but they are creating an environment where SAE literacy and language acquisition can grow,’ explains Dank. ‘Contexts which articulate purpose and need for SAE literacy acquisition.’

‘These projects are important in that they are what the communities have identified as being important and a priority for them,’ says Dank. ‘It is always important when working in a community development capacity that there is an ability to listen and that the local perspectives of needs are respected. Locally based community people are always best placed to articulate their needs.’

For Dank, this willingness on the part of the ILP to listen to local needs is one of the most important aspects of the project—as is the willingness to steadily (and sometimes slowly) build and strengthen relationships with the communities involved, rather than making the mistakes of many ‘fly-in, fly-out’ outsiders. ‘Many communities are bombarded with fly in fly out visitors,’ she says. ‘The need to develop and sustain a long-term rapport/relationship with the community is key to the success of any project. It gives community members an opportunity to form an understanding of the type of person and thus the type of service they are likely to receive and if this is something which will benefit the community.’

The project’s role in cultural exchange

Another area where Dank see’s ‘huge possibilities’ for the ILP is in its role in facilitating cultural exchange between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. A small step in this direction is the role of books written by Indigenous students in workshops with popular children’s author Andy Griffiths and then shared more widely—books featuring stories of life that can be quite different from those familiar to non-Indigenous Australians.

The narrative skills in these books should not come as a surprise; nor should the proficiency of Indigenous students in other forms of ‘literacy’. ‘The cross over between black and white culture and community, which Indigenous Australians are continuously expected to [adjust to] means that adaptation is a very real skill for Indigenous Australians,’ says Dank. ‘Our kids may have some trouble reading books but they are experts at reading their environment, they may not speak SAE [Standard Australian English] but they articulate their needs brilliantly within our own languages.’

Dank acknowledges that the ILP has a role to play in ensuring these skills are recognized in the wider community. ‘Let’s build acknowledgement and respect for Indigenous kids as capable learners,’ she says. ‘Let’s build that through a new dialogue which recognises differences as differences and not as deficiencies.’

[On Indigenous Literacy Day 2009 I spoke to Dank about Indigenous languages and how these interact with students' acquisition of Standard Australian English literacy, for an article that appeared in Crikey and can be found online here. Dank will appear at an event with author David Malouf at the New South Wales National Library tonight, details online here.]