Marking Sorry Day 2021, Wesley Enoch AM, QUT Indigenous Chair in the Creative Industries, playwright, and artistic director, says more can be done to bridge the gap between graduation and meaningful employment for Indigenous Australians.
“Saying sorry is important but actions speak louder than words in giving Indigenous Australians the recognition we deserve and have waited 250 years for,” said Mr Enoch.
“This is where education can play an enormous role in shifting perceptions of all Australians and facilitating systemic change to reflect the needs of everyone, from the cities and suburbs to remote communities.
“Education is the path out of poverty. In the past 20 years we have seen greater inclusion of Indigenous Australian languages and cultural perspectives in curriculum and school community engagement.
“For years people have attacked the ‘special treatment’ of Indigenous students, but the numbers speak for themselves. Year 12 attainment rates for Indigenous kids have jumped almost 20% in the past 10 years alone.
“Now we need to see a greater focus on traineeships, apprenticeships and university graduate programs, along with an increase in the number of Indigenous teachers, university lecturers and researchers.”
Mr Enoch drew upon the experiences of his family and what education has represented to them.
“It’s been 20 years since we walked over bridges, signed petitions and wrote sorry in the sky, over 10 years since we promised to close the gap, 30 years since we held a Royal commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody and 30 years since Yothu Yindi went to number one with Treaty,” he said.
“Yet our request for a constitutionally enshrined voice to oversee our sovereign rights is met with political obstruction.
“To stop from losing hope, I focus on the positive stories of change in my own family. Education has given us choices and the power to make change on our own terms.
“My parents married in the year of the 1967 Referendum, a white woman from Inala and a black man from Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island). Both my grandfathers came home from WWII but the world treated them differently on their return.
“My father was one of 13 children. He finished his formal education at the age of 10 and went to work with my grandfather test drilling and surveying the island for the sanding mining operation.
“Despite a love of reading, he had very few choices, working manual jobs for most of his life as a dozer driver and plant operator until his death at the age of 65. He and mum were determined that we kids should have full access to education.
“The 1970s also brought changes in government policies to encourage Indigenous kids to stay at school. We had help to buy textbooks, school shoes and uniforms, go to school camps, get tutoring and counselling if needed.”
Mr Enoch and his sister Leeanne (now QLD Minister for Communities and Housing, Digital Economy, and the Arts) were the first in the family to go to university, with both graduating from QUT. Younger brothers took up trade apprenticeships.
“When we finished high school, universities were actively recruiting and supporting Indigenous students. When I graduated, I went into an Indigenous traineeship with CONTACT youth theatre working with Indigenous kids in the suburbs, in prisons, in rural and remote areas,” he said.
“My siblings and cousins are now politicians, policemen, university lecturers, childcare workers, park rangers, soldiers, arts managers, carers and much more. Education has given us those opportunities.”
Mr Enoch said QUT had an impressive record of supporting First Nations students and was above the national average for Indigenous student enrolments across all university courses, covering both undergraduate and post-graduate.
“QUT has 22 Indigenous-specific scholarship options, the well-established Oodgeroo Unit, the Carumba Institute, an Elder-In-Residence (Uncle Cheg), a First Nations Institute and more,” he said.
“I’d like to see this kind of inclusiveness extend throughout our education system from the start.
“Positive steps include initiatives like Logan Together, where wrap around services focus on the development of young kids, along with scholarships and exchange programs in high schools, and the amazing array of university recruitment and retention programs that are seeing thousands of Indigenous people graduating every year.
“Now we need to make sure those graduations translate into meaningful employment and career opportunities.”