Learning from home has new meaning

Thursday, 24 September 2020

OPINION: By Jake MacDonald, proud Ngarabal man and Indigenous Executive Support and Engagement Officer at the University of Newcastle

Profile image of Jake MacDonald
Jake MacDonald, proud Ngarabal man and Indigenous Executive Support and Engagement Officer

In these unusual times, it seems hard to imagine overseas travel being a possibility. Perhaps, you could cast your mind back to a time where travelling to foreign countries was a reality and being in unfamiliar places, wasn’t so unfamiliar. It can feel isolating to walk the streets of a place where the language spoken is not your own. Your brain is unable to decode the words spoken in order for you to know what is being said, you can hear but you do not know. There is a difference between hearing and understanding.

A parallel can be drawn here for people who walk on country in Australia. This is not in reference to understanding languages, rather valuing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges.

Many of us travel overseas to these unfamiliar places hoping to gain a better understanding of the local people, their lives and what it might feel like to like to call this new destination home. When travelling, it is commonplace to go on tours, chat to the locals and participate in some form of cultural immersion.

Why is it that many people are willing to hear about the history, traditions, and perspective of other people around the globe, though we seldom take time to learn from the first people of our own country?

In the Newcastle area alone, we have an abundance of knowledgeable, engaging, and passionate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are willing to educate others in a culturally appropriate manner. Murrook Cultural Centre, Hunter Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG), Wakagetti Indigenous Corporation (WIC), Local Aboriginal Land Councils (LALC), Speaking in Colour and Yamuloong are only a few organisations who work in the field of developing the cultural knowledge of all people.

When someone develops their cultural understanding, they are able to move beyond understanding cultural difference, to recognising the factors that produce and maintain inequalities. The University of Newcastle continues to make great steps in creating a culturally responsive environment for students, staff, and community.

The University will be releasing a Cultural Capability Framework later this year which was co-designed with key university and community stakeholders aimed at enriching the organisation with diverse perspectives and knowledge. Supporting the framework will be professional development opportunities for staff to go on country and learn from local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and hear a perspective that they otherwise may not have. Culturally capable staff create an environment that positively influences our students, who in their personal and professional lives grow and sustain our communities. The students of today will be the leaders of tomorrow.

The signs are encouraging, larger organisations are beginning to engage with Reconciliation Australia to create and implement Reconciliation Action Plans. These plans need to act as a vehicle for change, rather than a document with beautiful imagery, but hollow statements. At the core of reconciliation is developing the cultural understanding of all employees, with the impetus on deeper cultural knowledge being the agent of change in behaviour.

Listening to cultural practitioners will give you an insight to how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may view the world. If you are willing to learn, you can see your community from a new perspective. The next time you look out over the harbour at Nobbys Headland, go swimming at Redhead Beach, drive past the Stockton Sand Dunes, ride your bike through Glenrock Reserve or stand atop of Mount Sugarloaf, you will see these places differently. You may feel a stronger connection to this country, and hopefully you will have a deeper respect for the people who have, and continue to, take care of this place.

Historically, the cultural knowledge of Australia’s First People has not been held in high regard by those who write educational curriculum. History has been viewed through a particular lens that does not paint an accurate picture of our traditional custodians. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural knowledge has the ability to add value to all people in society, not only in our understanding but also in our practices. I believe we are beginning to acknowledge this truth and as a unified country we can continue to learn together.

I encourage you to engage with a variety of valid and reliable sources. If you are looking to gain a better understanding of Indigenous knowledges, I suggest reading Tyson Yunkaporta’s book Sand Talk- How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World.

We are all responsible for looking after this country, we all have a role to play. The country and its First People are speaking, please take the time to listen and learn.

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The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.