Communist Party of Australia

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Issue #1548      23 May 2012

Yes I can!

First Aboriginal graduates in Cuban literacy Campaign

“I don’t think there is any greater gift that you can give to a person than to assist them in becoming literate. I think it is one of the greatest gifts you can pass onto people,” Jack Beetson told The Guardian. Beetson is local project leader for an Aboriginal adult literacy Campaign being piloted in the NSW town Wilcannia, using the Cuban, Yes I Can (Yo Si Puedo) model. Tuesday May 8 was an exciting day for the local community when the first 10 students proudly graduated after 13 weeks of study.

Cuban Ambassador Pedro Monzón came to Wilcannia for the graduation. In a short speech he spoke about the achievements in literacy following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, “One of the many measures to bring justice to our people was the campaign for literacy of around 40 percent of the population in 1961.

“Then, we, professors, workers and primary and secondary students all went voluntarily to the countryside or workplaces in the city, in order to teach peasants and workers. I had the opportunity of being one of them when I was still a kid, as the majority of the literacy teachers then,” Monzón said.

“The principle was to live and work with the peasants and at the same time teach them amid difficult living conditions which us, children from the cities, never knew before.”

During that year, Cuba achieved almost 100 percent literacy and has since then assisted millions of people in other countries to gain not only literacy but medical and other training.

Monzón outlined the basic principles that have made the program so successful. These include the Cuban advisers mixing with the local population as equals, training of local facilitators, sharing living conditions and culture with local communities, and giving of individualised care.

All of these principles are central to the Yes I Can Campaign in Wilcannia. Cuban adviser José Chala “fitted in really well out here and the community took him into their hearts pretty quickly. He spends a lot of time with the local community, the students, the facilitators. It has been a pretty big learning experience for him, but he has a lot of support. People are looking after him pretty well,” Beetson told The Guardian.

Wilcannia is a community of about 500 people in the relatively remote north west of NSW. Around 80-90 percent of its population are Aboriginal. “Literacy is probably no more or less an issue here than in most other Aboriginal communities. Generally speaking you will find that in many Aboriginal communities, there’s up to 40 or 50 percent of adults who are functionally illiterate.”

Bob Boughton, from the University of New England, is the overall project manager. He was involved in monitoring and evaluating the Yes I Can adult literacy Campaign in Timor-Leste with Beetson which has had great results. So they began investigating the feasibility of a national Aboriginal literacy campaign in Australia, Boughton told The Guardian. “The model is quite different to the usual education model. It is a campaign approach mobilising the community.”

A national Aboriginal Adult Literacy Commission to oversee the Campaign Pilot Project was established with Donna Ah Chee (CEO of National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation) appointed as the Chairperson. After many months of discussion they were successful in gaining support for a pilot project from the federal government with financial assistance from several government departments, namely Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

Beetson is a member of the National Aboriginal Adult Literacy Commission and acting CEO of the local Aboriginal Land Council, both of which are involved in facilitating the program. Chala, who was brought to Australia by the University of New England, is presently on secondment to the Campaign.

Mobilising the community

“Almost every house with an Aboriginal person living in it was surveyed to see how people felt and what their literacy needs were. So we determined that there was a need for it, people became part of it and took ownership of it,” Beetson said.

“You deal with any issues or prejudices that people might have, before you begin doing what you do. Otherwise it doesn’t work. It’s certainly not sustainable if you just come in with a caravan and say we are here to do this. That simply doesn’t work.”

Beetson, who has had considerable experience as an Aboriginal educator, including at Tranby Aboriginal College in Glebe, Sydney, emphasised the importance of mobilising the community and their ownership of the Campaign.

“In terms of accepting someone in, the whole Campaign is about mobilising the community and that was all done prior to anything happening. It was about mobilising the community about the importance of having a literate adult population. So at the end of the day, it was a real community development approach which has been lacking in terms of Aboriginal communities for a long time.

“When we launched the Campaign there were over 300 people in the park celebrating the launch of it. So it wasn’t about having speeches ... . The whole idea was about celebrating the start of the Campaign. The whole community was behind it to begin with.

“Right from the very beginning the community knew it would be local people that would be employed mostly – a minimum of five local people got jobs as facilitators and another four or five got jobs on a casual basis. So at the end of the day it brought quite a lot of employment to the town as well ... .”

Local women are playing a large role in the Campaign. The literacy campaign co-ordinator Jennelle King is a local; in fact two of the facilitators are women. Wilcannia Central School under the leadership of its principal Michelle Nicholson, is a partner in the Campaign, along with the Lowitja Institute and its chair Pat Anderson. A majority of the students in the first intake were also women.

Ownership of program

“When you go to TAFE, you go on your own, there is no community encouraging you and supporting you to keep going. The success of the program, I believe of any program, is how strongly you can mobilise the community behind the idea.

“If you don’t, they don’t own it. It’s somebody else, whether it’s me or somebody else bringing it to town, if you actually don’t mobilise the community behind it, then the minute you leave it just dies.”

They spent three months doing the groundwork before the Campaign launch and start of classes.

“Chala basically works with the local facilitators; we’d rather use the word facilitators than teachers. He trained them. We’d work with them on the kind of language that should be used so that it was familiar to them.” Yes I Can uses videos, handbooks and other materials.

As the Cuban Ambassador said in his speech at the graduation ceremony: “The advisors give training to facilitators of the local community and rely on them as monitors of the program and as promoters, capable of maintaining the retention of students and give individualised care to all of them. It is an authentic social work.”

When the first class started the four local facilitators “had taken ownership, they were in control,” Beetson said. “That’s what makes it work. They had forgotten that we were part of the program, they had already taken ownership of it.

“As a community development worker, I guess that’s your lifelong dream to be able to do that.”

The Ambassador emphasised that Yes I Can is not limited to teaching reading and writing. “It integrates educational, social and cultural components with the learning process of reading and writing, and the framework of the teachings is referred to the cultural and social interest of the local people. The system is adapted to local needs and idiosyncrasy.” This is certainly an important feature of the Wilcannia pilot.

The students attended classes for two hours a day Monday to Wednesday for 13 weeks. Technically the teaching model uses a simple method moving from letters to words to sentences and draws on the numeracy skills of students by making associations between numbers and words.

Post literacy activities

The students gave a variety of reasons for taking part in the Campaign. Some wanted to be able to help their kids, one wanted to be an activist, to have a better understanding to do this, and some just wanted to be able to read.

“The thing with this program, the key to its success, is the post-literacy activities after they do their 13 weeks. This is where you pull on all your partners in town, every agency, the police, all the government and non-government agencies in the town, signed up supporters of the Campaign. We literally have got almost everybody backing it, supporting it, encouraging people into it.

“They will probably be going on to different levels of literacy at least to begin with. Some have chosen that they want to do stuff with computers and get an email address and do some training in that as part of their post-literacy program.

“Some are going to work experience in government agency offices as receptionists. Anything that causes them to use what they have learnt. The only places in the world where this has not worked is where post-literacy was not part of the Campaign.”

Importance of literacy

The Cuban model has been used in around 30 countries with a phenomenal rate of success. “If you have literate adult communities, truancy will become less, it might not totally diminish but the kids will go to school once adults understand the benefits of literacy and education, they are more inclined to encourage their kids to go to school. Crime rates dropped, health rates improved, around the world,” Beetson said.

“No matter where you have an adult literacy campaign all of those things that are so measurable just stand out. So the data is there to back all of this up.”

Beetson pointed to the success of the Cuban Campaign, 50 years ago. “For a longitudinal study, you can’t go much better than that.

“The key for this program is the model of literacy; it makes illiteracy the problem of the literate, not the illiterate ... . It certainly works.

“What you would hope is that the consequence of the program being a success that it won’t have to continue. The parents will encourage the kids. You are really avoiding another generation or generations of illiterate. That’s why I mentioned Cuba 50 years ago.”

“If a program like this can work in Wilcannia, the hope is that it will be rolled out in other Aboriginal communities ... hopefully going a long way towards reducing illiteracy in the Aboriginal adult population or in fact wiping it out,” Beetson concluded.  

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