MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—In a bright classroom in a ritzy Melbourne neighbourhood, a school staffer is asking 20 Indigenous Australian students what they’ll do if — and when — they face racism.
“What happens if someone calls you black?” asks Michelle Kerrin, who herself is Indigenous.
One student shouts they’d tell the teacher. One makes a smacking gesture, as though they’d slap the person, prompting laughter. One pipes up: but we are black.
“Yeah. You should be proud if someone calls you that,” Kerrin says to the last student. The room falls silent. “Don’t let anyone bring you down for that.”
This tableau — the back-and-forth between kids and an adult preparing them for their future — is representative of why the kids are there in the first place. They’re learning the tools they’ll need to step from one world, their home Indigenous community, into another — one filled with tall buildings, multiculturalism, traffic and, in some cases, ignorance and racism.
The students are all Indigenous, age 12 or 13, from communities — many of them remote — in Australia’s Northern Territory or suburban communities around the state of Victoria, which includes Melbourne. They’ve all been awarded scholarships to board and study at the Melbourne Indigenous Transition School, more commonly known as MITS, located in the city’s Richmond neighbourhood, for one year. After that, they’ll be offered scholarships to attend an MITS partner school in the city or surrounding area to continue their education.
Why the school exists is both simple and complicated.
Simply, the school exists to help students adjust to life in a new place. As for the complicated: it also exists to address gaps in an education system some say is inherently biased and leaves Indigenous students at an immeasurable disadvantage, and to serve as a bridge between a sometimes flawed public school system and a sometimes flawed private school system.
I’m in Melbourne to examine different models of Indigenous education in Australia. I’m looking specifically at MITS, a school that requires children to leave homes and communities, but which maintains that connection to culture and family remain students’ greatest strength. Last week, I reported on two Innu communities in Labrador, where school board leaders are focused on reconnecting students with land, tradition and language. In both places, I’m asking: what paths exist to Indigenous student success and what are the pros and cons with each model?
Attending MITS means kids must leave home, something students say they wanted to do because schoolwork at their home school wasn’t challenging enough and because they and their parents were worried about them falling in with the wrong crowds, or getting in the middle of disputes with other families or nations at home.
Through one lens, MITS can be viewed as a fresh start.
It’s an opportunity “to get a good education and make something of themselves, really,” says Tracey Fenton. The Indigenous mom has two girls who attended MITS and one boy enrolled in 2019. “I never got to do that,” Fenton says. “At least my kids can do that.”
Fenton, who lives in Bairnsdale, a few hours outside Melbourne, says she wanted her kids to attend MITS to break stereotypes, showing that Koori people (the name for Indigenous Australians in the states of Victoria and New South Wales) can finish school and get good jobs. She fears if they stayed home “bad cousins” would end up sending them on the wrong path, she says.
But life in Melbourne has its own challenges and discomforts for Indigenous students.
And it can — intentionally or not — reinforce difference.
On one MITS Melbourne excursion, the students were given a tour of Victoria’s Government House. On a wall in the entranceway hung a huge portrait of the Queen. In the visitors book, British royals Harry and Meghan, on a visit to Australia, were some of the last to sign. In one room, all the governors — all white — and their wives peered out of photos dating back decades. One student counted the portraits.
MITS is the brainchild of Melbourne couple Liz and Rick Tudor, a veterinarian and former head of an independent boys school, respectively. But much of the inspiration behind the school’s inception comes from a girl named Rona.
Rona Pamkal was an inquisitive, outgoing 11-year-old from Wardekken, Northern Territory. She wanted to go to school in the big city, Melbourne, thousands of kilometres from home.
She chased that dream but faced challenges.
But to Liz and Rick, who housed Rona and considered her part of their family, her experience highlighted to them the many gaps existing in an Australian education system where Indigenous students are increasingly offered scholarships to attend private schools in big cities but often lack support, face racism, feel culturally lost and are unprepared for the academic challenges at the elite schools where there may be no other Indigenous students.
It was her experience, combined with needs Rick saw working in the school system, and the desires they heard from people in remote communities, that motivated the Tudors to establish MITS. It opened its doors in 2016 with the goal of helping students transition into a Melbourne life and school all within a culturally safe environment celebrating students’ Indigenous identities.
“We’re not just putting them into another school (saying) ‘Oh, now you’ve got to be a little white girl or a little white boy,’ ” says Liz Tudor, one of the school’s founders and the chair of its board of directors. “We’re actually — hopefully in the year that they’re with us — empowering them to be proud in their culture.”
To be accepted to MITS, Tudor notes students must independently want to come to the school and the decision must be supported by their family. Once there, students learn about the history of Indigenous Australia, they’re encouraged to deepen study of their own culture and language and celebrate it, and they learn how to cope with culture shock and homesickness. They also learn how to respond to racism and bullying and how to find their way around in the metropolis, population five million.
The goal is to give Indigenous students a good education, and opportunities they might not otherwise have, including meeting professional Australian Football League stars (many of whom are Indigenous), acclaimed Indigenous artists and local elders and exploring all that the multicultural, cosmopolitan city has to offer — with the hope these experiences open up more “pathways” to future opportunities in life.
Reconciliation is also part of it.
“Education is the greatest social lever that we have,” Tudor says, noting that by offering students a chance to fulfil whatever education and career path they see fit, they can bring those skills and strengths back to their own community.
On the wall of the main classroom at MITS, students’ profiles surround a map of Indigenous Australia with pieces of string, attaching their profile to their home community. The profiles — filled out by students — tell of the languages they speak, their totems (animal spirit guides), their family, the people they look up to and their career aspirations.
“Day care teacher because I love little kids,” wrote Shontanay Harrison, Fenton’s daughter, responding to a question about the future job she wants.
And the emphasis in classroom teachings is to be proud of culture and learn how to explain certain nuances to future teachers when they leave MITS.
In one class, Brady Cooper, a MITS teacher and a Yorta Yorta man from northern Victoria, tells the students they should inform future teachers about the traditional importance of not looking at images of an Indigenous person who has died, and of not saying the name of someone who has died recently.
He tells them they need to explain to a teacher that when they’re speaking their language to other Indigenous students, they’re not being disrespectful, they’re maybe trying to translate a lesson, and if they simply nod their head when responding to a yes-or-no question that’s, again, not disrespectful, it’s how they communicate.
“Sometimes, I just give a nod,” Cooper says, instructing students to write that statement in a letter to their future teachers.
Still, while the school strives to celebrate culture and bridge gaps in the existing education system, some education experts criticize the scholarship system as a whole. They say it may be based on good intentions of reconciliation and offering Indigenous students a chance at an abundance of educational opportunities, but it has the potential to reinforce existing inequity and ultimately do more harm than good.
“As with many things that start with positive intentions, if it’s not backed up with a willingness to listen and learn, and a willingness to really engage with the realities of young people’s lives, and a willingness to look at your own school culture and say, ‘Well, gosh these schools are just the bastions of colonial privilege’ … [then] assimilatory norms are still happening,” says Marnie O’Bryan, a research fellow at Melbourne University and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies.
Scholarships for Indigenous students to attend independent schools across Australia have been on the rise for more than a decade, says O’Bryan, whose PhD thesis focused on the experience of Indigenous Australian students at boarding schools. For some schools, the intention was always to offer kids a high-quality education, but for others, the reality was it allowed them to recruit Indigenous students with athletic talent and bulk up their Australian football teams. It also gave them a great deal of “PR mileage,” she says, referring to the positive stories media churn out on the schools.
She worries even if private school administrators’ hearts are in the right place, they are setting kids up to fail. Many students struggle academically and culturally at school, she notes, and eventually drop out completely.
A better scholarship system, if the child’s well-being is the true focus, would be one in which the school displaced itself, rather than displacing students, by setting up satellite campuses in rural communities, she says. Such a system would allow students to access a “mainstream” education at home, particularly if there is no existing high school in the community, she says.
But what do MITS students have to say about their experiences? Why do they come?
“Here in Melbourne, I can have a better education so I can get a better job and prove that I’m stronger than other Indigenous women, and I can have kids that learn how to stay strong and independent,” says Naomi Gaykamangu, 13, who graduated from MITS in 2017.
Sitting on her bed in the MITS boarding house — where she was staying temporarily — Naomi says she wanted to come to MITS because she found the work at her home school in Ramingining, Northern Territory, too easy. And she wanted to prove herself, prove she can achieve her goal of joining the military, like her grandfather, who is still serving, she says. Her end goal is to become “a role model” in her community.
It’s hard living in two places, though, she admits.
It’s also hard to be away from her family, the people who taught her about her culture and language and who still have much to teach her, she says. When she’s home, they work hard to catch her up on skills she’s missing, like weaving a basket out of a pandanus leaf — “which is getting easier.”
Student Timikar Johnson, 13, says she misses hunting turtles and fishing for catfish, which she would do in Gunbalanya, also known as Oenpelli, a remote community of around 1,000 people in the Northern Territory. But she likes that at MITS, she’s learning about other students’ languages and cultures.
“At MITS, kids (are) from different communities, (speak) different languages, (have) different skin colour,” she says.
Lorraine White, MITS boarding house supervisor, understands feeling torn between two places. And she understands what it is to question where you belong.
“I struggled with being the only Indigenous person there amongst a lot of white girls, and just trying to find my own identity and my own purpose of why I’m down here,” says White, a Kunmok woman who grew up in Gunbalanya and moved to the Melbourne area as a teen a decade ago to attend an all-girls school. “Growing up, I knew I belonged … and then coming down here and (I was) going, ‘Oh wow, where do I fit in?’ ”
But as she settled into life in her new home, and eventually established a good support network, she found the differences actually strengthened her connection to Gunbalanya.
“It helped me be stronger in my culture,” she says. “I saw where I stand and saw the importance of needing to go back to the country and reconnect.”
Still, for some students, fitting in in Melbourne sometimes means standing out back home.
“A lot of them get called ‘coconut,’ ” says Michelle Kerrin, the MITS pathways co-ordinator, sitting in the MITS boarding school courtyard wearing a T-shirt with the Australian Aboriginal flag on it. “Coconut means you’re brown on the outside but white on the inside … It’s a really offensive term for Aboriginal people.”
Kerrin, an Indigenous Arrernte and Luritja woman who grew up in the Northern Territory, says some students struggle to strike a balance between who they are at home and who they are at MITS. They also struggle with not being home when they know they’re needed to help with family responsibilities. MITS does its best to help students when tough situations arise — booking flights for them to return home for cultural ceremonies or “sorry business” when there is a death in the community — but ultimately, it’s the kids who must find their own way of grappling with living in two worlds, she says.
And the matter of education — the value of a community education versus western education — is something she thinks about, and sits with, a great deal.
“A lot of them (the kids) will say it’s for a better education,” she says. “I try to avoid using that language. Because by saying ‘better education in Melbourne,’ it almost like sounds like Melbourne is better than community. And I would never suggest that it is, even though they go through a lot of hardship at home.”
Kerrin wonders if private school education is ultimately best for the kids. What she comes back to is that Indigenous students deserve the best shot at whatever opportunities and education they desire. They deserve to have the same doors opened as any non-Indigenous student.
Perhaps they deserve it even more.
“It’s hard walking in two worlds,” Kerrin says as students run past her, grabbing snacks and heading to the TV room or sprinting to the front yard with a football. “They hold the whole world on their shoulders … I think they feel that sometimes but, you know, they’re doing it.”
Katrina Clarke is a multimedia journalist based in Fredericton who received the 2018 Gordon Sinclair Roving Reporter Bursary. She reported on two Innu communities in Labrador and to a boarding school for Indigenous students in Melbourne, Australia. The two-part project focused on education in Indigenous communities and education outside Indigenous communities, in a city centre.The Gordon Sinclair Roving Reporter Bursary is awarded annually to an early career journalist and funds a reporting project focused on an underreported issue in Canada or abroad. Follow Katrina on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.