Bawurra Foundation: The Macquarie Uni students striving for Indigenous literacy and cultural survival

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On a visit to the Indigenous community of Tingha in northern New South Wales, members of the Bawurra Foundation pile into a rickety bus, along with one too many school children, and drive out to the home of one of the community members. When they arrive, adults are in the kitchen slicing up kangaroo tail on a chopping board. The tail, it turns out, is bait, and they take it with them to a nearby lake.

Co-founder of the Bawurra Foundation, Alex Stonyer-Dubinovsky, recalls the experience: “The kids are getting their hands dirty. They’re grabbing bits of kangaroo, they’re tying it up with string. And then they start fishing like crazy. They must have pulled out thirty or forty yabbies”.

“Meanwhile,” says fellow Bawurra member and member of the Darug nation, Jackson Whiting, “we didn’t catch a thing”.

According to Chairman, and member of the Gomeroi nation, Jesse Slok, it is experiences like these which reinforce a healthy relationship with the communities they visit. “It’s knowing that we’re not coming in as city-slickers or as people who have a better idea of how things should be run. We’re meeting them on their playing field”.

The Bawurra Foundation formed in 2014, as a project focused on improving Indigenous student literacy and preserving Aboriginal culture and knowledge for future generations. One of the key objectives of the foundation is to create a platform that the communities themselves can take ownership of.

“These are communities that have had previous projects come through, promising the world, and finding out that the underlying problems are so deeply rooted that they don’t understand how to address them,” says Slok.

“We know that us, as outsiders, won’t be able to address those problems in a way that the community can be proud of. So our approach is not to think that we understand it from the get-go, but to work and create such deep relationships that the community starts opening up to us; and soon enough it is the community working towards positive outcomes for themselves.”

The question of culturally-appropriate education for Aboriginal students is a long-standing one. Historically, Aboriginal ways of learning have not been respected next to Western ideas of education, and Aboriginal literacy and culture has suffered as a result. According to Slok, Indigenous literacy schemes need to build on Indigenous understandings and perspectives in order for them to succeed.

The idea began with a project Slok worked on in high school, called Digital Elders. The project “combined a host of schools in the Tamworth region and had those schools working with community Elders to create a digital database, a digital textbook, of Aboriginal knowledge. The idea was to use that knowledge, in its digital format, to educate students”.

Ultimately, despite hard work and enthusiasm for the idea, the Department of Education didn’t engage with the material, and the project fizzled. Fortunately however, the concept saw a revival in 2014. In partnership with the Department, the content was reformatted into a readable, digital library, and downloaded onto Amazon Kindles. The significance of this technology, says Slok, is immense.

Not only does it give students the ability to engage with new technologies, a crucial part of their learning, it ensures that the content, which is aimed at educating students, is brought directly to the students. “Rather than them having to access a computer to get to the information, which is quite difficult, we were able to take that information, put it on Kindles, and put it straight in their hands.”

The technology also ensures the longevity of Aboriginal culture and history. “Because of Indigenous mortality rates, a lot of Elders pass and a lot of their stories more or less extinguish,” says Stonyer-Dubinovsky. “So part of what we’re trying to do is make sure the Elders of the future are able to pass those stories on.”

As a byproduct of sourcing content directly from the community, students are reading more, literacy levels are improving, and the literacy gap narrows.

To begin, the Department directed the team to their first two schools: Boggabilla Central School and Toomelah Public School. Both schools are identified under the Connected Communities initiative, making them one of around 15 schools identified as at-risk, with low participation rates, low engagement, and low continuation rates into high school.

The reaction was more than they’d hoped for.

“It was crazy,” says Stonyer-Dubinovsky. “We’d been working on this for so long and it was so theoretical at that point, we just wanted to make something happen. So we take the Kindles there, we hand them out to the kids…and we wait. What’s going to happen? What are they going to say? They open them up and they start saying: ‘Oh, that’s my Aunty! That’s my Uncle! That’s my grandfather!’ These are kids who don’t really engage in class. But they grabbed the Kindles and were immediately super-duper into it. Really engaged, looking at it, reading.”

After great success in Boggabilla and Toomelah, the team was able to move forward to new communities, such as Tingha and Dorrigo, near Coffs Harbour.

“Our first contact there was fantastic,” says Slok. “Rather than meeting with schools and teachers, we met with community members. Our first day in Tingha they took us fishing, we had a barbeque with a whole range of students, just to get an idea of what they would want to see on the Kindle. We met with Elders and recorded stories. And so rather than the approach we had with the first schools, which was work with the Department of Education and then enter the schools, this time we focused on our engagement with the community, and developing content which is important to the school.”

“At the end of the day, it’s a community library,” says Stonyer-Dubinovsky. “We’re just the facilitators.”

Many of the board and executive members of the Bawurra Foundation are full-time students at Macquarie University. Slok is in his final year of a commerce degree majoring in international business and entrepreneurship. Co-founder Stonyer-Dubinovsky is partway through a degree in law and international studies. They are all close friends, having been spent long hours together working on the project, taking road trips, and stating in some questionable accommodation.

“One time we stayed in this cottage on a farm. Air BnB’d it. There was six of us, sheep everywhere, just in the middle of nowhere, wild emus and kangaroos. We opened the door, and there were like six geckos in the house. Spiders and bugs everywhere. We turned on the light in the bathroom to try and lure all the bugs away from us, but in the morning, we looked in the bathroom and there was just a thick layer of them.”

As for the longevity of their work, the schools are now looking to the Kindles as a tool to boost engagement in later years, through a non-Western style of education. “We’ve seen our content and our devices used in a range of different ways,” says Slok. “Whether that’s culture classes, lingo classes, technology classes.”

Nevertheless, it is a slow process. “The reality of the situation is that there are so many different things that are affecting these children’s education,” says Slok. “It’s not necessarily just their time in the classroom, it’s the home environment, what they eat, what they study.”

“We’re trying to help show them that education is positive, and although things might be going badly in the community or within home, you can always find a sense of home in this digital content. Reading about their family, culture, the land that they walk on, languages that they speak – it’s so very important for them to know that although things mightn’t be great everywhere in their life, they can always come back to this one place.”

Big expansion plans are on the horizon for the Bawurra Foundation, with hopes to reach over 10 schools by the end of the year. The project relies heavily on government grants, fundraisers, and donations, and new volunteers are welcome year round.