Don's Diary

October 31, 1997

Saturday and Sunday

Fly to Sydney en route to Alice Springs, where I am to attend the Fifth International Literacy and Education Research Network Conference on Learning. This is my third visit to Australia: the first was for a year; the second for three months; this time a mere two weeks - hardly time to get over the jet lag.


Arrive Sydney - seriously lacking in jet lag - mind over matter? Leave my bags at my old friend Scott's house and proceed to Redfern (inner-city Sydney) to talk to some Kooris (the Aboriginal people indigenous to this part of Australia) to see how things are going. Things are not going well. As I sit talking to some locals, two police vehicles arrive, park and just look at us. There are two theories about their constant presence - one that they are there to protect the neighbourhood; the second that they are there to harass and drive Koori people out of Redfern as part of a process of gentrification. I am left in doubt as to what my companions think. I feel angry and want to ask the police what they are up to. Am advised to ignore them.


Go on a tour of Newtown. My favourite part of Sydney, Newtown is an inner-city cosmopolitan suburb - perhaps best described as a left-wing version of Manhattan. Despite a degree of gentrification since my last visit, its heady mix of cultures, its lesbian and gay scene, its antiracist murals, its antiracist and pro-worker stickers and posters, its free community monthly, The Bridge, all provide an antidote to the racism and intolerance unleashed by the election in March 1996 of the radical right government of John Howard. Among other things, this has provided space for the rantings of independent MP, Pauline Hanson, who has attempted, with some degree of success, to resurrect the white Australia myth and to make racism respectable (the "legitimacy" of increased police harassment in Redfern is a symptom of this).


Fly to Alice Springs. Attend my first workshop on Aboriginal perspectives on the history of South Australia. In groups, we are given brown sheets of paper, representing the land in different parts of the state, on which we draw depictions of life before the British invasion, some 200 years ago. The paper is gradually torn up to represent, through history, the pillage of the land by the colonisers. The speaker at my first plenary talks about the marketization of education in Australia (sounds familiar). In the evening, go to a downtown pub. Disgusted by the ongoing attempt to keep Aboriginal people out of the pub (in line with the seeming apartheid in Alice), go with two Aboriginal guys (one with Afghan ancestors - the British-imported labour to drive camel trains across the desert) to the main Aboriginal bar in town, the Queen of the Desert. The only white person in the bar, apart from the bar staff, I have an interesting and informative evening.


It's a beautiful day (at 35 degrees Celsius, it's twice as hot as both Sydney and London), so I decide to walk to the conference. Just as I think I am nearly there, my two Aboriginal friends pick me up in their truck (I was in fact heading for the desert) and take me to the conference. Attend two fascinating workshops, both on indigenising the teaching of students. The first is run by a Native American. He demonstrates how he uses role play to enable indigenous students to understand the history of their exploitation, with respect to the signing of treaties with the "white man". He does this from a Native American perspective, as opposed to an Anglo-European one (the dominant paradigm for well over a century). The second is run by two Aboriginal Australians and details their attempts to enable students from predominantly mainstream backgrounds to experience a cultural way of learning through caring and sharing, in particular, through Murri (Queensland Aboriginal) humour.


Today's workshop details a project on making dictionaries pertaining to the many different Aboriginal languages of Australia (some 250 at the time of the invasion). Examine a beautiful dictionary, which translates from Arrernte to English and vice versa. Marvel at how languages are being given a written form - recognisable to "western" eyes - for the first time, while Arrernte knowledge has been "written" in traditional designs and drawings for millennia. Give a paper at the afternoon plenary on racism and how education can challenge it. Attend the conference dinner and disco - a truly multicultural event. A local Aboriginal educationalist shares her thoughts with me: "Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to talk about racism and we could just be people." It captures my feelings perfectly.


Fly to Sydney to present a seminar at the University of Western Sydney on anti-racist education in Britain. Regret that I must fly back to England in a week's time - hours before the huge Rally for Native Title (Land Rights) in Sydney.

Mike Cole Senior lecturer in the department of art and technology,University of Brighton.

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