We need to be the advocates to change attitudes: Uncle Pat’s powerful message
The children from Tumut Community Preschool have a special connection with Wiradjuri/Yuin/Ngunnawal man Uncle Pat Connolly, who is the preschool’s Elder in Residence.
He patiently listens to all the “little-people-yarns” children share with him, smiling broadly as the children tell them all about their lives inside and outside the service during his visits, where he also teaches them culture and Wiradjuri language.
His own educational experience was much different from the children he works with, being one of 12 children, and part of a family who moved frequently to avoid being caught up in the “overt assimilationist policies” of the time.
He left school at 14, picking fruit and vegetables for local farmers.
Speaking his own Wiradjuri language was a punishable offence and he remembers adults speaking the language in low tones, afraid that if they were caught by the mission authorities, serious punishment would result.
“Our Uncles and Aunties knew that if they were caught speaking language; teaching the kids language, they would come and take the kids away.”
“We knew a few words, everyone did, but if you were caught speaking it at school, they had this big, whippy cane…”
Being able to visit the children, where he is often welcomed in Wiradjuri language, has been healing.
“It makes me feel tremendous. They tried to stop the language, we couldn’t even practice our own culture, it was all stopped. But now we’re getting it all back,” he said.
“When I go into this preschool, primary schools, high schools and universities, I try to teach them cultural things. I’m not leaving out my past, despite all the angry torment that we had, I’m trying to revive it. Because it’s important to Aboriginal people to understand the past.”
Reconciliation Action Plan drives preschool connection to community
Uncle Pat’s relationship with the children and their teachers has been developed alongside the preschool’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), a plan which was fundamental in developing the centre’s application for the Narragunnawali Reconciliation in Education Awards 2021, of which they were joint winners in the early learning category.
For service manager Tess Herring, the reconciliation program has had a huge impact.
“Reconciliation and Indigenous perspectives have been embedded within our philosophy, in the way we work and how children are educated at Tumut Community Preschool. It’s what we are known for and what we are very proud of,” she said.
“We teach children as young as three years of age how to speak Wiradjuri language and respect our First Nations culture. Through learning language and professional development and the genuine relationships we have formed with our Wiradjuri community, our staff have a deep respect for First Nations peoples and culture.”
Ms Herring went to school in Tumut, but says there was no Aboriginal cultural content to her education.
“I went to school with Aboriginal people, but I didn’t understand their culture, it was ignored. I had no understanding of the brutal impact of colonisation and the true history of Australia,” she shared.
“So personally, I’ve learnt and grown in terms of understanding the prevalence and damaging impact of racism in our country and the importance of being an ally in the fight to prevent and remove it, and the ongoing impacts of colonisation on our Indigenous peoples.”
A safer place for First Nations’ children
The reconciliation program has also significantly increased the attendance of First Nations children at the pre-school, with enrolments of local Aboriginal children lifting to 16-20 per cent of all enrolments.
Enacting the RAP, Ms Herring said, has also meant addressing racism in the community, with the preschool also viewing its role as being advocates to change attitudes.
“We know that children can start forming racist attitudes from as early as the age of three, so we are providing them with a different narrative around racism, equity and respect,” she said.
Enacting the RAP hasn’t been simple or comfortable, educator Kylie Murdoch added, and has led to some uncomfortable conversations with parents.
“We don’t shy away from teaching children about challenging concepts,” she explained.
“We teach these concepts in an age appropriate and sensitive way, and have taught them about the Stolen Generations, Sorry Day, the National Apology and National Aboriginal Children’s Day and the significance of these events.”
Despite the challenges, both Uncle Pat and staff at the service agree that the program is having an impact, with children influencing their families and the wider community.
“They go home, and they have conversations with their family; they challenge things that they see in the community,” Ms Herring said. “They question when they see something that’s unjust. It does have a big impact.”
Support to make a difference
The success of the program has been supported by the Narragunnawali: Reconciliation in Education program, with Ms Herring saying the program’s online resources are comprehensive, authentic and practical.
“We started by taking baby steps. When we reflect on how far we have come in our reconciliation journey since 2016, we recognise that ‘Oh, wow, we’ve achieved a lot’.”
Uncle Pat agreed, recommending any service to follow Tumut Community Preschool’s lead.
“If you’ve got knowledge, I keep telling a lot of people this, your ears and eyes grow. And you will hear and see things differently, and that’s why I’m sharing what I got with these people. Yeah, they’re not people, they’re my family.”
This year marks the fourth Narragunnawali Awards, recognising outstanding commitment to reconciliation in education. To learn more about the awards, please see here. This article is an extract of a piece from Reconciliation News. Access the original piece here.
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