Prisoner Of Hope
By Stephen CrittendenJune 21, 2012
Before he was a year old, Bob Morgan had experienced what it was like to go from the top to the bottom of society. He’s been helping others reach their peak ever since.
Gumilaroi man Dr Bob Morgan grew up in a town along the Namoi River in north central New South Wales. There, in the early 1960s, as a student of Walgett Central School, he had a life-altering experience.
"I wasn't the only Aboriginal kid at the school who had this experience," he hastens to say. "A lot of Aboriginal boys at Walgett had the same experience.
"One day in class we were identified as a group by our teacher — ironically enough his name was Mr White — and he told us that because we were Aboriginal, it was impossible to educate us. We were all destined to end up as metho drinkers on Johnson's Corner opposite the school. I was 13 or 14 at the time. This was from a teacher we admired and looked up to, and it had a great impact on me to hear that this person believed we could never amount to anything."
He went home and told his mother, thinking she would rush off to the school and make a complaint. She didn't. "Instead, she said to me quietly, 'You have a choice. You can live his dream, or you can live your own.'
"I didn't know exactly what she meant at the time, but as I grew older I came to realize what she meant was that you can shape your own destiny. You have the right to dream your own dreams, and then it's up to you to work to realize them."
Morgan went on to study at New England University and the University of New South Wales, ending up with a doctorate in education.
Now 63, and having been a prominent figure in indigenous education for over 35 years, Morgan is executive director of Tranby Aboriginal College in the inner-Sydney suburb of Glebe. From 1980 to 1986, he served on the now-defunct NSW Education Commission, and went searching for his former teacher, Mr White.
"I was one of the 13 commissioners who effectively employed all the people working in NSW Education. And I went searching for him because I wanted to thank him, really, and let him know how his comments had motivated me," Morgan says. "I never did find him, but that early experience has remained with me all my life."
Bob Morgan describes himself as "a prisoner of hope". Genial, grey-haired, and mad about golf, he is also a born storyteller, with a fluent style that he says probably came from years listening around the campfire as a boy.
"The story of my childhood is one of loss and dislocation. My father and a sister lost their lives in a drowning accident in 1950 when I was one year old. Prior to that my father had been a successful businessman. He was a shearing contractor, and he was able to accumulate a certain amount of wealth. We had a house, and a motorboat, vehicles, and other material possessions."
But when his father died, Morgan says the NSW Aboriginal Welfare Board stepped in and confiscated everything.
He is still searching the departmental records to find out how and why such a decision could have been made. "Why were they able to do that? Presumably because we were not really Australian citizens — this was 1950, remember, 17 years before the referendum, so for all intents and purposes we were regarded as wards of the state."
The referendum of May 27, 1967 gave the Commonwealth government the power to make special laws pertaining to indigenous Australians and also to count them as part of the Australian population. Indigenous people had gained the right to vote in Commonwealth elections in 1962.
"So my mother had to leave our house and move to the river bank with four children aged between 15 and 1," Morgan says. "For the next 10 years we lived in a humpy that had been built by my grandfather and my uncles. There was no electricity and no running water. But even though they were hard times, it is a period of my life that I remember with great fondness. I enjoyed the fact that I was surrounded by my extended family of uncles and aunties and cousins, and sitting around the campfire at night listening to their stories."
I say his mother seems to have been a wise woman.
"Incredibly wise. Possessed of infinite wisdom, I would say. That was something I came to appreciate, as I grew older. Looking back over my life, I would say all the good things in my life I attribute to her, and the bad things I attribute to forgetting what she taught me. She was never bitter about what had happened to her. She was never allowed to go to school, so she was basically illiterate, but she valued education and by late afternoon she would always ensure that I had my head tucked into a book.
"Edith Morgan, her name was. Jackson was her maiden name. We're part of the Morgan-Kennedy clan in and around Walgett, and in many respects you would say we are the traditional owners of the land in that area. My mother was born on what was known as Red Hill, and by the time I was growing up, that was where the local golf club was situated. I love to play golf now, but [then] we were never allowed to join the club or play there."
Morgan says the Walgett of today is very different from the Walgett he grew up in. "Those were the days before alcohol and drugs had really taken hold. Most Aboriginal people at that time were just struggling to bring up their families. There used to be stories around the campfire at night. Now people gravitate to pubs and clubs. People need that as well — I'm not wanting to be a wowser, but I am arguing that there needs to be a balance. In New Zealand, the Maori people have got their marae, and they're very, very powerful."
A marae is a traditional Maori ceremonial and cultural centre, usually consisting of a fenced-off rectangular space in front of a wharenui, or meeting house. In New Zealand, even the smallest Maori settlements have their own marae. Morgan says Australia could learn a lot from observing the New Zealand experience. He says by comparison there has been enormous erosion of aboriginal culture in New South Wales and along Australia's eastern seaboard and that this is also happening at an alarming rate in more remote rural areas.
"A lot of our young people know they're Aboriginal, but they don't actually know much about their own culture. Of course, our kids are just as much a part of the iPod and iPad generation as anyone else. But what they are thirsting for is something that will connect them with the oldest continuing civilisation on the planet."
Bob Morgan's passion for golf may seem like a somewhat unlikely vehicle to help connect young people with their Aboriginal culture, but that is his latest venture. Since the beginning of the year he has been running the NSW Aboriginal Youth Golf Development Program, with an intake of 50 indigenous young people from all over New South Wales.
Most of the participants are still in school, but some have left. The idea behind the federally-funded program is to use the self-discipline of golf to help build their self-esteem and leadership skills, and — as he puts it — to "switch them on life".
Another key element in the program focuses on affirming indigenous cultural identity.
"A big part of what we do is about cultural affirmation. Last week we took the group to an Aboriginal sacred site near Gosford, and the local elders spoke to them about the importance of the site and what it meant. They were so captivated that when we got to the end, two of these young people didn't want to leave. They were saying, 'This place is really, really special, it's got a good presence, and we want it to wash over us a little longer.' All of them said: 'We don't know this stuff. Why aren't we being taught this stuff in school?'"
Experiences such as these that provide a connection to culture are particularly important for young Aboriginal men, says Morgan. "In any culture, if men are missing from the lives of young people, they are going to be culturally lost. Many of the fathers [of young Aboriginal men and boys] are missing. They can be present and missing at the same time. They have problems with their own self-esteem, some get frustrated and angry, turn to drugs and alcohol and violence. I don't subscribe to the demonisation of men — not at all — but I do have to acknowledge that if the women weren't present in Aboriginal society we'd have a much larger problem on our hands than the one we do have." Morgan says, "Quite often it's left to the women to pass on the culture."
As a boy, Morgan says he enjoyed learning, and he remembers his time at Walgett Central School as being generally a positive experience. "The only thing, looking back now, is that it provided nothing that reinforced my sense of identity. And I would argue that the NSW Department of Education struggles with that still. Some people argue that schools don't have a role in helping to affirm cultural identity, but I argue they do have a role. In schools with a high Aboriginal enrolment, they should employ Aboriginal people to teach and Aboriginal culture should be reflected in the curriculum. Instead, they offer Aboriginal Studies, which tends just to take an historical approach."
Throughout his career, perhaps because of his mother's words, Morgan has emphasised the importance of self-determination in the educational aspirations of indigenous people. In 1978, he was appointed to the National Aboriginal Education committee, and around the same time he was invited to sit on NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group [AECG]. At the outset, this group was essentially appointed by government, even though it was meant to be a consultative body; Morgan worked to develop a new model within which Aboriginal people elected the people who they wanted to represent them to government. "I'm proud to say that model still exists."
Morgan went on to chair the group for the next 11 years. "Some of our achievements in the 1980s no longer exist. For example, we introduced the concept of Special Fitness Appointments. The idea was that if you were a teacher being appointed to a school with a high Aboriginal enrolment, it wasn't good enough to be able to teach writing and arithmetic well, you also had to go through an assessment process to determine your cultural competency, to show you had some understanding of the culture you were going into."
It was an idea that he says worked well while it lasted. "The NSW Teachers Federation got behind it. But for whatever reason, it was abandoned. That's the problem with Aboriginal affairs in Australia generally, there's never any sustainability attached to anything."
Morgan was also a member of the World Indigenous People's Conference task force that drafted the 1999 Coolangatta Statement on Indigenous Rights in Education — a document that deserves to be better known.
It asserts the rights of indigenous people to self-determination, including self-determination in relation to education, including the right to establish their own schools, develop their own culturally inclusive curricula, and promote the use of indigenous languages:
"Historically, indigenous peoples have insisted upon the right of access to education. Invariably the nature, and consequently the outcome, of this education has been constructed through and measured by non-indigenous standards, values and philosophies. Ultimately the purpose of this education has been to assimilate indigenous peoples into non-indigenous cultures and societies. Volumes of studies, research and reports dealing with indigenous peoples in non-indigenous education systems paint a familiar picture of failure and despair. When measured in non-indigenous terms, the educational outcomes of indigenous peoples are still far below that of non-indigenous peoples. This fact exists not because indigenous people are less intelligent, but because educational theories and practices are developed and controlled by non-indigenous peoples."
— from the Coolangatta Statement on Indigenous Rights in Education, 1999
Morgan supports the idea of having a separate stream of Aboriginal schools within the wider public schools system. "They can be separate schools or schools within schools. My argument is that we need a space that is culturally affirming as well as intellectually enriching. Australian schools are continuing to fail in this area, they are not getting it right."
One school Morgan says is getting it right is Menindee Central School in far western New South Wales, which has an enrolment that is 85 percent indigenous. The local Aboriginal community is involved, truancy rates are down, and boys are making it through to the Higher School Certificate. A local Barkinji language curriculum is gradually being introduced, and over the next two years teachers are being asked to learn to speak Barkinji up to Year 7 and 8 level as part of their professional development.
The charismatic principal, Brian Debus, says Bob Morgan has been coming to the school in an advisory role since 2006. In Menindee they call him their Critical Friend. Debus says Morgan has been "absolutely critical" to what has been achieved in Menindee.
"I can't speak too highly of Bob Morgan because I owe him so much. He's very passionate that all our students get access to the very best and that we don't stuff up. He never holds back and he's got so much wisdom to impart."
Debus says that back in 2006 Morgan wrote a couple of reports outlining what needed to be done to address the problems the school then had. "It was all about cultural affirmation, making sure there is substance in the curriculum that the kids can relate to. He said we needed to make sure we had quality teaching, not dumbing down, teachers who relate to the community. Very basic things. We haven't deviated from those recommendations ever since, and Bob keeps on coming back to Menindee once a quarter to continue working with us."
One of Morgan's key recommendations was that Menindee needed the create the position of Male Aboriginal Educator, someone young who could relate to the Aboriginal boys at the school. A local Aboriginal man named Daniel Fusi was appointed and he has made a huge impact.
"It also had a huge impact on the local Aboriginal community that he came in as a professional earning $10,000 a year above the basic teacher's salary to work with young kids and support our teachers," says principal Debus. "He was this person who was just plucked out of the local community, and what they saw was that here were Aboriginal voices being taken for their true value. After three years we invited Daniel to be a member of the school executive."
BOB MORGAN SAYS Aboriginal people will continue to be educationally disadvantaged as long as they are lumped into a broader low socio-economic-status category. "Twenty years ago, at the time when there was a lot of enthusiasm for the idea of multiculturalism, Aboriginal kids were included in the multicultural mix. And I argued, no, we get lost in that. Our needs and aspirations are frequently not the same as those of people from a multicultural background."
He also believes governments tend to homogenise Aboriginal need and aspiration. "Not all Aboriginal communities are the same. What's happening at Toomelah in northern New South Wales is very different from what's going on at Cape York. A lot of our communities [in New South Wales] resemble war zones, whereas Aboriginal culture in Cape York is a lot more intact. So one-size-fits-all doesn't work."
Last month, the New South Wales Government announced an initiative to improve retention rates and results in rural schools. Fifteen schools with high Aboriginal enrolments will be transformed into "community hubs"; these will provide education, health, parenting, vocational training and anti-gambling services. The schools' principals will co-ordinate the services that each school requires, and the schools will employ Aboriginal staff and affirm aboriginal culture.
Bob Morgan supports the idea, but says it will only work if local communities embrace it. "Creating hubs is one way to go," he says, "but they're not a panacea."
At a time when many indigenous leaders are talking about the role of education in addressing disadvantage, does he think the Aboriginal community failed in the past to value education enough?
"No, I don't think that's true. Most Aboriginal people want their kids to have a good education, but not at the expense of their identity. I don't think I've ever met an Aboriginal person who wants that." He pauses before summing up in one sentence what he has been working for all his life: "And I don't want them to experience the assault on their identity that assimilation is."