A school dress, blazer, socks, and hat; all illustrated in the colours of the Australian Aboriginal flag.

Indigenous Scholarships – Why George Floyd’s Death Is Intrinsically Linked to First Nations Kids Getting the Education They Deserve: An Interview with Teela Reid

Interview by Liv Capelin
Graphic by Ana Isaacs

CW: Discussion of systemic and institutional racism, mentions of the legacy of colonisation.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that took place during 2020 in the US sparked outrage regarding police brutality across the world. With many Australians forced to confront the injustices that exist in their own backyard, many across the country shared a black square on Instagram to mark themselves as part of the BLM movement. But as time passes, and different topics such as January 26th and Sorry Day continue to spark debate, it is imperative to note that these issues have not gone away. Even when race relations stop ‘trending’ on Instagram, we must continue to fight for the rights and sovereignty of our First Nations people.

Whilst the BLM movement drew attention to the number of First Nations communities that have been fractured by Australia’s horrific incarceration rates, for example, it is also important to continue the conversation in terms of how these problems occur. Since the Royal Commission in 1991, over 340 First Nations people have died in custody. The rates are only going up. We know the system is broken, but how do we help mend it?

Education is a pivotal part of this growth.  It is important to understand that this sort of systemic racism that puts First Nations people behind bars is the same system that historically excluded First Nations from the education system.  

Protectionist policies used throughout the 20th century by state governments barred Indigenous people from education institutions. An end to segregation within schools and universities only really began after the 1967 referendum. In 1972, the NSW Department of Education was no longer allowed to refuse Indigenous students from public schools, and the first Indigenous scholarship programs — which are now a large part of closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians — began in 1973.

But whilst scholarships within educational institutions have existed for over nearly 50 years, there is still an overwhelming feeling that these programs are often ignorant to the Indigenous experience and leave behind those unable to ‘adapt’. Frequently, minimal effort is put into ensuring the effectiveness of such scholarships, which neglect to address the specific needs of First Nations students. It seems to me that this is quite symbolic of what is going on in regards to First Nations in Australia as a whole. Governments often throw money at First Nations problems without suitable research or a sufficient understanding of the issues at hand.  

I spoke to proud Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman, Teela Reid, about what she thinks of scholarships for First Nations. Teela is a former teacher, current criminal defence lawyer, and a co-founder of the widely successful Instagram page @blackfulla_bookclub, which aims to bring First Nations stories to a wider audience. Selected by Harvard University as a Global Emerging Leader, Teela has also been an avid advocate for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which calls for a First Nations voice in the Australian Constitution.  

I talked to Teela about the potential benefits and issues with scholarships offered to First Nations people. She taught me that although education is merely one of many factions of systemic racism in Australian culture, it still remains to be a discrepancy that we can all help to overcome together.

Photograph by Jason McCormack

L: There is no question that there are a lot of problems and areas for improvement within Indigenous scholarships programs. However, what have you observed as some of the positives of such programs? As a whole, do you think scholarship programs are working?

T: Some scholarships that are provided with the appropriate cultural support can be the difference between a student completing school and getting a degree. However, I don’t think our measure of success should be about how many Indigenous students we get to university. We should be asking: what can all students do to give back to those most vulnerable in our society? Are Australian education systems teaching us the truth about Australian history — not as an elective, but as the very core of western education? 

Rather than forcing Indigenous scholars to be “more white”, they should be encouraged to build their own sense of self and maintain strong community connections. White kids should support these Indigenous scholars, rather than see them as competition.

I know these comments won’t shock you, but when I went to school [private girls’ school], there were always girls making comments about the Indigenous scholarship students. When Indigenous students would have special one-on-one time with teachers or perhaps receive more attention, I often remember girls remarking “that’s unfair”, “we should all get that” and “why do they get special treatment?”. To me, it highlighted just how naïve these girls were about how unfair our whole system is. My peers and I were able to attend a school with outrageous fees and had a vastly different home life to the Indigenous girls. Obviously, all individual experiences are different, but could you detail some of the obstacles that Indigenous students face in entering these sorts of environments in comparison to their non-Indigenous counterparts?

The real challenge for Indigenous students adjusting to private school contexts is systemic racism; it’s not the offer of the scholarship itself. It is highly likely that most students and staff in wealthy private schools have never met or associated with First Nations communities. The consequence of this is the reaction of students or staff who assume the scholarship process comes with privileges not offered to others. For example, students who respond with “it’s ‘unfair’ Indigenous students are entitled to more one-on-one teacher time to survive school”, simply do not understand the historical context of the fact First Nations were excluded from schools.

Some schools attempt to play a role in dismantling racism by providing access to private education, but often where there is this goodwill, schools fail to build a school that is culturally safe and respectful. 

Racism in schools can manifest in different ways. White privilege is ignorant to how racism is embedded in systems and structures, particularly in education. 

Ultimately, while some private schools try to play a role in social justice through the provision of scholarships, we need to be looking at ways we can change the education system itself so the inclusion of Aboriginal education is not a footnote or tokenistic, but it is the very foundation of schooling for white kids. 

I often found at school that Indigenous girls who were seen to be misbehaving or having a hard time adapting were usually kicked out and rejected, rather than mentored and given a helping hand. In this sense, I found a lot of the process quite tokenistic, and was wondering: what sort of things can schools put in place to ensure these programs actually help Indigenous kids, rather than rejecting them when things get tricky?

Schools need to understand that often, attending school is not the first priority. Indigenous students will experience Sorry Business (funerals), family, or other cultural issues at higher rates than white kids. They are more likely to come from poverty, and adjusting to wealthy environments can be a cultural shock. 

If private schools are providing opportunities, they must ensure there is holistic support for the student — connecting them beyond the school community into the local Aboriginal Community and ensuring that white families and students are properly informed of the reasons why scholarships are part of addressing the history of exclusion of First Nations from formal education.

Ultimately, the education system needs to be overhauled. The basis of white education must be on the notion that Aboriginal people are sovereign nations, they have never ceded their lands, and they are entitled to develop their own education systems. That said, the focus of western education should not be on grades or expensive fees, but on relationships and building a better society based on truth and justice. 

What role does the government need to play in this?

The government continues to control funding, outcomes, and scholarships that dictate Indigenous engagement. Historically, it was the Government who excluded Indigenous people from education through racist policies. 

The Government ripped out funding of Indigenous tutoring (ITAS), which means students have less opportunity to seek extra support. For many First Nations, many graduates are the first to get degrees in their families. This is vastly different to the access non-Indigenous students have, whose families may already have parents who are judges, lawyers, teachers, doctors etc. 

The Government has a duty to ensure access to education for Indigenous students and families is appropriately funded, and universities must ensure the delivery of education is culturally safe and provide space to challenge the status quo.

It would be foolish to ignore the inherent linkages between education and Indigenous deaths in custody. Both are examples of the ongoing impact colonisation has had on First Nations, and their ability to overcome so much adversity that the system has stacked against them.

George Floyd’s death woke the world up to the injustices that are taking place in the US. I ask all non-Indigenous Australians to do as much as you can to both understand and support First Nations peoples in your communities so that the injustices that are happening here are also addressed.

You can start by supporting the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which embarks upon a call to action for non-Indigenous Australians to walk with their First Nations counterparts and fight for their voice to be heard within the Australian Constitution. It is this sort of systemic change that can make a fundamental difference to the lives of all First Nations people.

 In a recent Instagram post, Teela stated that “too many Blackfullas are dying in custody at the hands of racist police, we need to abolish this system and revolutionise our society to elevate the voice of First Nations to ensure there is accountability for our lives. . . #BLACKLIVESMATTER”. I stand with Teela, and I encourage you to do the same.

Follow @heart2heart_journey for more updates on how you can get involved in the truth-telling process that the Uluru Statement aims to achieve.

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