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Celebrating books and first languages in remote communities

15 June 2020 at 8:09 am
Maggie Coggan
As the executive director of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, Karen Williams OAM is fighting to improve the low literacy rates in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and push Indigenous languages into the mainstream. She’s this week’s Changemaker.  

Maggie Coggan | 15 June 2020 at 8:09 am


Celebrating books and first languages in remote communities
15 June 2020 at 8:09 am

As the executive director of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, Karen Williams OAM is fighting to improve the low literacy rates in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and push Indigenous languages into the mainstream. She’s this week’s Changemaker.  

Imagine this: You learn to speak the first language you hear. It’s the language your parents and the rest of your family speaks. But when it comes to reading and writing, you are expected to learn a completely different language that you might have heard of, but you don’t actually know anything about. 

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids living in remote communities where English is not the predominant language, this is their reality.   

According to 2018 NAPLAN results, just 36 per cent of Indigenous year five students living in very remote areas are at or above national minimum reading standards, while for their non-Indigenous counterparts living in major cities, this figure sits at 96 per cent. 

While Indigenous children living in remote communities may be able to speak three or four different languages, insufficient western schooling systems, no access to books, and under-educated parents mean they are falling through the cracks.   

It’s an issue that for nearly 10 years now, Williams has been trying to do something about with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF). 

Working alongside remote communities and their elders, ILF has gifted close to half a million culturally appropriate and new books to remote communities, and is now running its early literacy program, Book Buzz, in 45 sites. 

Through its community literacy projects, the foundation has also published well-known kids books such as the Very Hungry Caterpillar, and original stories in Aboriginal languages such Yolngu Matha in Arnhem Land, Walmajarri in the Kimberley region, Arabana in South Australia, and Kriol in the Katherine region.  

For her efforts, Williams was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for her work at the foundation.  

In this week’s Changemaker, she discusses how the ILF came to be, the challenges of operating in the most remote parts of Australia, and how it’s changed her view of the world. 

How did you get started with the ILF?

It started back in 2005 when our founder, Suzy Wilson, who runs a very successful independent bookshop called Riverbend Books, wanted to use her position in the publishing and literacy industry to improve conditions for remote communities that have very low literacy rates. 

She asked me to help set up a voluntary group made up of everyone from small publishers, to booksellers and authors, to lobby the Australian Book Industry to get them on board. We then teamed up with the Fred Hollows Foundation, which was critical because it taught us   the protocols of working with remote Indigenous communities. We were a lobby group raising funds, getting ambassadors together to talk about what we’re trying to do, and then Fred Hollows were the people who were in the remote communities. 

We raised a lot of money in the time we were partnered with Fred Hollows, so much so that Fred Hollows said we had outgrown them and that we needed to find a new partner. 

At that stage we were working with 80 to 100 remote communities, and while we approached various groups and people working in remote Australia, the right kind of partnership didn’t become available, so we formed our own foundation, which is what you see today.  

What kind impact do you think you’ve been able to have through ILF in that time? 

A major part of our impact has been our growth in reach. In our first year we were engaging with 80 to 100 communities, and now our program reaches over 400 communities. We have also partnered with community organisations such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service, speech pathologists, health care centres, and women’s centres, supplying books for free so they can use them within their own programs.

We also run a publishing program where we take our ambassadors out to communities to help kids write and create stories that are then turned into quality, hard-cover books. The pride on the faces of the community elders when they see these books, written in their language, as well as hearing the elders telling these stories in their language is incredible. 

Having books that the kids can identify with [and] develop that real love of reading and creating stories is helping in all kinds of ways. It’s helping preserve language. It’s helping develop a strong cultural identity, which is so important.  

How have you overcome some of the challenges of running a charity, particularly one that works in really remote parts of the country?

A constant challenge is funding, as we’ve never had any government support. And so we had to kind of think and be creative about sources of income, running lots of campaigns, growing support wherever we can.

There are huge costs of running programs. We might spend months organising a visit out to a community in the depths of the Western Australian desert for example, and then we might get a phone call a week before we are due to depart saying there has been a death in the community, and then you can’t go out there. For us it’s all about respect because you have to understand and respect the culture of your work and the challenges around cultural protocols.

The logistics of distance is also a huge challenge. We put all our staff through a four-wheel-drive training course because they often have to go off-road on roads with very little signage. We also do special first-aid training because the types of situations you might face in remote Australia are completely different to anything you would experience in a city. I won’t pretend that the challenges around that haven’t been painful, but you learn and grow. 

How has being at the helm of the organisation changed your outlook on the world? 

I’ve realised how incredibly lucky and privileged [I am] to have an education, and to be university educated and to work in an industry which understands and supports what we’re trying to do.

I feel incredibly privileged to have met an amazing group of elders in different communities and children in remote Australia because you realise how rich their culture is, and I feel very lucky that we have an opportunity to help support the preservation of their culture in whatever way those communities want help. 

I’ve also realised it’s important to empower people, and not to do things for people. It’s so important that you don’t just rush in, but to be part of that journey.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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