The literacy programs transforming communities
16 November 2020 at 7:30 am
Ngemba man Professor Jack Beetson is the executive director of the Literacy For Life Foundation, an organisation taking a whole of community approach to improving adult literacy rates in Aboriginal communities. He’s this week’s Changemaker.
After being forced out of school at the age of 13, and experiencing violent encounters with law enforcement which ran him out of his home town, Beetson was set on a path to help others.
Wanting to do more with his life, he returned to school as an adult at Tranby College, an Indigenous adult education centre in Sydney.
He then picked up work at the college, and it was this that led him overseas to East Timor where he witnessed Literacy Campaigns, a community-led approach of adult education that is used internationally among disadvantaged groups.
Over 10 million people are now literate as a result of the program being implemented in 30 countries in the past 15 years, with the Literacy For Life Foundation (LFLF) being the first group to bring the method to Australia.
Since starting out in 2013, the foundation has worked across 11 communities, lowering the illiteracy rate by up to 20 per cent in some communities, and seeing 253 people graduate from their program.
Beetson’s expertise has been recognised around the globe, and he has received a United Nations Unsung Hero Award and a Cuba Award among other awards.
In this week’s Changemaker he discusses the importance of staying grounded as a leader, putting communities at the centre, and holding out hope for the future.
Why did you choose adult literacy programs as a way to have an impact on the world?
I was removed from school and denied my right to education when I was 13. I didn’t get to go back to education until I was about 26 at Tranby Aboriginal college. I then ended up working as a teacher for a number of years following my time as a student.
While Tranby taught a basic literacy course, I was part of a team that was monitoring and evaluating the literacy campaign model in East Timor. It was there that I saw the incredible outcomes, where 98 per cent of people who participated in the course actually learnt to read and write. When I came back to Australia, a few people suggested we try and pilot the literacy campaign model here. We trialled it in a community in NSW called Wilcannia, and we had extraordinary results. We graduated 19 people in a year. That’s significant because people have been funding literacy courses for 20 years without one graduate. So then other people along the Darling/Barwon River system heard about the results in Wilcannia and were asking us to come to their community, which as we got funding to do it, we did.
What’s a piece of advice that’s guided you throughout your career?
The best piece of advice I’ve been given in my whole life, not just my career, [was] when I left my home town of Nyngan all those years ago, my uncle put me on a bus and said to me “there’s nobody on the planet that’s any more important, or better than you are, but always remember that you’re no better than anyone else either”. And that’s how I’ve tried to live my life.
That piece of advice meant a lot at the time, but it means even more now when I look back over my life and the projects I’ve been involved in, because it really gave me direction, and gave me something to keep me grounded and to keep me engaged at a community level.
What’s the thing you are most proud of in your career?
There’s been lots of things I’m proud of and proud to have been a part of, because I don’t think I have achieved a whole lot myself, but I certainly hung around a lot of people that were achieving things and I was very happy to be part of that.
But one of the things that I’m really proud of is that when COVID-19 broke, we were out in Ltyentye Apurte, a remote Northern Territory community near Alice Springs. The idea of the adult literacy campaign model is to change a characteristic in the community, which could be that the community is considered one of low literacy. What we’re trying to do is change that characteristic to a community that values learning. When COVID-19 broke and the community went into lockdown and only essential services were allowed in, that community wanted us in there because they saw adult literacy as an essential part of their community.
For me, that was probably one of the best outcomes I’ve seen. There’s been many, but that was one of the best because it clearly identified in those circumstances that that community valued learning. And that’s what we’re trying to do.
Are you hopeful for the future?
I’m the supreme optimist. While I say I won’t hold my breath for government funding and support, it doesn’t mean I’ll stop campaigning to get funding to roll out the literacy campaign at a national level. Because that’s what makes it work, it’s got to be a mass literacy campaign. It’s about population and it’s not about an individual becoming literate. It’s about a community, the whole population as a community becoming literate, that’s what makes a difference.