Kevin O’Keefe’s presentation of the Tony Misich Lecture was always a hard ask when following on from Friday morning’s motivational breakfast with Justin Langer, however, Kevin’s low key manner and provocations lead us on a journey to think more deeply about the key elements of Voice Treaty and Truth and its connection to our work in schools and he offered praise and acknowledgement of the phenomenal work of primary schools in creating culturally responsive spaces all across the state.

Kevin began the conversation by reminding us that we are at a very significant moment in Australia’s history where Aboriginal peoples from the north, south, east and west of Uluru came together to argue for three things in the Uluru Statement from the heart. A statement of what Aboriginal people are seeking, the first being the voice. He elaborated that the reasons for requesting voice are clear and are grounded in history. Australia is the only country that does not refer to its Indigenous people in the constitution, and it is the only country in the Commonwealth that has never made a treaty with its Indigenous people. He referred to it as the Makkarata, a Yolngu word for an agreement after a period of unrest and conflict, a settlement statement between the government, its First Nations people and the truth telling about our shared history. It is not about guilt and blame but understanding that there are lessons to be learned from the past and that together we can create a better life for all of us in the future. Through a Makkarata, we have an opportunity for reconciliation as a nation.

So what does that mean to us as leaders in schools? We are in an extraordinary place to effect change and honour the statements called for by Reconciliation Australia, and in the public education system, the Aboriginal Education Team have two focus areas; Reconciliation and the Aboriginal Cultural Standards Framework.

Reconciliation is the development, respect and understanding for Aboriginal histories, cultures and languages amongst all of our staff and all of our students and is the work for every school regardless of number of Aboriginal students in your school. The Department’s RAP statement is in the final design stages but speaks to our system and acknowledges that as a public education system we have participated in processes which have excluded and marginalised Aboriginal children, and we intend to no longer continue to do that and we will work with Aboriginal community to reconcile our past. All schools need to consider how we develop an understanding amongst our staff and students for the importance of this work.

Aboriginal Cultural Standards Framework seeks to create culturally safe, welcoming and stimulating learning environments in all schools where we have Aboriginal students, commonly referred to as cultural responsiveness. Kevin shared how the system is holding a mirror up to itself and asking are we a culturally responsive system? He then shared some of the new elements in response to this investigation.

  • Culturally Responsive Leadership Program: a co-designed program with Aboriginal people and significant principals from the system and asks us to question ourselves, “What is the actual nature of our relationship with the Aboriginal community?
  • Code of Conduct review with inclusion of a new value called Voice and a new standard of Cultural Safety, which ensures that all people, regardless of background, feel comfortable in their own skin, their identity isn’t challenged. It encourages us to consider how we elevate Aboriginal voice to leadership teams. It is allowing Aboriginal people to succeed as Aboriginal people. This requires us to ask the question to our community, “What does success look like for you? What are your expectations for education?

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Kevin described the importance of principals and school leaders in developing culturally responsive schools and he likened it to how school principals appear to walk around with giant sandwich boards, setting the tone, culture and direction of the school, and the tone is set by what we say and do or what we fail to say and do. He elaborated that the ACSF has broader assumptions that can be applied to a wider multicultural environment, however, there are very different expectations around how it applies to Aboriginal students. He provoked us to think, how do we think about our world and the way the school enables or fails to enable Aboriginal students to thrive? He then reiterated the importance of seeking out the voice to know what the Aboriginal community thinks of us and the work we are doing and ensuring we have mechanisms to make this happen as it won’t happen by default. This is how we develop a mutually respectful relationship with our community. He reminded us we have all experienced the angry, abusive parent and it’s easy to get defensive about our work, our colleagues, however, the important thing is to listen and give people the time of the day. Take their key messages and paraphrase, ask can you clarify what that looks like from your point of view. People just want to feel they have been listened to and assume that they bring strengths to the dialogue.

Kevin described an enormous amount of goodwill across the system, but the important thing as leaders is to interrogate the silence in the system. To call out racism, not just the words and actions of an individual but the structural and systemic racism that is so embedded in our school system that we just take it for granted as normal. We have to look at what sort of an impact policy, procedures and processes have on including or excluding Aboriginal students. He gave some examples to get us thinking, such as the use of streaming ability groups in secondary schools, use of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, suspensions and non-standard dialects. He asked us to look at how do we see ourselves, what is going on and is this ok? It may be appropriate for the processes or there may be need for change, and if you are going to change, should Aboriginal people be part of the conversation? The important thing as leaders is to interrogate the silence.

Kevin recognised the challenge for us as leaders largely still in the learning phase and yet, we have to lead this culturally responsive work. How can you lead if you are not the expert? How do you steer clear of the deficit conversation focussed on negative views and have a conversation centred on hope. How do we avoid the fear paralysis of getting it wrong and offending people? There are no definitive answers, however, it is wise to begin with, if I do nothing, who is privileged by this decision and who is disadvantaged? Allow yourself to be vulnerable and humble, there is nothing wrong with saying, “I think we need to do this but I don’t know about it, I’m hoping there is enough wisdom in the room we can do this together. I do know we need to go seek some other voices.” His departing message was we are just trying to get better at this and the best way to do it is to talk to each other. Talk about the hard times, the structural racism, white fragility, critical race theory and ask questions, listen and if it’s not working in one place, move to another to have the conversation. Focus on growth mindsets and reframe conversations from deficits to strengths and solutions. Ultimately, our job as school leader in a relationship with our school community is to develop and grow teachers and students who have a greater understanding of cultural responsiveness but really it is just an act of reconciliation.