Sunday, 3 June 2012

Peddling the easy answers

Remember Brad Goodman?

Brad was a self-help guru, who found fortune and fame peddling a bunch of easy answers to a gullible people.  Although simply a character in The Simpsons, like many other characters from that beloved cartoon, it is not hard to find people in real life who could play that same part.

Like Jack. 

After his recent appearance on Australian Story, Jack Manning Bancroft is riding a wave of public adoration.  Touted as everything from a future Indigenous leader, to an Aussie inspiration, overwhelmingly, the feedback coming in from his TV appearance has been extremely positive.  If you listen to the viewers, he's achieving huge success with Indigenous youth, turning the tide of low expectations and bringing high profile supporters and donations to disadvantaged Aboriginal kids.

At least, that's what Australian Story told them to swallow. 

Jack runs an outfit called AIME - Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience.  He teams Uni students (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) up with Indigenous students, to mentor them through High School, for around an hour a week (it must be an action packed hour..).  It is supposed to assist with raising the rates of Indigenous students finishing Year 12, and encourage more Indigenous students to go on further, to University studies and a brighter future.

The outfit is funded by both Universities and corporate sponsors (such as Rio Tinto & Google), no doubt as they feel it is a worthwhile cause.  Even Thorpey is on board, and he's putting his money (well, to be technically correct, the money of his donors) where his mouth is. 

But I can still hear that nagging little cartoon voice of Lisa Simpson.  You see, like Brad Goodman, Jack Manning Bancroft and AIME are peddling a bunch of easy answers.

In operation for almost 8 years now, you may be surprised to know that AIME does not operate in a single remote area.  Heck, they don't even operate in the Northern Territory, Western Australia or South Australia.  You may be surprised to find that in Victoria, they've chosen to work with schools that not only have some of the lowest percentages of Indigenous students in the state, but, they've also chosen schools that are some of the most expensive and prestigious.  Schools like Scotch College (who do give two scholarships a year to boys from the N.T), Trinity College and Xavier College.  Melbourne Grammar School is also on their list, as is Parade College.  Looking at the list of public schools that they work with, it appears the maps past Hampton Park are not in existence.  A shame really, as if they were to talk with the Principal at say, Bairnsdale Secondary College in Gippsland, they would find that not only are there schools with a high percentage of Indigenous students, but, that those same students would benefit from any help on offer, as they are some of  the neediest and lowest performing in the state.

It is much easier to mentor a young affluent white boy from Scotch, who identifies as Indigenous, than a struggling black kid from the sticks who doesn't dare dream as big as finishing High School with a passing grade.  It is much nicer to sit down and discuss the merits of various Universities and the trivialities of campus life with a young kid in a crisp, smart uniform than to try to elevate the aspirations of a child whose parents don't care enough to ensure he is well fed, let alone well dressed and bathed.

For eight years, it appears Jack has deceived himself, and, the rest of us.  He's told us he's making a change, and, more importantly, he's Closing the Gap.

He is not.

Instead, he has created a divide.  Widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots.  While the wealthy Identifiers are improving their outcomes from good or great, to fantastic, the neediest have lost ground.  Hell bent on convincing ourselves that things are improving, we place people like Jack on a pedestal.  He tells people what they want to hear, and asks only that you throw money his way in return for his good deeds and innovative ideas.  Like the citizens of Springfield, we can't get enough of our Brad Goodman and his easy answers.

I don't doubt that there have been some hard luck kids who have been helped by AIME.  I also don't doubt that they've done some good work as a result of their programs.  Heck, I don't even doubt that some of the kids they've helped have had dark skin.  What I do take issue with, is allowing what appears to be a genuine fear of failure to dictate your policy and programs, resulting in the help again going not to those most in need. 

Let's say Joe Average decides to start an organisation to help Aboriginal children.  Joe wants to be able to get donations coming in by the bucketload, so, he looks around the other organisations who claim to do the same thing as him, and makes his pitch even better than theirs.  Red Cross say they will lift literacy rates by 10%  among 5-12 year old Aboriginal children by 2015.  To get more donations than Red Cross, Joe markets his organisation to potential donors as being ready, willing and able to take that number to 25%.

This is where things get tricky.  Instead of working harder or smarter with old theory, or implementing some new, previously untried revolutionary program to work with struggling kids, Joe simply takes his half-baked organisation to selected areas, excluding any schools with kids that have consistently poor outcomes or a high percentage of low-income earners as residents.  He works with a small group of children who identify as Indigenous (often several generations removed from a single full-blood ancestor), offering nothing new or exciting, but, simply uses their natural progress to fiddle with the averages and achieve his goals on paper.

We're a nation that likes facts and figures, but, we're a population that likes them spoon-fed to us.  We certainly seem to prefer it when someone else tells us what conclusion we are meant to draw from statistics and percentages, if our current mindset is anything to go by.  Indigenous specific statistics are no exception.  In the twenty years from 1986 to 2006, the Indigenous population doubled.  While part of this is attributed to natural rates of procreation, the Australian Bureau of Statistics states that this staggering increase is also due in part to people identifying as Indigenous where in previous counts, they did not.

The boom in our numbers has been great for those trying to 'Close the Gap'.  All of a sudden, gains can be made, by little more than a tick in the box.  We can all reassure ourselves that we're going forward, not backwards, because the statistics don't lie.  As a percentage, we have more middle income and high income Indigenous households than ever before.  As a nation, we've made serious ground when it comes to preventable childhood diseases ravaging Indigenous youngsters.

But that's when you look at the nation as a whole.  When you take the statistics and break them down, you see the real picture.  Urban Indigenous populations are making all the gains.  The remote communities make little gain, none, or in some cases, are going backwards.  While their often fair-skinned, urban counterparts are achieving on par in almost all areas with their non-identifying peers (the gold standard we apply when we speak of a Gap), the improvements of which we so often speak and celebrate are just not being delivered to those who need it the most.  Those who were struggling then, are most likely to still be struggling now.  My experiences with remote communities have done nothing but strengthen this conviction.  The overwhelming poverty, dysfunction and suffering remains at the same levels year after year for many remote communities, but to hear the city slicker fauxborigines speak, we're doin' fine.  We hear self-appointed Elders constantly tell us the importance of Welcome to Country ceremonies and demand their performance as a mark of 'respect', yet never think to question why they have placed so much focus on a shallow tokenism, when children are being abused and neglected. 

Instead of helping their poorer, blacker cousins, often, the fauxborigine exploits them for their own gain. 

We are allowed to get upset when intellectually impaired children are excluded from across the board testing (Naplan) in an effort for a school to post an artificially inflated score.  It is unquestionably wrong for a school to discriminate against disabled children in order to appear as though their students are outperforming their expectations. Why are we so afraid to apply the same logic when discussing Aboriginal students?  At present, should you dare to point out that disadvantaged, dark skinned Aboriginal children are being excluded in much the same way from programs such as AIME to keep their success rates high, you will be denounced loudly by every fauxborigine with a Twitter account.  Accusations of racism if you admit to being non-Indigenous, and, a perpetrator of lateral violence if you happen to be black like I am.  Personally, I despise a term like lateral violence being levelled at me by someone with pale skin.  The term implies that the accuser and myself are on an equal footing, when clearly, we are not.  I cannot hide what I am, they can and do.  Even if they have 'identified with their culture practically from birth' (a readily coined phrase by many in the 'Industry'), it makes no difference.  They demand every Caucasian person in Australia admit that they are the beneficiaries of White Privilege, yet refuse to accept that simply by virtue of their own pale skin, they too are the recipients of this very same Privilege.  Hypocrisy at its finest.

During his TV appearance, Jack compares himself to an Undercover Cop, with regards to his Aboriginality.  He explains that people cannot tell he is Aboriginal just by looking at him (just as one cannot tell an Undercover Cop in plain clothes is a Police Officer), and because of this unique position he holds, he is able to permeate the various layers of society and discover racism across all walks of life (and of course, is personally offended by it - give me a break).  Lucky him.  I don't know a single black skinned and obviously Aboriginal person who wouldn't mind trading skins for a day so he can really learn what it's like.  Perhaps then he will stop making ridiculous and insulting statements and realise just how good he has it.

Overhearing a racist joke or comment is so far removed from being rejected dozens of times for rental properties or jobs for no other reason than the way you look.  Seeing an Aboriginal person be refused service by someone who just served you without problem is light years away from being the person denied that simple courtesy again and again.   Having two people in primary school call you a name after you told them you are Aboriginal is a walk in the park compared to having that label applied to you almost every day, and that label sticking with you long past the days of the schoolyard, without having to utter a word about your heritage to anyone.

I hope Jack will decide to prove me wrong and start working with impoverished and remote Aboriginal communities.  It will be much harder than working with the kids from a private school, but I can promise you that it is infinitely more rewarding, and I warn you that it will at times, break your heart.