Barbara Martin could be enjoying her retirement — she’s certainly earned it after working for 30 years as a school teacher in the remote Central Australian community of Yuendumu, 300 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs.
But instead she is continuing her life-long fight to improve the educational outcomes of people in her community.
“I could stop working now I’ve retired, but I want to be a strong role model for my community and help to keep our language alive,” Ms Martin said.
“I feel really proud when I see elders and the young children talking in Warlpiri and English.”
The board member and teacher was among those at the opening of the higher learning centre in Yuendumu, which was funded by royalties from the nearby Tanami Goldmine, and described it as a meaningful step towards self-determination.
“We are really proud that our royalties will go towards funding the learning centre,” Ms Martin said.
Matthew Davidson, CEO of the Warlpiri Youth Development Aboriginal Corporation, said the elders of the community established the higher learning centre based on a two-way approach to leaning.
The aim is to improve literacy and numeracy in both Warlpiri and English.
“All the research tells us if they’re strong in traditional language then they’ll have a better grasp on English,” Mr Davidson said.
Change will be generational
It is hoped the new centre could help improve the gaps left behind from an incomplete formal education.
“Learning English is a challenge — you’ve got a people who are transitioning from 60,000 years of living in the desert moving into the new world, and it’s not just going to happen overnight,” Mr Davidson said.
“We’re struggling to get all the kids we need at school, we’re really at about 50%, so that’s a big issue for communities, trying to get more young people to see the value of school.”
Otto Sims, who speaks five languages, including English, has just returned from San Francisco where he exhibited his artwork and gave a talk on Indigenous culture to an American audience.
“Being able to read and write has helped me navigate my career overseas, as well as do more basic things like fill out customs forms and speak to immigration officials,” Mr Sims said.
Self-taught in English, and fluent in four other languages including Warlpiri and Luritja, Mr Sims said he wished a resource like the higher learning centre was around when he was growing up in the 1960s.
“I see myself as a leader through art, when I go overseas I talk about indigenous culture, my culture, and being fluent in English has enabled me to take my culture to the rest of the world,” Mr Sims said.
“The elders gave us this higher learning centre, they have shown us the way to be better Indigenous people in the 21st Century, we are closing the gap, and we’re doing it with our own money.”
Learning centre attracts interest from Canberra
Labor education spokesperson and Opposition deputy prime minister Tanya Plibersek praised the community for the initiative.
“I’ve heard such great things about the education centre at Yuendumu and not just the school for the younger kids, but also the lifelong learning approach they’ve taken for teens and adults,” Ms Plibersek said.
She said having a culture that values education is important.
“Warlpiri people have made a lot of decisions about how education can benefit their community, they have invested their own money into better educational opportunities,” Ms Plibersek said.
“This sort of model is something other communities can learn from, it is very important to have the direction set by the elders.”