Article 05/07/2023

Lessons past and present with Professor Jack Beetson

By Luka Osborne

Professor Jack Beetson is an esteemed academic and advocate for Indigenous education and as a proud Ngemba man he has dedicated his life to improving outcomes for Indigenous communities. With a remarkable career spanning several decades, Professor Beetson has made significant contributions as an educator and policy advisor, playing a pivotal role in designing culturally responsive curriculum frameworks and establishing Indigenous-led education initiatives.

Through his ongoing efforts, Professor Beetson has fostered a greater understanding and appreciation of the wisdom, knowledge, and experience that Indigenous Elders possess. Throughout his career, Professor Beetson has actively engaged with Indigenous Elders, valuing their insights and incorporating their teachings into his curriculum frameworks.

By honouring Elders, he has ensured that their wisdom continues to guide and inspire Indigenous communities. Professor Beetson’s work continues to inspire positive change and create pathways to success for Indigenous students across Australia.

Professor Jack Beetson. Source: Literacy for Life Foundation

Professor Jack Beetson has developed countless educational initiatives that have all been designed with the transmission and preservation of Indigenous knowledge and practices in mind.

For a man who would end up devoting his life to education, Professor Jack’s first brushes with learning were less than positive. He was a top student, however, he encountered racial discrimination and was expelled from school when he was 13. However, he journeyed back to education later in life, beginning his studies at Tranby Aboriginal College in Glebe at the age of 28. It was here that he saw the power of adult education. Upon graduating, he became the cultural coordinator and taught every indigenous class, including Basic Literacy, Business Studies and Tertiary Preparation. He also contributed to building curriculums and helped to create the Community Development Diploma, and a Diploma in Paralegal Studies.

He states “Probably the most critical thing for me and probably the piece of work I enjoyed the most was developing an Advanced Diploma in Applied Aboriginal Studies.” Prof. Beetson says that this component became a favourite for many students, as it taught, “not only who they were, but who other Aboriginal people and nations were in the same class. It was a very culturally affirming and strengthening process for students.

Professor Beetson has taught Aboriginal courses at Sydney University as part of a continuing Indigenous Education program. He remarks that these courses have raised awareness, due to positive engagement from predominantly non-Aboriginal people. Prof. Beetson has also assisted Macquarie University by designing an Aboriginal Community Management Diploma. His current initiative: The Literacy for Life Foundation, is an adult literacy campaign for Aboriginal communities. Beetson remarks, “It’s an initiative that I’m very proud of … in a very culturally affirming and strengthening way.”

Professor Jack Beetson says his commitment to task, as well as “all my spiritual strength and my physical strength,” are embedded within his Ngemba heritage. His educational initiatives have all been developed with the transmission and preservation of Indigenous knowledge and practices in mind. Upholding his culture, as well as civil rights is something that is core to his being. Prof. Beetson states: “I guess what set me on the Journey over the years, was having my own human rights violated on a number of occasions and cast the die in terms of where my career was going to go. And I see education as one of the most basic and fundamental human rights of all.”

Professor Jack Beetson at Tranby College. Source: ABC/ Professor Jack Beetson

This NAIDOC week we caught up with Professor Jack Beetson to discuss reconciliation, lessons from Elders, and his remarkable education career.

[Question] In light of this year’s NAIDOC theme, “For Our Elders,” how have you personally witnessed the invaluable contributions and teachings of Indigenous Elders within your work and community?

[Professor Jack Beetson] I think the first thing to say for me is that wherever I stand, wherever I turn up these days, I’m turning up on the shoulders of those Elders, past and present, who have supported me and guided me through my journey. At times it wasn’t easy for them because, you know, I was a young Aboriginal man and I wanted change and I wanted it tomorrow.

But I had a lot of guidance from those Elders, and so everything I do now is underpinned by the work and time that the Elders, put in with me over the years – I don’t think they put it into me, they put it in with me and guided my work and my career. So, in fact, I couldn’t have achieved anything, you know, honestly, without the support of those Elders then and now.

As a longtime advocate for adult education, how do you believe the empowerment of Indigenous Elders contributes to the overall well-being and strength of Indigenous communities?

It’s enormously important, and we see it with the literacy campaigns that we run, a number of Elders that come in, join the classes, learn to read and write. The contribution they make back is probably with their grandkids where they’re being able to read stories to them and so on. But more than that is that the younger people see them valuing education, and that has a direct spinoff effect into the community.

That’s why the campaign grows from year to year because more people are seeing more people actually valuing education, and that’s the critical component. Of course, people learn to read and write. That’s what we’re there to do. But genuinely, we’re trying to change a characteristic of a community which could be a community of low literacy to a community that values learning. And in order to do that, you have to reduce illiteracy levels to 20 or 10 per cent.

How do you believe education, particularly adult education, can help bridge the intergenerational gaps and foster stronger connections between Indigenous Elders and youth?

I think it’s critically important that younger people see older people valuing education. I think that has an enormous impact. It’s also worth understanding that when you have communities that have up to 70% low literacy in the adolescent to adult populations (15 years plus), that means that there are several households in each community that don’t have a person that can read and write. Now the problem with that is that the same people are administering medications not only to themselves but to Elders, children and babies and so on, which is quite dangerous.

So when you think about the contribution that literacy makes, it’s a contribution in terms of influencing others to join the campaign, but also in terms of health and well-being in the community. So for me, if there was only one reason to continue with adult literacy in our communities, it would be that one about being able to administer medicines properly.

“I think the first thing to say for me is that wherever I stand, wherever I turn up these days, I’m turning up on the shoulders of those Elders, past and present, who have supported me and guided me through my journey.”

You’ve just spoken about medicine and literacy, but in your experience, what are some other challenges that Indigenous Elders face, and how can we better support and amplify their voices within society?

I think they face a lot of challenges because we’re brought up and raised in very different times, so I think part of it is a technological challenge and then there’s inter-generational stuff, which is always, I think, difficult for Elders to navigate.

The fact that we don’t have access to a lot of technology in many of our communities, you know, we have very bad phone services, even in terms of mobile phone reception and let alone getting internet access. I think it’s very, very frustrating for Elders these days that things are changing so quickly and cultural practices can’t keep up, and there are so many other things influencing young people and children. I think for me, listening to the Elders was everything, but I just don’t know that that that is the case for everybody now, and it may have never been the case for everybody.

So there are two things I think are very challenging, but at the end of the day, I would say the greatest challenge in all of our communities for Elders is keeping up with technology.

As a community leader, what responsibilities do you feel towards nurturing and guiding future generations of Indigenous leaders and scholars?

Yeah, this is a question that I think about a lot and I get asked often. For me, it’s really about giving back the time that other people gave me and nurturing young people, not only in terms of how they operate professionally, but how they operate culturally. It doesn’t mean I want to teach them anything. It’s just that I want to work with them in a way that when we’re behaving a certain way, we reflect on that to really try and examine the benefits or otherwise.

When I was a young man, I can remember I’d go into meetings and I’d almost blow the meetings out of the water with bureaucrats and so on, and then when we’d come back, you know, an old feller that was mentoring me. He never said “You stuffed that up”, but he always said, “Do you feel like having a cup of coffee?” So you went, sat down and had a cup of coffee.

He’d say, “How do you think that went” and you know and I’d say, “Oh, that didn’t go too well. They weren’t listening.”

But then he’d say, “Well, do you think there’s anything we could do better?”

“For me, it’s really about giving back the time that other people gave me and nurturing young people, not only in terms of how they operate professionally, but how they operate culturally.”

So he never, ever criticised what I was doing, but what he was doing was causing me to act and reflect. Being able to give that back is critically important, and it’s the thing that drives me. I spend a lot of time with younger Aboriginal people, and I think I’ll never say ‘it’s me’ sitting there mentoring them. I say that it’s very much a two-way learning. We’re just learning different things.

Our founder always says charity begins at home and to care for Country we must care for each other. I know you and our founder Narelle Anderson are great friends and supporters of each other. How important do you think it is for Aboriginal-owned businesses like ours to support each other and community causes?

You know, I think it’s vitally important for a whole range of reasons. It’s important for the social and economic development of our communities. It’s important that successful Aboriginal businesses are held up and applauded really because they’re the types of things that will encourage people to start their own and they become the role models, you know, she’s an amazing role model really.

I mean, she’s in an industry that very few Indigenous people are in, and for me, that’s important that there’s a variety of Aboriginal businesses. There’s a range of different Aboriginal businesses out there, you know, like catering, environmental organisations and all sorts of things.

Indigenous community education. Source: Literacy For Life Foundation

I think those things are really important because quite often globally when Indigenous people start to get into business, the only businesses everybody thought that Indigenous peoples could make work were tourism, things, you know, cultural tourism. But you know, we have Aboriginal technology businesses now, we have earth moving businesses, we have a whole range of stuff out there.

I love that because that was never the case when I was a young person. I just think stuff like that is critically important because it demonstrates that Aboriginal people can succeed and be competitive in a whole range of businesses, not just cultural tourism or cultural awareness training.

What advice would you give to other educators, policymakers, and community leaders who aim to create inclusive and culturally responsive educational environments for Indigenous people?

I think the advice I would give anybody, and is based on a question that people ask all the time, ‘What’s the answer?‘ What I say to people is I don’t know what the answer is, but I know where, and the answer is in the community.

So people have to involve not this generic thing of the ‘Aboriginal community’, but all our little communities around the place, for them to be part of guiding what the solutions are and how our money will be spent, who will spend it, and what programs are required. All of the solutions rest in each individual community and as onerous as that may seem, there’s no alternative to that.

We need to be talking to them, and giving communities ownership of the process. With the Literacy For Life Foundation for example, when we go to a community, we do a survey with the community, we train local people to go and survey their own mob and just ask them, ‘Is literacy an issue? Do you think it’s an issue? Is it something you think you would like to have in your town?

Every community we’ve ever been to say you’re the first people who ask us if we actually want to do something. Most people come and say, ‘This is what we’ve got for you. We can run this program, we’ve got the mind to do it’.

That’s not the way Literacy For Life works. We only go to communities where we are invited to talk about it and then with the community about their capacity to be able to support a campaign. And most importantly, we ask them if they actually want to do it. Once people own the solutions, they work.

Whenever it’s somebody just coming in and imposing a program or imposing a solution, that never works, it can’t work, we know that. So let it be my advice, whether it’s an educational program or a health program or whatever it is, you need to work with the community so that ownership of the process belongs to the community.

Professor Jack Beetson. Source: Literacy for Life Foundation

How can the broader society actively engage with and learn from Indigenous Elders to promote reconciliation, cultural appreciation, and a deeper understanding of Indigenous heritage?

We need to find ways of interacting with Aboriginal people. So that they’re part of the social, not so much agenda, but part of the social experience should include Aboriginal people. There are so many people in Australia that have never really met with or socialised with Aboriginal people at all.

There’s never an Aboriginal person on the checkout, at the supermarket you know. When there’s an Aboriginal person on the checkout there’s social interaction required, you know there’s a ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’. If there were more Aboriginal people in those positions interacting people would have a different view. It’s not just what they say on the news. So people can go out and choose to socially indirectly.

“I think the advice I would give anybody, and it’s based on a question that people ask all the time, ‘What’s the answer?’ What I say to people is I don’t know what the answer is, but I know where, and the answer is in the community.”

Thanks so much for your time Professor Jack Beetson. Were there any other thoughts you wanted to add?

The most important thing for me is respecting Elders. I just think it’s so important and, and supporting our Elders, you know, and you don’t have to agree with everything they say to support them or respect them. For me, that’s absolutely critical. It’s a critical component of who we are, not what we’ve done, but who we are as indigenous people.

I’d also like to say to people, I am a supporter of the yes vote in the referendum and I really urge people to engage with their own family and friends about what that means. You know, this is a very modest ask that can do no harm to anybody.

It gives Aboriginal people an opportunity to have a say in policy and legislation that affects their lives. And that’s all it is. It’s a matter of providing advice to the government. So I would urge people – there’s not enough of us to convince all the non-Aboriginal people out there. This has got to be a movement where we,(Indigenous and non-indigenous people) all work to walk together. We need non-Aboriginal peoples support, as we did in the 1967 referendum.

Follow the link to find out more about the ‘Yes To The Voice‘ campaign.

For those interested in learning more about Professor Jack Beetson’s Literacy for Life initiative, head over to the foundation’s website. You can also support with recycling, by donating your Envirobank Crunch Credits through your account.

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By Luka Osborne