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Let us Be a Voice for Generations: An opinion article by Associate Professor Marnee Shay

Posted on: May 24, 2023

In light of National Reconciliation Week in Australia (27 May - 3 June), we asked Associate Professor Marnee Shay for her opinion on what the theme of ‘Be a Voice for Generations’ means to her.

We owe everything to our old people and ancestors who came before us. And by we, I mean anyone who lives in this Country. With so much talk about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices and futures, we must reflect on where we have come from and pay our respect to our people who fought so hard to give the young generations the opportunities we have today. 

When I think about a voice for generations, I think about all the wisdom and knowledge of our people that were dismissed and ignored by the same systems and institutions that are now emphatic that they support constitutional change and a voice to parliament. Change is entirely possible, and I am an eternal optimist about the possibilities of change. However, we must learn the lessons of the past and understand that our people have always had a voice. As my Kalkadoon-Thaniquith/Bwgcolman colleague Professor Maria Raciti eloquently articulates, it’s just that ‘we have been on mute’ for far too long*.

I am dedicated in my research in education to elevating the voices of our mobs in education policy, practice and research. I continue developing and using a wide range of culturally relevant methods that don’t require our mob to talk differently or be uncomfortable because they want to contribute their voices to education and research. In our text, Indigenous Education in Australia Learning and Teaching for Deadly Futures, many authors talk about strengths approaches and how working from people’s strengths enables not only contributions of diverse voices but also for vastly different perspectives to emerge. Starting from the place of identifying the strengths of Indigenous peoples and communities requires a shift in how some educators approach their roles in education. What is evident from our research over the years is that in using this approach, higher levels of engagement result.

In education, we know deficits about Indigenous peoples and communities are mainly reproduced by broader deficit ideologies and educational policy language such as ‘close the gap.’ In my home State of Queensland this year, we are bombarded with imagery of black kids as the face of the ‘youth crime wave’ on the 6 pm news, refuelling racism and stereotypes that have existed since colonisation. In the same news bulletin, we hear about the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns where any voting Australian gets to decide whether we get an enshrined voice in parliament. There are some Indigenous voices in the media on both sides of the campaign, but the broader community misses the diverse everyday voices of Indigenous Australians. Much less the voices of young Indigenous peoples. 

Voice is not a hierarchy-neutral concept. Whose voices are seen to count or matter more is often at the inclination of the person seeking Indigenous voices. In education, these could be policymakers, principals, and teachers – who are often not Indigenous and yet they can decide who gets a voice and, importantly whose voice gets listened to (if at all). 

The critical juncture we find ourselves in now in education is moving beyond advisory models and hand-picking Indigenous people whom the school finds ‘easy’ to navigate. Our people, especially our Elders, deserve better. Genuine partnerships that incorporate shared decision-making and real recognition and valuing of Indigenous ways of being, knowing and doing are where we need to head. Furthermore, we know our young people have voices and want a say in their futures. I am still inspired by the development of the Imagination Declaration in 2017, where a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous young people came together to develop a statement to challenge the Prime Minister and Education ministers to involve young people in policymaking as it impacts their futures:

With 60,000 years of genius and imagination in our hearts and minds, we can be one of the groups of people that transform the future of life on Earth for the good of us all.
We can design the solutions that lift islands up in the face of rising seas, we can work on creative agricultural solutions that are in sync with our natural habitat, we can re-engineer schooling, we can invent new jobs and technologies, and we can unite around kindness.
We are not the problem, we are the solution.

So, with all this voice talk, education should be the driving force of change. They are spaces where ideas are debated and contested, where truth matters – but education has been grappling with its reckoning that education systems have consistently and statistically underserved Indigenous students. 

To include Indigenous voices means doing things differently. It requires much more than educational leaders stating that something must be done differently. It requires materially changing existing processes and decision-making structures so that different people make important decisions. 

Change is possible – but we need to learn the lessons from the past and present to enable different outcomes for the future.

*Raciti, M. (2023). Unmuted: An Indigenist truth-telling provocation. International Journal of Market Research, 65(2-3), 183-190.

**Shay, M., Woods, A., & Sarra, G. (2019, August 13). The Imagination Declaration: Young Indigenous Australians want to be heard – but will we listen? The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-imagination-declaration-young-indigenous-australians-want-to-be-heard-but-will-we-listen-121569