Scott Gorringe was Indigenous X host from May 15 to May 22.
Deficit discourse describes a mode of thinking that frames and represents Aboriginal identity in a narrative of negativity, deficiency and disempowerment. When all the thinking, all the conversations and all the approaches are framed in a discourse that sees Aboriginality as a problem, very little positive movement is possible.
For example, if an Aboriginal boy does really well at school, finishes year 12, goes on to enrol at university or into full time employment and becomes the person he wants to be, the reason given to that is because he’s had really supportive parents, a great education, good teachers and he took his opportunities. Now if another Aboriginal boy drops out of school in year 9, ends up in a cycle of destructive behaviour where he’s into drugs and other stuff that’s not so good for him – the reason given for that is because he’s Aboriginal.
That’s not a subtle example, however, all the thinking and the assumptions underneath this framing is really subtle and mostly out of people’s awareness. I think it’s a huge problem in how we see ourselves as Aboriginal people in Australia, and it is influencing what’s going on with policy.
This discourse of deficiency has existed for a long time but it took me a while to recognise it. The dominant discourse that reflects this is all about trying to make Aboriginal people into something else and not recognising the skills, the talent, the knowledge, the passion that already exists in Aboriginal people, and the leadership that exists in our communities. The deficit discourse doesn’t recognise what we already have.
They’ve done a lot of work in New Zealand on deficit discourse, especially in education. Professor Russell Bishop did some fantastic work with teachers of Maori students where he looked at the way they thought and the things that they believed and the things they “knew” about Maori students. They shifted that thinking and miraculously the outcomes of those Maori students shifted with it. We see the same thing happen here – we’ve seen it with our Engoori process and within the Stronger Smarter leadership program we developed with Chris Sarra.
I’m working on a project now at ANU with the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, of which professor Mick Dodson is the director. We’ve got a three-year project funded by the Australian Research Council to look at the impact of the deficit discourse across education. What we’re trying to do is to map what happens within a discourse of deficit and see if we can shift it, and if we shift it, what happens? So firstly, we want to see if it’s a discourse of deficit at the moment, or not. And how is that reflected in Aboriginal student well-being and educational outcomes. Then we want to have a look at what happens if we run a process that does not engage in deficit, if we run a process such as Engoori, so we shift away from deficit into strength-based conversations with schools and some parents. We want to understand what happens to the relationship between them and then what happens to the educational outcomes of those students that they’re working with.
We can change the deficit discourse by challenging the assumptions of the way people frame their approaches to some of these big problems. I’m not denying the disadvantage, I’m not denying the struggles that exist in Aboriginal communities and families. It’s there. I see it nearly every day when I’m working in schools. But it shouldn’t be the place where we start. It’s a thing that we need to address but it shouldn’t be the way that we frame things.
My work at ANU will use Engoori to change the discourse. Engoori comes from the country that I come from, from Mithaka country, and is a process in which you can deal with the difference without the conflict. It recognises that people come with a whole lot of strengths and it focuses on the things that keep us strong. It’s a way of remembering and reconnecting to the old ways that were really strong. Our strength becomes the foundation from which we build.
It doesn’t start from a place where you ask the questions: what are your issues and what are your challenges. That is not Engoori’s starting point, because as soon as you ask that question you go straight into the deficit. I used to start that way before I really understood what Engoori was about. My job was to try to improve relationships between schools and Aboriginal communities and I used to ask the families, “What are your issues and what are your challenges?” and it took them to a place of deficit straight up because they had to talk about all the bad things. It put me into a powerful position as the piggy in the middle (liaison officer), and it took power away from families, even though I thought I was giving them power by asking them the questions. I did the same with the teachers/principals and on reflection it disenabled any authentic relationships between families and schools.
Engoori shifts the whole conversation by asking, “What are the things that keep you strong and make you strong and how do you use that strength to enable you to communicate with the school yourself?” What we’ve recognised over the time we’ve been doing this work is that when you shift the conversation from one of deficit to one of strength, everything else shifts, the whole problem shifts and moves into a different space and mostly it’s in a space where you can move forward with something instead of just getting stuck in a whirlpool of deficit and drown.
Engoori in some ways is really simple because all you ask is, “What is it that keeps you strong?” and it shifts everything. It’s unbelievable how it happens. I know it happens to me. As soon as I get in a deficit conversation, I feel disempowered, disillusioned, I feel hopeless, and it’s too overwhelming, and I feel I can’t do anything about the problem at hand. Then what happens is, when I then do something, I do the same thing I’ve done before. And I think this is what’s happening in Indigenous policy development and practices on the ground – we’re continually trying to do the same old things. We dress it up with new names and new fandangled websites and brochures yet the approaches are built on the same set of assumptions and nothing changes.
Einstein said, “We can’t solve today’s problems using the same kind of thinking that created them”. I reckon that’s what we’re doing. We’re going back to welfare cards. How different is that to the Protection Act and rations sheds? There’s not too much difference there – it’s just that now we’ve got Aboriginal people advocating for it so it seems to make it OK. This deficit discourse stuff is not about black or white, it’s just about how you think and how you frame your approaches to complex challenges.
It seems really simple saying “change the conversation” yet trying to get people to challenge their own assumptions is very difficult. That’s why Engoori is important. It provides a way to remember and reconnect to the ways that make us really strong and using that as your platform and your foundation from which to build from.
When we get into trouble and things aren’t working and we get a little bit restless, at least then we’ve got something strong to fall back on, to remember and then try again. It takes away the blame, the anger and frustration and replaces it with something else – with hope, robustness, positivity, dreams and desires.