Author: Andrew Craig
Originally posted on The Guardian on Tuesday 10 November 2015 13.51 AEDT.
I love working as a mentor. It can change lives and communities
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Winning Indigenous awards helped @IndigenousX host Andrew Craig connect to his culture and fired his passion to help the wider community
I grew up in Cootamundra where a local icon, the Cootamundra Girls Home, sat on top of the hill overlooking the small township. Although it was a constant presence in the life of anyone who grew up there, I never did quite understand the impact or significance of it until later on, even though my grandmother was forced to spend her childhood there, the childhood that should have been filled with fun, learning and culture.
These are the years that I cherish now in bringing up my own three kids as I try to guide them through the blended colours of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal culture. My father never spoke about it, neither did his mother. His identity and culture was lost.
He was an only child. We didn’t have any Aboriginal aunties, uncles or cousins. There was just my dad, my mum, my brother and me. Mum came from a European background. She was one of 10 kids in a big Christian family.
There was only a small population of families in Cootamundra who identified as Aboriginal when I was growing up. There wasn’t a lot of racism in my time, but my brother and I were the only blackfellas at school, and while there was never direct racism, there were always jokes.
I don’t really want to point the finger at the community about it, but it was “the way things were”, even those few years ago. How times have changed! Now we call it “casual racism”. Being the only black kid among my peers, I accepted this as one of the conditions of growing up. My dad had faced it his whole life. We had these photos, and Dad was the only black face in all the sporting teams. They say there’s power in numbers; well, there was just not the numbers in Cootamundra.
When Dad decided he wanted to know more about his culture and identity, it took 15 years to find family. When he found out we were Kamilaroi, his sense of identity was formed. That was a powerful and proud moment. We slowly started to find aunties and uncles and finally, at 70 years of age, my dad got to meet his family in Walgett. That was one of the most emotionally intense moments of my life.
I’m connecting with family a lot earlier than Dad. I have a desire to learn about my culture and what was lost in the Stolen Generation. But I wouldn’t be here now asking these questions if I didn’t have an education. An education has put me in the position of being able to investigate the past and negotiate the future. An education has put me in the position of becoming a leader of my people who I reach in my work.
I did not have the desire to go to uni when I was at school. Instead, I found an interest in butchering, a fun working environment where I got the chance to interact with people and have a good laugh. Mum and Dad made me stay at school until I had a job to go to. They valued the importance of education because it wasn’t offered to them.
Both Mum and Dad were hard workers. Dad first worked on the farm that his mother was sent to when she was 15 or 16 years old, he then worked on the railway for a further 25 years. He worked away a lot and I think that he instilled the “hard work” trait to myself and my brother.
I finished year 12 and moved to Wagga Wagga to start a butchering apprenticeship, doing my trade and getting my formal learning through the vocational education and training system. I did my trade through a group training organisation – which is a supported model of vocational employment – and have, funnily enough, now found myself working for another group training organisation in AFL SportsReady.
When I began winning Indigenous vocational awards during my apprenticeship, I saw how I could use my recognition as a way to connect to culture and fire my passion to help community by example. Living in Wagga was important because there was much more community to connect to by sheer weight of numbers. I was ready and Wagga was there.
I was evolving as a successful Indigenous man. I could feel the power of being a leader and of what I could bring to other people. Wagga was a perfect circle for me. When I was investigating identity to find out who I was, I wasn’t doing it alone, I was doing it with a lot of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
I could see that the vocational education and training system was important to our people and started to see pathways to alternate learning that we could follow. From this insight I made the natural move into Indigenous employment. I have found that my passion is providing people with training and employment opportunities, guiding and empowering them through the barriers we all face as young people in our first “real job”.
Education is the key to equality. No one in Australia is going to be competitive in the jobs market with only year nine schooling to their name. We have to lift participation and retention and I see vocational education a great way to do that for many of our mob. Not all, because there are many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people going through school and uni successfully, but nowhere near enough.
Support is critical to many of us, because not all of us can do it alone. I am proud to be part of that support. I have come to be a part of some fantastic programs over the past five years, ranging from sports to corporates.
In my position helping kids get training and employment in the sports and recreation sector, so many of our mob only see the tip of the iceberg and want to be running out as a trainer with the Rabbitohs or setting up training drills for Buddy Franklin. But it’s part of my job to engage with community, and teach our young kids that there are so many opportunities behind the scenes. I’m seeing the same in the arts and culture sector – you don’t have to be an artist or performer to work in this space.
This is where we’ve had great success in the corporate sector. Not only are our brothers and sisters gaining exposure and entry level opportunities with some of the biggest corporations in the country, but we get to teach the corporations about how to deal with mob, and teach them about culture by raising awareness of some issues faced by our people.
In the arts and creative sector, we are trying to change the mindset of some of our largest cultural institutions by developing educational pathways for our mob and partnering with initiatives like Matsiti (More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teachers Initiative). My hope is that, in the near future, my kids will be taught by, and will be engaging culturally with, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers.
Not all of our mob are destined for university education and although it’s exciting to see the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people enrolling in university on the rise, the importance of entry level opportunities and education through vocational education and training is equally important.
Mentoring and supporting our brothers and sisters through this period is vital to the success of these initiatives, as is supporting employers around cultural issues. We are in a pretty important position when mentoring as we have a responsibility to change young people’s lives by guiding them down their career paths. And when we do that well, the flow-on effect to community can be so very powerful. That’s why working in this field so special.
“Our stories, our way” – each week, a new guest hosts the @IndigenousX Twitter account to discuss topics of interest to them as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people. Produced with assistance of Guardian Australia staff.