“Literacy is critical” - Jack Beetson on defying expectations and Literacy for Life
Jack Beetson holds many roles and titles, including Executive Director of Tranby College in Sydney (Australia's oldest independent Aboriginal community-controlled college) and United Nations 'Unsung Hero of Peace' for his work on Reconciliation, and yet while at school, Jack suffered under a skewed conception of the academic capabilities of Indigenous students.
Despite being an outstanding student and having extremely high potential to achieve, at high school on NSW’s north western coast Jack was discouraged from doing the harder subjects that he wished to pursue such as commerce and history. Instead, he was told by teachers that “that’s just not the kind of thing Aboriginal kids do”, and was diverted to metal work and social science subjects that did not align with his interests or academic potential.
In rebellion against his school and teachers, Jack left as early as he could and worked several factory jobs, but soon learned that he wanted to do more with his life, and that educational disparity was a huge barrier facing Indigenous success.
“I often refer to making a person literate running second only to restoring the sight of a blind person,” said Jack, speaking to Richard Fidler on ABC Radio.
“You’ve got whole families, whole households who can’t read and write. Imagine coming home from the pharmacy with a medicine bottle and nobody in the family being able to read what the dosage of the medicine is. Aside from being dangerous, how can your health or anything in your life improve if you can’t read and write?”
To combat this, Jack Beetson helped found the Literacy for Life Foundation - a campaign that works with communities to help build a culture that supports and values learning, and encourages adults to become literate in English.
Even though the Foundation has only been running since 2013, they have seen huge successes already, an outcome that Jack attributes to the onus the Foundation places on the community to become self-sufficient and take ownership of the delivery of the campaigns. In this way, focus is placed on long term change rather than a temporary fix.
“76% of the people enrolled graduate. Now that’s in a town where other education providers are graduating people, at best, at 10%. That’s how good this program is,” said Jack.
“The campaign is about getting the whole community involved in the solution, and the solution is literacy.”
For Mr Beetson, “literacy is critical”, and is absolutely the key to gaining rights for the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.
Speaking about what lead him to literacy work, Jack stated that Aboriginal communities "didn’t need me to fight for their human rights, they needed to be able to fight for their own, and education is a very good tool for doing that, and that for me begins with reading and writing.”
The Literacy for Life Foundation has been established to address the issue of very low literacy levels in Aboriginal Adults, and was recently the subject of the film In My Own Words, directed by Erica Glynn and showcased at the Sydney Film Festival. For more information on Literacy for Life, visit their website.
Image: ABC Radio - Conversations