Today is Australia’s National Close the Gap day. You may be wondering what that means – so I thought I would just share on our beautiful nation’s future challenges. Even if you are Australian, you can be completely unaware of what’s going on in our backyard, so to speak – I know I was, until I visited Alexandria Girls High School. Asked to speak to a group of year 10 girls, the brief I was given was “inspire them – let them know what you do, and that they can do the same”. I prepared a little chat for a normal Sydney High School – but when I got there, I realised this was unlike any school I had ever seen. Alexandria is about ten minutes from Sydney’s CBD and the historic school draws from Redfern as well as the other inner city suburbs Zetland, Alexandria, and Erskinville. It was under five minutes away from my house, and The University of Sydney. But the experiences of the girls there changed my life.
The girls were neatly dressed in blue uniforms, and quieter and sweeter than I expected… they dropped to the floor cross-legged in a circle, peppering me with questions before we started. One girl had brought party-poppers, and they let them off to honour a girl’s birthday, each laughing at their own surprise at the noise. They scooped up the streamers into a pile and wondered if they should throw them out, or if that ruined the fun. My friend Vera waited until the bell had gone to announce my name, after which they clapped politely. I meekly explained that I was a singer/songwriter and attending uni, at which the girls were audibly impressed, despite my embarrassment in my lack of perceived accomplishment. And, as I began to talk, their eyes became wider and wider… until I realised that there was a disconnect. I stopped and said, “Now I’ve shared a little about my life and how normal I am, I would like to get to meet YOU!”
Most of the girls lived in “The Block”, a notorious Aboriginal Government housing in the heart of Sydney. Every one of the twenty-one girls I spoke with that day had a family member in jail. A number offered that they had been sexually abused and removed by the Government, now living with their Grandmothers. Most of them did not know where their father was, or if he knew they existed, and one questioned if she even had a Grandfather, until she giggled at the thought. For some it seemed like there were a constant string of men through the house, many of which were dangerous and these girls preferred not to go home if they were there. One wide-eyed teenager told me that it was OK, she knew it wasn’t her mother’s boyfriend’s fault because petrol-sniffing was very addictive thing and so she understood he didn’t know what he was doing when he became angry. I gulped.
“OK”, I said “what we are going to do is get a piece of paper and a pen out”. They all scrambled for their bags until they had them and sat up attentive. “Now we are going to write down our dream”.
“What do you mean?” a girl asked.
“You know, a dream – something you would like to do in life”.
“Like what?” another girl queried.
“Like to play for Australia in sports?” a girl offered.
“Ok, yes. To play for Australia in a sport”.
“But I’m not good at sport!” another voice piped up.
“Ok”, I conceded. “How about you do this in pairs. If you run out of ideas, maybe you can think of a dream that you think the other girl could do”.
They split up, with one little girl left out. I dropped down onto the floor and said “Ok, I’ll be your partner”.
She smiled sadly at me. “I don’t have a dream,” she whispered.
“You don’t have any dream at all?” I asked her… “think really hard about it – just one thing you’d like to do after school”
“Do you think I could get a job?” she asked.
“Do I think you could get a job? Of course!!” I said. “What type of job do you want?” I pressed.
“I’m not sure,” she answered. “No one in my family has a job.”
I gasped quietly, and I knew she was telling the truth. “OK. Do you know anyone else who has a job?”
“Yes, my friend Elly has a job at McDonalds. Maybe I could get a job at Maccas”. And, as I nodded at her encouragingly, while I fought off the tears, she confidently wrote down on her piece of paper: “My Dream is to have a job at Maccas.” And then she drew little flowers around the line, until the bell went and all the girls jumped to their feet, waved goodbye and melted out into a sea of blue uniforms. I will never forget that fifteen year old, or the conversation we had. She gave me the gift of gratefulness, for all the incredible opportunity I have been given.
The reality is that although we are a developed nation, not all of our citizens have the same equality. This is particularly true in regards to our Aboriginal community. While life expectancy of all Australian women is now 82, and Australian men is 77, Indigenous women have an average life expectancy of 65, and an Indigenous man has an average life expectancy of 60. Of course, these figures are indicative of a much wider gap, in quality of life and health care overall.
But it isn’t necessarily the stereotypical images that the media likes to foster that cause these alarming statistics. In fact, Aboriginal children are twice as likely to die than non-Indigenous children. And they are dying not from neglect, or abuse, but from the kinds of diseases that are almost non-existent in the wider population.
The appalling state of Indigenous health today is a result of decades of neglect and inadequate services. Poverty caused by high unemployment, poor housing and education, discrimination, unresolved trauma and a lack of empowerment have all contributed to the situation. (“Australia’s Indigenous Health Crisis in Depth” http://www.oxfam.org.au)
The problems of living in remote communities are vast. There are issues with language barriers, particularly in low education areas. There are stories of cultural divides so wide that mothers carry their children to the clinic and watch them die overnight rather than use a simple antibiotic administered by a busy white doctor who failed to explain what the medicine does and its necessity, the doctor assuming the mother understands (“Why Warriors Lay Down and Die”, Richard Trudgen). No informed mother would choose this for their child.
ALL Australians need to understand why “Close the Gap” is important. We don’t all have to say that we will be personally involved in Aboriginal healthcare, but we all have to say that we want change. The voices against Aboriginal empowerment are so loud, so judgmental, and, dare I say it so self-justifying that we are going to need a groundswell of voices that say that they do care. And when I am old, and speaking to my grandchildren, I do not want to answer questions as to why I didn’t take action when our people were suffering greatly. I believe it is these matters of integrity that make the soul of the nation.
You can watch a great video on the training of Aboriginal health workers and the distance in health care here (cut and paste into browser): [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fh8Q3QOS95I&utm_source=GenerationOne+List&utm_campaign=b5410711c6-GenerationOne_110324_NatCloseGapDay&utm_medium=email]
And you can sign the pledge here:http://www.oxfam.org.au/act/take-action/close-the-gap/sign-the-pledge?utm_source=GenerationOne+List&utm_campaign=b5410711c6-GenerationOne_110324_NatCloseGapDay&utm_medium=email