There is a clear gap in the quality of life between the Indigenous and Non-Indigenous people in this country. The ‘closing the gap’ issue has been described as a wicked problem: a social problem that is difficult to solve due to incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise. The gap is greatest with those living in the remote communities – like those of North East Arnhem Land. Complex interdependencies between education, health and empowerment mean that efforts to solve one aspect of this wicked problem can reveal or create other problems. As our government of the day feebly tries to close the gap with misguided funding, I’m reminded of the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Clearly, we need a new approach to this complex, wicked problem.
My association with the Yolngu people of NE Arnhem began in 1999 when I was employed as a secondary teacher at Gapuwiyak Community Education Centre, 200km inland by four wheel drive from the mining town of Nhulunbuy. I was instantly amazed by the strength of the Yolngu culture and their willingness to share this with the visitors, like myself, who travel to work up there. My Principal was Shirley Nirrupurrandji, a proud Yolngu woman, leader and educator. Nirrupurrandji explained to me that the Yolngu are happy to share their culture because they know that it will seep into our hearts and change our lives forever. Nirrurrpurandji wasn’t wrong. Melissa and I started the Marrma’ Rom Two Worlds Foundation in Geelong in 2011, in partnership with the communities of NE Arnhem Land, because we saw a need to further develop the next generation of leaders of Arnhem Land. It was also an opportunity to give something back to the first people of this country, in particular the Yolngu, after having received so much from them during the time we spent living up there.
Most well-meaning efforts to close the gap involve Non-Indigenous experts preaching the latest best practice procedures to a disengaged, disempowered Indigenous audience. The Marrma’ Rom Two Worlds Foundation believes that a more effective, sustainable approach is to train local community members with the skills and knowledge to deliver this information and become role models of best practice in their families and community. In this way, real, long-term change can be created from the inside. It’s not a quick fix approach. We provide opportunities to improve educational, health, independence and understanding of the western culture to young men and women who are regarded as future leaders of their communities. These young adults will be enriched and empowered by their experiences and learning so that they can make informed decisions in the future, and become role models in the communities.
The participants in the Marrma’ Rom Two Worlds Foundation Leadership program stay with Melissa and I in a ‘home’ style boarding arrangement; they live downstairs in a self-contained apartment, yet they have us upstairs for support and guidance. This is the point of difference between our holistic leadership program and sending the students to an expensive private boarding school. The students live in a home environment in which they are cared for, yet given freedom and challenged to become independent. Melissa and I understand cultural differences and are able to engage and educate them at a deeper level, below the surface of what they encounter day-to-day, at a level where real understanding takes place. It is a small and focused arrangement, yet highly cost effective when compared to sending students to boarding schools where they can easily become just another student, another number. Our results speak for themselves, and we are proud that we have expanded and are able to give opportunities to both young women and men.