What does it mean to have your voice heard – truly heard? Why is it important that our communities are the heart of decision-making and leadership for outcomes that will affect us? This October 2023, Australians will be asked a simple question: should we recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our national constitution? As we head to the polls and the campaign heats up, we wanted to ask both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people why they will be voting Yes. In this collection, diverse storytellers came together to share their personal and real-life experiences that is motivating their support for the proposed Voice to Parliament. No matter what happens at this referendum, whether a majority of Australians vote yes or no – their voices continue to be a call for change. A call for a better, more just future… For an Australia that celebrates and recognises Indigenous sovereignty.
This story was shared by Ballardong Noongar writer, editor and teacher Casey Mulder. Casey’s story is about her first experience as a graduate teacher working in the remote Aboriginal community of Halls Creek in the Kimberley. This story was recorded at Centre for Stories in September 2023.
More about the storyteller…. Casey is a Ballardong Noongar woman from Western Australia. She is a Secondary English teacher and Student Services leader within schools. Casey has a keen interest in First Nations storytelling in all its forms. In 2022, she received a Creative Development Scholarship from Magabala Books to complete an editing mentorship at Night Parrot Press. She currently has a Writing Fellowship at the Centre for Stories in Perth, to work on a memoir manuscript, and is the First Nations Editor for Westerly Magazine.
Hear Our Voice was made possible with funding from the Australia Communities Foundation.
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Copyright © 2023 Casey Mulder
Photo by Logan Griffiths.
This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.
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CM: So, I grew up in a small town in the wheatbelt called Quairading. My family, my mum’s family grew up there in Ballardong Nyungar and they grew up in in towns kind of on the periphery of Quairading and we moved back when I was a small child.
School was just an absolute dream for me. I started reading quite young, always love stories, always love writing. And pretty much from the moment I was allowed to be there, I was absolutely besotted. I remember writing books from probably year one that was terrible, but my mum read them very willingly, thankfully. But two years later, my brother also started school at our local district, high school, and for him it was a miserable place in a lot of ways as he moved into his school years, he did not enjoy writing, did not enjoy writing.
He would later get an ADHD diagnosis and really struggled with dyslexia as well. And so those things to me that was so pivotal to my love for school were the absolute opposite for him. But all the while I watched him learn voraciously. Really, he would learn on country. He would learn off our dad in the shed. He would be out on farms learning about farming practices. So, while school didn’t particularly suit him, I was able to recognize that we were both learning at a similar rate. We were just learning in incredibly different ways. And I think the contrast of those things really, really stuck with me and has really shaped kind of the paths I’ve taken as an adult.
And all of this led me to eventually study teaching at uni. And gratefully, when I studied there was one other Aboriginal woman in my course who was quite a bit older than me and she really took me under her wing.
Yeah, she was really, really encouraging and we’ve stayed in contact all these years, which has been brilliant. When I finished uni, I made the choice to join the remote teachers pool in Western Australia, which means that you are saying that you are willing to teach in any remote school. When I did that, I actually put some preferences. My first preference was Halls Creek District High School, which is up in the East Kimberley. It’s kind of a meeting point between [unintelligible] country, and after I send my forms in, I was nervous but really excited and really thankful to be finally finishing uni. And I get a call from the principal of the school who wanted to just double check with me that my first preference of Halls Creek District High School was in fact intentional and wasn’t a mistake.
I quickly realized that nobody puts Halls Creek District High School as their first preference. I think, you know, it did kind of set it apart for me in the sense that although I’d never been to the Kimberley before and I, you know, I was nervous about the move, it would be my first full time job, my first time living alone.
I had made the choice to really want to be there and I really wanted to be immersed in a strong Aboriginal community. And you know, back then, as it does now, Halls Creek makes the news for so many reasons. Most of them negative. And I was so confident having grown up, including in my own small town, that there’s so much richness in small communities and unfortunately those aren’t the stories that make the news. And so, I was confident that I would be met with that richness, and I would be met with brilliant young people and an incredible community that would embrace me. And that was very much what happened.
So, you know, I quickly realized that while there are challenges for Aboriginal kids in schools across Australia, you know, in the Kimberley, kids are coming to school with their own first languages, with Aboriginal English being spoken as well, predominately in town and then also Creole. And so, you know, kids are already code switching between those languages before they enter school and then as soon as they get into school, standard Australian English is thrown into the mix. And it just made me realize that even outside of the Kimberley there isn’t this respect shown for the wealth of knowledge that Aboriginal kids are bringing into the Western education system when they enter it.
And language is a big part of that, but so is all the cultural knowledge that they’ve gained, you know, their lives. This they’re five, six years old when they’re starting school, they’ve learned so much by this point. But what happens when school is taught in standard Australian English with that immediate value for other languages is that kids aren’t necessarily taught to celebrate what they already know and what they bring.
And I found that really devastating. And as I as I got to know, a lot of the brilliant Aboriginal educators that are from Halls Creek, you know, I learned about two way learning and methods that have been developed to concurrently teach standard Australian English alongside Aboriginal languages and how much that can fill kids with such a sense of pride and also help them develop the skills to actually translate the language learning that has already occurred over to this new language that they’re learning in the school context.
I remember being out at this place called Caroline Pool, which is about, I don’t know, 10, 15 kms out of town with a group of women that I was really close friends with and all their kids. And, you know, we were climbing over the rocks and the kids were teaching me about the animals in the area. And then the sun set, and we all sat in a circle around the fire and, and some food was cooked and the kids went for it.
And I remember the women just saying, no, you know, Casey’s our guest. We’re going to serve her first and then and then we can share this amongst us. And I just remember moments like that thinking, you know, there isn’t the same scope within the way we understand the institution of education to really value what was happening in that moment, which is which absolutely is learning.
And the beautiful part of it was that it wasn’t just me watching the kids learning. All of a sudden, I was positioned to be learning reciprocally, like I didn’t know much at all about that country. And here I was, you know, just able to gain so much from what the kids and their families were teaching me, which I was so grateful for.
There was another time where we were out camping. There was a boy’s camp with Clontarf and we’d gone out to one of the stations and we’d ridden out to this particular camp spot and as a female teacher, I wasn’t staying overnight. It was very much a men’s boys thing, but I’d gone to help with the evening, and I remember looking over at one of the young boys that I had in my class at the time, and he was just the most hilarious kid.
Still is that he’s so funny. His storytelling skills are next level and I remember in class he would just get in trouble often because of how quick witted he was, but how much he lacked self-control and wisdom in terms of when to employ the skills that he had. Anyway, we’d had a big yarn about it and I’d said, “Look, mate, you know, the world needs people like you. You know, we need people that are funny and that bring, you know, you bring cohesion, you bring us together as a class. When you tell these, these yarns and these jokes and we need you. But we’ve also got to learn that, you know, we’ve got to be careful not to tear other people down and we’ve got to be careful to use our skills at the right time.”
And, you know, we would chat about this and it actually led to me setting up this practice in our school, in our class, where we’d have a circle every day and everyone would have a chance to say something that was going on for them. Or sometimes I’d pose a very specific question, and a lot of the kids really struggled with that.
But it was part of kind of building that connectedness in that classroom space. Anyway, at the end of the time, I would sit 5 minutes on the clock and then I would just let him tell whatever story he wanted every single day, and we would be in fits of laughter. And I think through that, you know, he did learn how to use that skill in that context.
Anyway, back to this camping trip I look over, there are a couple of different campfires and I look over to one and all the younger boys have pulled their swags into this big circle faces in. And I just look and I see his face lit up by firelight and he is just spinning the biggest yarn. And you can see the other boys just like rolling around laughing at this kid.
And yeah, I just I was so moved actually, like really moved by watching him just totally flourish in a gift. That’s his. And in time, I actually started inviting families of that class into the classroom. And one of the things we used to do together is sing. So, we’d pick a song, the kids would pick a song and we’d print the lyrics, and then families would come in for lunch once, once a week, and we’d all just sing these songs together.
And, you know, I don’t really remember exactly how that idea took shape, and it can be potentially awkward, but I just remember at the end of that year how incredible those times were of having those families in that room with us. And again, you know, presented me with the opportunity to learn about their children from their perspectives and also to learn from them more broadly, because I was, you know, keenly aware that as a normal kid, you know, here I am a visitor in this country.
That’s not my own being so embraced by the people of that country. And, you know, I think that it’s a really beautiful example of some of the challenges that exist in the Western model of average of education for Aboriginal young people, but also how there is scope to kind of work within that to sell of bright the knowledge and the skills that Aboriginal young people bring into that space and also build really meaningful relationships.
So later in my career, in a different school, in a different state, you know, I became interested in the way that school was managing its, as it was called, its indigenous program. You can hear you can hear my tone of voice already. So I went along to some professional development that was being conducted and the men that was in leadership of the Indigenous program was not an Indigenous man, which happens, unfortunately more than it should, especially within education.
And, you know, I listened to the stories of his work with the boys, and I knew a lot of the boys already, and I was watching them navigate, you know, this this very different school to their home communities and their families were incredibly supportive and wanted them to to be there. But there were still the challenges of kind of, you know, code switching to this very different world.
Anyway, this man said from the front of the room, in front of, you know, 50 teachers, we tell our boys that they are part of this school first and the Aboriginal second. And I was absolutely appalled and so furious because in that moment I saw what the system can still do to the sense of identity of our young people when it doesn’t ascribe value to their Aboriginality and their culture and their heritage first. And in that moment, I realized that he truly believed that their identity as students at this school was a higher priority than their culture.
And so, as I think about us, you know, as a people moving towards the referendum and looking to vote for, you know, a Voice to parliament, I think about the systems that can sometimes constrain us and I think about our history and how fraught with struggle it’s been. And I think about I think about what happens when a group of Aboriginal people come together and speak to the issues that affect us and come up with creative ideas that can potentially become solutions to some of those challenges.
And I think about those examples in that little classroom in Halls Creek, you know, many years ago. And I think I think about, you know, I think about Aboriginal people feeling, feeling seen and valued in this nation. And, you know, I agree that you know, there’s the Voice and I think it’s so important, and there’s truth telling. And there’s treaty and I acknowledge, you know, the elders and what they put forward in the [Uluru] statement from the heart. And I think that while we can’t necessarily expect the system itself to change, we know the system that we live within. I do think that we as a mob can contribute to the system in a meaningful way while still staying true to who we are and firmly grounded in our own culture.