On the Leura ridge where their traditional lands meet, Gundungurra community member David King and Darug Elder Uncle Chris Tobin together welcomed more than 500 delegates to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Education NSW State Conference. Smoke from fresh local eucalyptus scented the crisp alpine air providing an atmospheric beginning to an event focused on Closing the Gap in educational outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people.
Proudly hosted by Catholic Schools NSW and Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta, educators from across Australia gathered at the Fairmont Resort in the beautiful Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. Diocese of Parramatta Bishop Vincent Long, who heads up the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, led a moving prayer during the Opening Ceremony, responding to reflections from Uncle Chris Tobin. The Conference featured many memorable liturgies and prayerful encounters.
A highlight of the program was an inspiring conversation between MC Professor Anita Heiss, a proud Wiradjuri woman and noted Australian author and 2021 Senior Australian of the Year Dr Aunty Miriam Rose Ungunmerr Baumann. Dr Aunty Miriam Rose is an iconic figure in Catholic education, having been the first fully qualified Aboriginal teacher in the Northern Territory. Her reflections reinforced the importance of education, which she said is essential if you want to get somewhere in your life journey. Stay tuned for further coverage of Dr Aunty Miriam’s presentation to the conference.
Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Schools NSW Dallas McInerney reflected on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on schools and on ministry, including a deepening of the divide between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and schools. However, there are many positives to celebrate too. The number of first nations students in Catholic schools (9,500) is higher now than at any other time in our history, with almost all of those enrolled in systemic Catholic schools achieving the national standard in NAPLAN. NSW Catholic schools also have the highest attendance rate of all sectors for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. “In some ways, the work will never ever be done,” he said. “We will never fall but we might stumble. It is a joint and a shared mission. It is a great honour to work in this sector.”
Minister for Indigenous Australians Hon Linda Burney MP headlined the event, calling delegates to action on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Minister Burney acknowledged that the Catholic Schools NSW Aboriginal Education Strategy seeks increases in enrolments, retention and post-school transitions as well as improvements in numeracy and literacy and NAPLAN results as part of a shared commitment to Closing the Gap on education outcomes. Read more about the speech from Minister Burney here.
Channel 9 entertainment journalist Brooke Boney, a proud Gamilaroi Gomeroi woman, joined the Conference to share her experiences as a young Aboriginal person. She also responded to the strong voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from Catholic schools who spoke about their Country and Aboriginal identity, as well as their experiences and education. Brooke was interviewed by Josh Sly from Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta’s Jarara Cultural Centre. Stay tuned for further coverage of Brooke’s speech to the conference.
Also sharing an inspiring but, at times, heartbreaking personal story was Isaiah Dawe, Founder and CEO of ID. Know Yourself, an Aboriginal-led mentoring service for First Nations children and youth living in out-of-home care or the foster system. Separated from his family and placed into the out-of-home care system at two years of age, Isaiah later became a ward of the state and grew up in 17 different foster homes. He experienced limiting beliefs, abuse and abandonment from foster carers before a caring Elder who taught him about his culture and “an incredible school teacher who never gave up on me” helped him to find his true path. “My purpose was found in my wounds. Helping other Aboriginal kids in care made me realise what I wanted to do, to make a difference in people’s lives,” he told a tearful audience. There will be further coverage of Isaiah’s speech to the conference soon.
Informative concurrent sessions, weaving workshops and yarning circles across the two full days of the program allowed delegates to dive deeply into areas of particular interest and share best practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education. Sessions covered topics such as the Murama Youth Leadership Project, the Totem Project, establishing a ‘culturally nourishing school’, post school pathway planning, healing and reconciliation with people, plants and place, and case studies of Closing the Gap programs and activities successfully implemented in schools.
The Conference included On Country Experiences, such as sunrise walks for groups of early risers and Aboriginal astronomy for the night owls! A packed program featured an extraordinary array of workshops from Aboriginal education experts, teachers, artists and community leaders. There was a warm, community vibe as colleagues and new contacts caught up socially throughout the event. A performance from Eric Avery, violinist, vocalist, dancer and composer of the Ngiyampaa, Yuin and Gumbangirr people of NSW, was a particular highlight.
There were also many wonderful performances from Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta students, including a beautiful rendition of the Belonging Song by students from St Bernadette’s Primary Lalor Park, Holy Famly Primary Emerton and St Columba’s Catholic College Springwood. A mesmerising Dragonfly Dance by students from St Canice’s Primary Katoomba, St Finbar’s Primary Glenbrook, Our Lady of the Nativity Primary Lawson and St Thomas Aquinas Primary Springwood was met with a standing ovation from delegates. Uncle Chris Tobin introduced the dance with wonderful traditional stories of how some of the natural wonders in the Blue Mountains came to be and the origin of the dragonfly, which the ‘sky spirit’ created from a rainbow cracked by strong winds. Uncle Chris said the story reminds us all that “God is still with us even when our world starts to crack and shatter”.
The Opening Ceremony included a stunning dance performance from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from Catherine McAuley Westmead and Caroline Chisholm College Glenmore Park. The CEDP Senior Dance Group Murama Leadership Project kicked off the final day with an incredible outdoor dance performance that, despite the bracingly cold winds, was met with awe and delight by the assembled Conference delegates as well as a trio of nearby horses and one very curious magpie! This group included students from Patrician Brothers’ College Blacktown, St Agnes Catholic High School Rooty Hill and St Clare’s Catholic High School Hassall Grove. The Jannawi Dance Clan, a community-based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance company, performed both traditional and contemporary pieces at the closing ceremony which also included a liturgy with an oil blessing.
Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta Executive Director Greg Whitby spoke at both the opening and conclusion of the event, urging all delegates to take what they heard back to their communities and continue to play their part in Closing the Gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people. There were also thanks to everyone involved in the event including Elders, co-hosts Catholic Schools NSW and Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta including Jarara Cultural Centret, students, allies and the many wonderful sponsors who supported the event. The Message Stick that signifies the responsibility to take the spirit of the Conference forward has now been passed to the Diocese of Armidale for 2025.
With thanks to Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta.