June 27, 2013

Deceit for a cause (or, why the ALNF irks me Pt.1)

Here's a shocking statistic:

It's courtesy of the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation, or ALNF, a Sydney-based charity that promotes literacy development among under-privileged groups, in particular Aboriginal people in remote Australia. To garner support for their cause, the ALNF has fantastic marketing and PR, with a seemingly endless line of celebrities who 'raise their hands' and successfully appeal to concerned public to part with their cash and fund their programs. Statistics like the one above are a great hook. They appeal to the guilt that many non-Indigenous people feel about Indigenous disadvantage and it gives them a way to feel like they are part of the "solution" without have to leave their urban locales. Here's another example from a couple of years back of just how impressive (and lucrative) their strategy - and that statistic - can be:

Someone like me who's worked in remote communities for years and is passionate about 'closing the gap' would be right behind the ALNF, right? Sadly, no. In fact, the opposite is true. There are many aspects about the ALNF that irritate me to my very core. But today I'm just going to tackle one: the "4 out of 5 kids can't read" statistic.

See, that statistic is misleading, inaccurate... it's just plain wrong. I've queried its accuracy with the ALNF a couple of times on social media and their response has been to simplistically point me to the NAPLAN website, the supposed source of their information. (Note that all they did was refer me to the NAPLAN homepage, as though that would suffice). I hunted around the published NAPLAN results and here's what I actually found:

The NAPLAN website provides various figures and results of their tests, such as the percentage of kids that are reaching national benchmarks at Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. But rather than saying that 4 out of 5 Aboriginal kids in the bush can't read, the NAPLAN site gives us the following results, the 2012 results of the Reading tests for Indigenous students in "very remote" areas:
Year 3 - 58.8% below national minimum standard
Year 5 - 78.6% below national minimum standard
Year 7 - 61.4% below national minimum standard
Year 9 - 73.7% below national minimum standard
There's no question that these results leave a lot to be desired - no-one is arguing against that. But do they prove, as the ALNF suggested, that their shocking statistic is accurate? No, it doesn't. I looked further, checking over results from 2010 and 2011 as well as the results of other literacy-based part of NAPLAN - writing, spelling and grammar/punctuation. They all showed very similar patterns to the results shown above.

So this is what's wrong here:
If 4 out 5 - or 80%- of kids can't read, then the NAPLAN figures should all be showing scores of around 80%. But they don't. One of the figures above is close to 80%, but what about the others? The Year 3 and Year 7 kids' results are closer to 50% than 80%. Is the ALNF just conveniently picking the worst scores and ignoring the better ones?

Regardless of the actual figures, the ALNF is inferring that below national minimum standard means can't read? This is quite a leap, and an unreasonable one. If kids aren't making benchmark, it does not mean that they can't read. It merely means that they didn't reach a benchmark level. And NAPLAN results are not without controversy mind you. They're the product of a controversial test administered under strict conditions with well-known problems, such as that it doesn't account for cultural background or the fact that many or most kids out bush are learning English as a second language. 

Concepts of literacy, illiteracy or "can't read" are complex. This UNESCO report gives a great overview of the varying ways in which "literacy" is understood and defined around the world. To say kids that "can't read" or are illiterate because they don't pass a NAPLAN test, is taking an extremely narrow view of what literacy is. Reading is a real-life activity. It's part of our social practice and relates to our lives and interests. Sitting a standardised test under strict conditions in a classroom misses so much of what "literacy" actually encompasses. If we expand our view of literacy as more than the stuff of standardised tests, we start to see that Aboriginal kids are resourceful young people who do in fact use literacy in many ways that are suitable and relevant to their lives. You only have to look at the astonishingly fast take-up of social media like Facebook by young people in the bush. For some great research on how young Aboriginal kids are engaging with literacy and technology, check out this recent excellent (and free) publication. Without doubt, remote students are lagging behind non-Indigenous urban counterparts, but it makes no sense to claim that only 1 in 5 kids in the bush can read when most of them use Facebook regularly.

Lastly, NAPLAN is an English-medium test and so any data stemming from NAPLAN actually refers only to English literacy and ignores literacy practices in any language other than English. It is true that literacy levels in Aboriginal languages are low, especially since bilingual education has been virtually abandoned. But people in the bush do still write in their own languages. Again, just look at Facebook - if you know where to look, you'll see plenty of young people expressing themselves in languages other than English.

I've pointed out these flaws to the ALNF a few times (including a mini-rant on Twitter that led to them blocking me from following them, see below). But they continue to use their false statistic in their fundraising campaigns.

But why does it matter if they keep promoting a false statistic? If the ALNF are using it for a good cause, then isn't that the main thing? The problem is that they are making out that Aboriginal kids in the bush are dumber than they actually are. This does nothing for the collective self-esteem of Aboriginal people and does nothing to foster an accurate understanding among non-Indigenous people of the lives of Aboriginal people. With the ALNF so effective with advertising and PR, thousands and thousands of Australians are being exposed to their marketing. (They posted this statistic to their 25,000+ Facebook followers as recently as two weeks ago and it got shared so much that would've appeared on hundreds of thousands of Facebook feeds). As I and others have pointed out before, the negative stuff that Aboriginal people are constantly exposed to in the media does have a detrimental effect, so it's really disappointing that the ALNF contributes to that.

In addition to negative social impacts, there is surely a regulatory issue if they are fundraising with a false statistic. The AANA Advertiser Code of Ethics says that "Advertising or Marketing Communications shall not be misleading or deceptive or be likely to mislead or deceive." (Section 1.2). The ALNF receives a significant amount of public donations in addition to the many people - celebrities and regular folk - who symbolically support them. Aren't some of them being misled by the ALNF who continue to promote this shocking-but-misleading statistic? I know that I'd be annoyed if I donated $1000 to a charity that used misleading statistics.

Still, it feels weird to criticise the ALNF when, like them, I'm passionate about Aboriginal issues, especially language issues. Their marketing is so effective that I feel like they've generated a feeling of "if-you're-not-with-us-then-you're-against-Aboriginal-people". It's almost like criticising them is akin to being openly racist! The truth couldn't be more wrong. The truth is that because of my concerns about how Aboriginal people in remote communities are treated and understood, it disturbs me that a major charity that tries to raise awareness of an important issue is actually promulgating misunderstanding with a false statistic that makes Aboriginal people look dumber than they are, all for their fundraising purposes. Not cool.

June 19, 2013

Complementary worlds in the Art Gallery of New South Wales

While many of my PhD days down south are lonely days, I did have an opportunity to spend a wonderful 24 hours in Sydney last week. The occasion was to visit one of my dearest oldest friends who now lives in New York but was on a rare visit to Australia. I jumped at the opportunity to catch up with her and booked myself on to the Murray's Canberra-Sydney express. (Which by the way, I love dearly, if only for the wonderfully ambiguous pre-recorded post-boarding message that says "We thank you for travelling with Murries/Murray's").

Aside from a great and soul-rejuvenating catch-up with the lovely Ms. Iacovella (continuing a friendship that goes back to being 20 and working at World4Kids Aspley), we spent a few hours wandering through the Art Gallery of New South Wales. One of our common interests is art - she's worked for various galleries for years and I've spent years in Ngukurr where many great artists come from, many of whom I've done language work with too. So it was great walking about the gallery with her. We both got equally excited when we spotted this in the main foyer:

 It's a stunning painting by Marra artist Ginger Riley (brother of Mack) called Ngakngak and the Ruined City. I never met Ginger but I've driven through this area and you can totally recognise the topography of the area in the painting. More than just a landscape, it's littered with totemic imagery: the ngag-ngag (white-breasted sea eagle) keenly and sternly watching over its country. And to the right you can just make out two snakes - also Dreamings/totems - either sneaking up on him or simply traversing their country.

We went on and checked out other parts of gallery, both enjoying the 20th Century Australian art. I didn't realise how familiar so much non-Indigenous Australian Art was to me, and how good it is. The magnificent Brett Whiteley piece, William Dobell's wonderful portraits, Sidney Nolan's really interesting and varied work and this brilliant piece by Grace Cossington-Smith. It was at this point that I turned a corner and saw this bit of awesomeness:


On the left is a beautiful Sidney Nolan landscape, Central Australia. Impressive enough. But the painting on the right is just as, if not more impressive and I recognised it instantly. It's Ruined City by Ngukurr artist and Marra elder Angelina George. I was blown away by seeing it there, next to a Sidney Nolan, in amongst the cream of Australia's best non-Indigenous 20th art. The two paintings fit together so well and how great that Angelina's painting isn't restricted to the Indigenous art section - a nice touch of creative curation.

It's not just the curation that I loved but the painting itself. Ruined City, or Burrunju, is an amazing site in Arnhem Land on Ngandi country. It's very remote and most of it is sacred and restricted but I had the absolute privilege of tagging behind some elders on a trip there last year and saw it for myself (only  non-sacred parts, mind you). Burrunju is visually stunning as well as spiritually and historically significant. As well as being a sacred site, old Betty (Angelina's sister) tells of when leprosy was prevalent in the Roper Mission and sufferers used Burrunju as a leprosarium - an on-country alternative to a 600 mile one-way trip to the official leprosarium on Channel Island. (See the fascinating article by Karen Hughes on this history).

Angelina's painting captures the landscape of Burrunju so wonderfully, just like Ginger does in his painting. Funnily enough, the blurb next to the artwork talks about how Angelina decided not to depict any trees in her landscape (for some apparent artistic reason). I was able to scoff at this instantly because there aren't any trees there to start off with! Here's a picture I took last year of just the tiny part of the fringe of Burrunju (it goes for miles) and I'm sure you can see that Angelina's painting captures the place's aesthetic quite brilliantly. And once you get into the rock formations, trees are rather scarce:

So those were the highlights of my quick visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. We also checked out the rest of the Indigenous art in the collection and there were many magnificent pieces, includes a stunning series of 50 year old bark paintings from Arnhem Land and the most stunning mask from the Torres Strait I've ever seen. 

Going back to Canberra on the Murray's my soul was refreshed, not just because of spending time with my lovely friend but because of this trip to the Art Gallery. It could have been such a clash of worlds: Aboriginal art depicting remote sites hung in a major metropolitan art gallery, being in Sydney when I'm now more comfortable and used to working remote and working with Aboriginal people, and struggling with the lonely life I'm currently living v. reuniting with a friend I've shared so much with. But funnily enough it wasn't a clash - all these worlds somehow managed to complement each other and sit comfortably together just like Sidney Nolan and Angelina George's paintings do. Awwww...

June 11, 2013

lonely days

At the moment, all I'm doing with my time is trying to get this PhD thesis written. About 60,000 words down, about 40,000 to go. I've pretty much eliminated all other tasks from my agenda so my to-do-list basically looks like:
  1. Write thesis
This can lead to some pretty lonely days. Like today. Basically I got up. I went to my office. I pored over data, I wrote a few hundred words, I procrastinated with some emailing and internet surfing. I ate lunch at my computer and by the time I left at the end of the day, I'd barely had contact with any other humans. 

It kinda sucks. But I just want to finish the damn thing. Sigh.

But I probably shouldn't write a completely dreary blogpost. So here's a neat video I saw today in Murrinh-Patha (the language of Wadeye) and English with a guy tricking people into thinking he's eating dogfood. :-)

June 07, 2013

Baba ba im. And a bidiyo.

I just noticed how odd this string of syllables looks:
... baba ba im, im ...
 But it's not odd at all. It's a perfect little string of Kriol words that means:
... his/her sibling is ... 
And who said Kriol words were hard to pronounce?

In other Kriol language learning news, the first of three Roper Kriol verbs videos is done and up on the Ngukurr Language Centre YouTube page. I mentioned on a previous post that while at Ngukurr recently, an audio recording session with two of the young guys who've been a great help to me with my Kriol research turned into an impromptu video recording session with them demonstrating some of the substrate verbs that are common in Roper Kriol. The first video shows three of the verbs: moi, gubarl and ngum. Kamahl's acting is suberb! You might notice the camera wobbling noticeably when he's scavenging (gubarl) cigarette butts. That's me trying not to laugh too much! Hope you like the vid. Parts 2 and 3 will be done soon hopefully.