On the Anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations on 13 February, schools across Australia will remember the stories of Indigenous Australians.
Vicki Clark was on holidays when she had a work-related brainwave. A mere ten days later, that spark took the form of 4,000 students across the country declaring 'I feel proud today'. It was 13 February, the fourth anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations by the Australian Federal Parliament.
It is worth noting at this point that this astonishingly quick turnaround seems typical of the passionate woman who has led Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Victoria for over 22 years. 'It's a big job', she admits wryly. 'You have to keep creating something new, or you get stale.'
Vicki had been reflecting on the Apology in the lead-up to the anniversary when she became struck by other dates whose significance seems to have been lost. 'If I asked teachers and students today, "Can you tell me what happened on 27 May 1967?" many of them wouldn't have a clue.'
She knew if she wanted people to remember the Apology she had to start in schools. 'That's where the energy is', she says, explaining that the opportunities for change lie in young people – the next generation of Australians. It helps that schools have become far more inclusive of Aboriginal perspectives. She drew confidence from the solid support base for Aboriginal Catholic Ministry.
She also knew that students would have to take ownership of the project, in both practical and spiritual terms. It needed to be something that they could plan and implement, but its significance needed to be internalised, too. 'It was about them feeling proud about what Kevin Rudd had said', Vicki says. 'The Apology was not just about blackfellas but us as a nation.'
The declaration 'I feel proud today', first made by students last year, thus emerges from the idea that 13 February belongs to all Australians. While the catharsis from hearing the word 'sorry' was felt most keenly by the Stolen Generations and their families, the healing intent was for everyone.
Vicki was keen to sustain this spirit and pondered how to extend the life of the initial campaign.
When she re-read the speech, she found the phrase 'proud race' particularly resonant. 'There are too many students walking out of our schools who have never met an Aboriginal person or don't know the Aboriginal story, despite having been educated for 13 years.'
She points out that historical figures such as William Barak, Burnum Burnum and Sir Doug Nicholls ought to be household names, but are sadly not. 'What's going on?' she asks.
While developing ideas to fill this gap, she remembered visiting a school where students had each designed a bollard based on a person who is important to them. The sight of 90 bollards representing these special connections struck deeply and hard.
'It touched me', she says. 'I was surrounded by these "people" who were significant to other people. It was moving.' She realised that if it could evoke such a reaction from her, it could do the same for others.
She thus organised the Proud Race project around the use of bollards. Students design the bollards based on a local or regional Indigenous person, with their story written on the back. These life-size, wooden figures are then displayed on campus, positioned to become part of school commemorations of the Apology for years to come. Adding new bollards could form part of the annual ceremony.
'For a long, long time, Aboriginal people have been outcasts', she says. 'But if a young person, in designing a bollard, gets to know the story of an Aboriginal person and then says, "This is my Proud Race person", then we're no longer outcast. People can begin to respect and understand us.'
In this sense, Proud Race is about transformation. It seeks to cultivate positive connections for young people, linking them to Indigenous historical figures and stories, as well as local councils and reconciliation groups.
Around 150 schools have registered for the project with 300 bollards despatched so far. These numbers are expected to rise sharply as more and more schools across the country embrace the campaign. Vicki is heartened by the response. She says there is danger in losing sight of the monumental impact of events like the Apology. 'If we choose to forget, then we're really denying things within ourselves. It is not healthy.' She hopes that the respect and mutual understanding engendered by Proud Race will ensure people will always remember, and that by owning the past, the future could be better shared.
Sharing Indigenous stories
Lorraine Nelson, Aboriginal woman and a friend of Catholic Ladies College in Melbourne, has been sharing her story with students at the school for the five years. The CLC Reconciliation Group worked with Lorraine to paint her story on bollards in a style respectful to Lorraine's culture, using her totems of the Bunjil and long-neck turtle and other symbols of her story. The bollards will be displayed at the school as part of the Proud Race initiative to mark the anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations on 13 February.
Apology to the Stolen Generations – 13 February 2008
'The time has come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history... 'We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
'We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.
'For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
'To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
'And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.'
Full text: www.dfat.gov.au/indigenous/apology-to-stolen-generations/national_apology.html