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covid-19 Foundation Opinion

Keeping vision for Indigenous literacy strong despite COVID-19

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Indigenous literacy

At the beginning of 2020, all of us at the Indigenous Literacy Foundation had high hopes for this year.

Early in February, we gathered our team together with our Patrons, June Oscar and Quentin Bryce, our Founder Suzy Wilson and ambassadors who included everyone from Anita Heiss to Josh Pyke, to deliver our vision and an incredibly exciting program for the year ahead.

For the first time ever we told the forum, our national advocacy day – Indigenous Literacy Day, would be held in a remote location, involving children and elders from a number of remote communities, new books in language and a big gala dinner.The air was abuzz and our team knuckled down and started putting some big plans into place.

Much of our excitement stemmed from 2020 marking our 10th anniversary as an independent charity.

As a not-for-profit organisation founded by the Australian Book Industry, ILF receives no government funding. So we were – and still are! – immensely proud of what we’ve achieved.

It’s been a dynamic decade for us – and the year ahead was bringing big changes with strategically planned growth in all aspects of our business and importantly, a new Chair of the Board and diversification of our directors. Back in January our three core programs – Book Buzz, Book Supply and Community Literacy Projects – were all still running at full steam and our fundraising efforts were flourishing.

Importantly, we were not only continuing to build – and build upon – our relationships, not only with remote Indigenous communities across Australia but also with our generous supporters and donors – but we were looking to expand our program team with a number of new positions

Then COVID-19 struck. Like other NFPs, we had little choice but to quickly adapt our strategies. Out of the blue, we were catering for an uncertain future. Having just experienced a period of considerable growth, suddenly ILF was struggling to remain viable and keep our team intact.

Despite the challenges and setbacks brought on by the pandemic, we remain focused on our work and true to our vision. Most of our programs have been maintained, albeit with a degree of tweaking.

It goes without saying that adjustments were necessary, some bigger than others. For instance, the sudden lockdowns of remote Indigenous communities relatively early on meant that any plans for field trips and on-the-ground workshops with kids had to be cancelled.

Even so, we kept on delivering books. Lots of them! Despite, or maybe partly because of COVID-19, requests from remote communities for literacy supplies surged. By March, we’d processed orders for 82,000 books, all of which we gifted free of charge. And our new 3-year, multi-faceted partnership with Australia Post ensured the books were safely delivered.

Then, as more of the communities and organisations we work were locked down, the orders kept flowing. Come June, we’d almost reached our annual quota of nearly 100,000 books.

Meanwhile, some 12,000 books – written and illustrated by kids and adults in remote communities, in their first languages – began arriving in our warehouse. These books have all been produced via our Community Literacy Projects program, and 2020 marks the publication of our 100th book in an Indigenous language – another major milestone!

These latest books are currently being distributed throughout the Kimberley region and around Katherine in the Northern Territory. Soon, many more will be delivered to the Torres Strait Islands.

We know kids learn to read best in their first language. And we have seen the immense pride of parents being able to share stories written in their own language with their little ones – stories that have meaning and context for their culture and community. It’s empowering.

Why is it important that ILF keeps working with remote-living Indigenous people? Because in some households in these communities there are fewer than five books. In fact, many of these families own no books at all.

What’s more, school libraries and classroom collections often have insufficient stock or the books are damaged, outdated or not relevant to the life experiences of students. Little wonder literacy levels are so low in so many of these places.

So in spite of COVID-19, we’re still doing all we can to ensure that quality, culturally appropriate books continue to reach the over 400 early learning centres, schools, language centres, and health and other ancillary services we deliver to.

Over the past decade our vision has not wavered. We are about equity of opportunity for all Australian children, no matter where they live.

And much of our success stems from our community-led approach and continued respectful engagement with elders and other community members, including children of all ages. I’m incredibly proud of what ILF does – and of our wonderful, hardworking team, which includes our dedicated patrons, ambassadors, board members and volunteers.

Even from sometimes vast distances – way more than 1.5 metres – I feel privileged to witness the joy and curiosity that books bring. And every day, I hear first-hand what it means for communities to be able to produce their own stories, in their first languages. The elders tell us how important this is, and how absolutely essential it is for the younger generation to have access to “two-way” learning.

Education has a profound impact on a person’s life and being able to read is the cornerstone of education. And to learn to read, you need access to books. It’s as simple as that.

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