Improving literacy skills is the necessary first step to improve lives, before one can get within "a bull's roar" of 'Closing the Gap', Indigenous education advocate Professor Jack Beetson said at UNE on Wednesday.
"If you can't read or write, you don't even know there is a gap," Professor Beetson said.
Professor Beetson is executive director of the Literacy for Life Foundation. The foundation combats low adult literacy rates in Aboriginal communities where English is not the main language, and traditional schooling hasn't widely worked.
It uses an adult education model developed in Cuba (where 99.75 per cent of adults can read), and rolled out to 10 million people in 30 countries.
The adult literacy learning model is now transforming Aboriginal communities in western NSW.
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Without knowing how to read or write, Professor Beetson said it's impossible for people to understand the inequality that exists, and to fully participate in society. The wider community needs to own this issue.
"Literacy is never the fault of the people that have low literacy. It's our fault, our challenge," he said.
Over seven years, the Literacy for Life campaign has run across 11 communities including Brewarrina, Wilcannia, Toomelah, and Walgett to improve life skills and opportunity.
The campaign enables individuals to gain literacy skills in just 11 weeks, with a 66 per cent graduation rate.
It opens up opportunities far beyond education and employment, Professor Beetson said: it encourages "active citizenship".
"People engage less with the justice system. They have a greater chance of getting a licence. They get on [community] boards.
"It helps people make better decisions; I'm convinced we're doing that," Professor Beetson said.
It's also about empowerment.
"Participants say 'we learn to read and write, but even better than that, we learn to talk for ourselves'."
The Literacy for Life model works, Professor Beetson said, because it's community-led and community-backed. The Literacy for Life Foundation only works with communities they're invited into. And they've always been invited back.
"If they [the communities] don't own it, it doesn't work. They have to lead the way," he said.
"It's not about getting a bunch of individuals to read and write, it's about getting the community to value learning.
"You value it through experience and through your parents and your grandparents.
"When we went back to Wilcannia, people were talking about reading to their kids. [Valuing learning] becomes self-perpetuating."
Professor Beetson urged the academic community to conduct all research collaborations with Indigenous partners carefully, ethically, and meaningfully, and to ensure research benefits flow back to the research participants.
UNE has partnered with the Literacy for Life Foundation since 2012 to measure and evaluate the impact of the literacy campaigns.
Professor Beetson delivered the first public lecture in honour of UNE lecturer Neville Crew, a passionate advocate for lifelong learning and education.
For more information on the work of Literacy for Life Foundation visit www.lflf.org.au.