In June of 2006 I was lucky to be in Paris for the opening ceremonies of the Musée du quai Branly and the celebrations surrounding the unveiling of the Australian Indigenous Art Commission (AIAC). Designs based on the works of eight Aboriginal artists were incorporated into the architecture of the museum’s administrative buildings, and a host of Australian dignitaries, art centre workers, artists, and admirers had gathered to honor the achievement. Several days of festivities concluded with a reception at the Australian Embassy, when works from the collection of Melbourne gallerist Gabrielle Pizzi were on magnificent display.
It was a week of art openings, dance, song, and most of all, speeches. We heard the majesty of Aboriginal art celebrated in French and English, Pitjantatjara and Kuninjku. They were wonderful, heart-warming, rousing, and celebratory by turns. There was one among the many, though, that stood out. It was delivered by someone whom I’d never heard of before, a Dr Chris Sarra. He was articulate, but above all he was passionate: who is this bloke with a fire in his belly I wondered? Here’s what I wrote about it at the time:
Chris Sarra, Chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board of the Australia Council, spoke next and brought down the house several times. He pulled no punches as he spoke of Aboriginal pride and of how the events of this week, and the whole work of the AIAC, was just a single instance of what indigenous Australians are capable of. He blasted the media stories of late that have tried to paint Aboriginal culture as problematic and debased, and told white Australia that its indigenous people are waiting to welcome them whenever they are ready. In a week when many Aboriginal people made emotional and moving speeches, the fire of this speech was a fitting conclusion.
In the months that followed I learned who Chris Sarra was: an educator who was widely respected for the reforms he had instituted at the Cherbourg State School in Queensland, and who had gone from being a school principal to a national leader in Indigenous affairs. It became clear to me that the passion I heard in his voice that evening in Paris was more than just rhetoric, more than conventional eloquence drummed up for an international audience. This was a man who walked the talk.
So when I heard that Sarra has published an autobiographical memoir, I was intrigued. I figured it would be a useful thing for me to read; it might be a little dry (how many gripping books about educational reform have you ever read?) but given the controversies in the press every day about Indigenous education, all the ink spilled on the theories of Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton, and all the commentaries that follow the stories about them, this was a book I felt duty-bound to follow up on.
Imagine my surprise, then when I got stuck into the first chapter of Good Morning, Mr Sarra (University of Queensland Press, 2012). This was no treatise on the plight of Indigenous children, no academic argument bristling with theory. This was fun! It was a story, alive and human, full of laughter and foibles, and serious, as they say, as a heart attack. Even the first sentence was a surprise: “I was born on 21 September, 1967, the last in our family of ten children.” This bloke is only 45 years old? Amusingly, in the book’s final pages, he admits that he’s maybe a bit young to be penning his autobiography. But as he states with justifiable pride, he has a story to tell that is as important for what it says about Indigenous potential as it is about the reforms that have led to the creation of the Stronger Smarter Institute, the national organization that has grown out of his work at Cherbourg.
The early chapters are tremendous fun, as Sarra describes growing up as a barefoot boy in Bundaberg, delivering papers early in the morning, picking tobacco in the hot summers, making a detour on his way to or from school to play in the grain silos, spending endless hours at the SCG—the “Sarra Cricket Ground” behind their home where he and his brothers and sisters fielded rugby teams that instilled in him a lifelong love of the sport. Sarra is surprisingly frank about details another man might have chosen to downplay or omit altogether, like the fact that his father had left behind a wife and family in Italy. Planning to return to them, but never able to, he started a second family in Australia.
Of course, such details are critical to the development of Sarra’s “layered” identity. He sees himself as a “blackfulla” above all, but a trip to Italy in his 20s teaches him that he’s an Italian as well. As an adult, he’s a teacher, a student (the man has a bachelor’s degree and two masters in addition to his Ph.D.), a striver, an occasional failure, a family man balancing life as a husband and father with that as a national leader on demand for speaking engagements across Australia. There’s a lot to this package, and he accepts himself in all his aspects and contradictions, Whitmanesque. He’s proud, but never, I think, boastful.
Sarra’s story is one in which chance plays a big role, but it’s a story about taking chances when they come. Almost on a fluke, he checks out this thing called QTAC (Queensland Tertiary Admissions Centre) he’s heard about, and discovers he’s got the right stuff to take his education to a level that might allow him to become a PhysEd teacher (the man loves his rugby). And there’s a program designed to put more Aboriginal teachers in schools. Everything dovetails nicely, and Sarra is nothing if not ambitious, even as a young man.
Admitted to the Brisbane College of Education, he heads for the big city and is assigned a tutor named Gary MacLennan. If there’s a defining moment in Sarra’s life, this might be it.
Intellectually, Gary grabbed me by the scruff of the neck in one hand, and with the other he shined a light on my entire world, forcing me to see it differently. Gary showed me the ‘hidden curriculum’ of schooling and the ‘hidden agendas’ of society (p. 56).
The hidden curriculum is one of low expectations for most students, and for Aboriginal students most of all. For Sarra, this is what I’d call an “unblinding” revelation: most kids don’t think much is expected of them in school. They’re told that they’re trouble, they’re truants, they’re never going to amount to much, and the prophecy comes true most of the time. Sarra takes the fight against low expectations as his life’s mission, and hard work as his creed. There’s a cliché that would say that from this point “he never looks back,” but it’s only half true. He never wavers from this course, but his life is filled with introspection and retrospection. His awareness of where he’s come from, of the support he’s received from family, friends, and teachers, is a theme that never disappears from this book. Equally foregrounded, however, is the need to move on, to meet new challenges, to never give in to the notion that he’s “done enough.” There are always new challenges, great expectations still to be met.
The heart of the book begins when Sarra takes up the assignment at Cherbourg. Home to the Barambah Aboriginal Reserve, Cherbourg lives in the popular mind as a synonym for despair and dysfunction, the dead end of policies of policing and assimilation. In my mind, it’s always existed as a kind of mainland Palm Island: a place no one ever wanted to end up, and place where “ending up” was destiny. But that was before Sarra arrived. What he determined to provide for the children of Cherbourg was the realization that they could be Aboriginal and be successful. The goal that he presented to the community was this:
The aim at Cherbourg State School is to deliver academic outcomes that are comparable to any school in Queensland, and to nurture a strong and positive sense of being Aboriginal in contemporary society (p. 210).
Sarra built a coalition with the teachers, the students, the parents, and the people in the community who had skills to deliver the outcomes he desired. He made it clear to the students that respect was what he demanded. Respect for the teachers in the classroom: no playing up, no backtalk, no swearing. Respect for the students: great expectations. Respect for the school: no vandalism, no littering. Respect for the community: the elders had wisdom to offer, men in the town could be employed to keep the facilities shipshape, teacher’s aides had more to offer than photocopying old assignments to be passed out to passive hands in the classroom.
Sarra knew he had an uphill road ahead of him and he used every trick in the book, and a few he wrote himself, to realize his vision. He penned a new school song and made the students sing it out to him. And he devised a mantra: Stronger. Smarter. Stronger in culture and in pride. Smarter in achievement and in the means of bolstering self-respect. That was all there was too it, but it all demanded hard work from everyone, starting with the new principal himself.
And it worked. Attendance shot up along with expectations. Test scores rose, too. Pride in the school blossomed. People noticed.
For six years, Sarra was unstinting in his devotion to the school and to the principles of stronger, smarter education. He persevered in the face of disbelieving bureaucrats and complacent educators, battled his way through disappointments and personal tragedy (a cousin he brought to teach at the school died of injuries he received after being left lying in the street following a brawl). And in the end, recognition came, and Sarra was drafted by the Queensland government to translate his achievements at Cherbourg into a national program for the advancement of Indigenous education. A partnership with the Queensland University of Technology eventually became the Stronger Smarter Institute, whose programs aim to change expectations across Australia, to help teachers realize potential and bring stronger, smarter children out of Indigenous schools and into Australian society.
By any measure, Chris Sarra has led an amazing life. He’s a fighter who has learned that fighting doesn’t mean losing your temper, although he admits that he swears too much when someone’s bad behavior gets under his skin. He’s come from a poor and proud background to be one of Australia’s leading educators and a hero to thousands of Aboriginal people. He’s met the Queen, and shaken Gough Whitlam’s hand, and Barack Obama’s; he’s hobnobbed with Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He’s been named Queenslander of the Year. He once heard an old Aboriginal lady on a plane to Canberra respond with “intrigue and enthusiasm” when she was told his name; and he laughed when she followed up by asking, “And who is Dr Chris Sarra?” He’s served on the Australia Council for the Arts and seems to have been most excited, out of all these honors, to have been invited to head up the Australian Rugby League Commission. He’s a man with his head and his priorities screwed on quite securely.
And he’s never forgotten, since his student days, that enormous potential can be realized if only respect and hard work are harnessed.
The stronger smarter philosophy honours a positive sense of cultural identity, acknowledges and embraces positive community leadership, and enables innovative and dynamic approaches and processes anchored by high-expectations relationships. High-expectation relationships honour the humanity of others, and in doing so acknowledge a person’s strengths, capacity and human right to emancipatory opportunity (p. 340).
Good Morning, Mr Sarra strikes that balance of humanity and inspiration from its first page to its last. I won’t ever forget the power of Sarra’s speech at the Australian Embassy in Paris back in 2006; it came at me like a bolt of lightning from a clear, sunny sky. I hope this book will inspire people across the spectrum of Australian education to work together to realize the potential of all students, but most especially those who have been left to drift towards the bottom, the underachievers who need great expectations to help them succeed.
Postscript: In the week since I originally drafted this post, The Australian has reported that the Queensland University of Technology terminated Sarra’s contract eighteen months in advance of its expiration date (“QUT terminates contract of executive director Chris Sarra,” March 5, 2013; the article is behind a paywall). Sarra says that he intends to keep the Stronger Smarter Institute running independent of QUT, and the University agrees that negotiations on that matter on ongoing, wishing Sarra well in the future.
At the heart of the dispute are issues of transparency and accountability in the expenditure of funds; both QUT and Sarra have made statements that indicate a desire to maintain high standards of accountability are at issue. A statement from QUT reads in part,
QUT has supported Dr Sarra in his endeavours to transfer the institute, whilst ensuring appropriate probity and accountability for public funds,” the statement says.
For many years, QUT has provided an environment that supports programs and strategies that advance indigenous education and will continue to do so. In the successful delivery of these programs, the university has taken seriously its role to manage funding from government and philanthropic foundations responsibly.
Sarra, for his part, has this to say:
Dr Sarra said he had become increasingly uneasy about the interference by the university in the running of the institute, and particularly in the accountability for the federal government grants.
I tried desperately to find governance arrangements that would enable the institute to have adequate autonomy and to be able to have complete financial transparency and disclosure,” Dr Sarra said.
My belief is that we should disclose where every dollar and every cent of money that came in was spent, but I was actively restricted from doing so.
On the surface, they both seem to be making the same point. But in terms of bluntness and, well, transparency, I would award the round to Sarra. I would also point out here that the question of accountability in funding is a theme that runs through much of the latter half of Good Morning, Mr Sarra. Given the history of accusations of mismanagement of funds that surrounds so many Aboriginal organizations, and government programs designed to advance Aboriginal causes, I am not surprised that a man of Sarra’s intelligence would recognize that integrity in these matters is critical to his success. I can only hope that Sarra will continue to lead, and that the Stronger Smarter Institute will continue to prosper. I have not been able to locate any further news about the dispute in the days since the new story appeared. But anyone looking for more information and fuller background would be well advised to take up Sarra’s memoir.