To see Aboriginal children pick up a teaching manual and pretend they are the teacher confidently delivering lesson content is fantastic,” says Danielle Toon, who manages the Every Child is Special (ECIS) Education Unit at Cape York Partnerships. When you understand the stark reality of academic achievement among these children on the Cape York Peninsula, only then can you truly understand why this seemingly normal child’s play is such a momentous occasion for Toon.
The ECIS Education Unit, for research and development, is aimed at reforming Indigenous education, taking a bold ‘No Excuses’ approach to achieving better education supply. Key to the approach is building student, family and community demand for high expectation and high quality education through family engagement.
“So many people said the kids of Aurukun [Queensland] couldn’t be expected to achieve mainstream results. They have been living up to low expectations,” Toon says, “but that is set to change.”
Toon is not an educator; two years ago, as a Sydney-based senior business analyst managing consultant with IBM, she nominated for a six-week secondment to her hometown of Cairns, to assist the Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation. IBM is one of five Australian corporations that contribute expertise to develop projects on Cape York through Indigenous Enterprise Partnerships.
Mission accomplished, she was later asked to return to far north Queensland to design an ambitious education program not seen before in Australia, one that would force governments to change their thinking around Indigenous education.
From design to execution, it was an opportunity of a lifetime working with Australia’s most prominent and influential Aboriginal leader, thinker and activist, Noel Pearson. Toon had less than nine months to turn Pearson’s visionary concept on educational change on Cape York into reality. She was charged with developing the business case for the new education concept, from research and design, coordinating experts and consultants, developing budgets, the funding pitch, then the minefield of negotiation with governments.
“In the corporate world, funding is usually a given; lobbying and negotiating funding across government stakeholders is a massive undertaking and a very different experience,” Toon says.
Late in 2009, Toon’s business case became government policy. The challenges of navigating government would be elementary compared with introducing change in Cape communities. “You have to understand the machinations of communities, the sensitivities, the politics, the cultural protocols. You have to understand that even though your objective is to bring about positive change, Indigenous peoples’ relationship with government over the years and their experience of imposed ‘development’ has been highly problematic,” Toon says.
“Indigenous people have good reason to distrust white people. They see people fly in and out knowing they haven’t grown up like them. So as a person that flies in and out of these communities it has been vital for me to invest time in building trust.”
For Toon, it was a matter of building trust through building personal relationships. “Being honest and keeping promises is essential for any worker engaged in community development work,” she advises.
“Like anywhere, there is politics, sensitivities and workplace culture. In the corporate world it’s a more standard approach: we all live in the city, we’re all climbing the corporate ladder. On the Cape you really have to try to understand the life of those who live there, and understand that passion is varied and that not everyone will share my enthusiasm. In the corporate world, motivation is almost always the bottom line. On the Cape, there’s so much more going on and you have to understand motivations are varied.”