Early lessons spur success

Good Morn­ing, Mr Sarra: My Life Work­ing for a Stronger, Smarter Fu­ture for Our Chil­dren

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jus­tine Fer­rari

By Chris Sarra UQP, 372pp, $34.95

CHRIS Sarra may not be a house­hold name but he is a class­room name. An Abo­rig­i­nal teacher, Sarra has forged a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the most im­por­tant thinkers and ac­tivists in in­dige­nous ed­u­ca­tion. In Good Morn­ing, Mr Sarra, he traces the devel­op­ment of his phi­los­o­phy, en­cap­su­lated in the phrase ‘‘ stronger, smarter’’, from his child­hood in Bund­aberg to his life as prin­ci­pal of an Abo­rig­i­nal school at Cher­bourg in south­east Queens­land to build­ing a na­tional plat­form with the found­ing of the Stronger Smarter In­sti­tute.

Sarra, 45, is the first to ad­mit it’s early in his life to write a mem­oir, but he was prompted by the di­rec­tion of in­dige­nous pol­icy that re­sulted in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory in­ter­ven­tion and linked wel­fare pay­ments to school at­ten­dance. ‘‘ Pas­sion Pop pol­icy for Dom Perignon prices’’ is he how de­scribes such ap­proaches.

His aim in this book is to ‘‘ sig­nal that there is a dif­fer­ent and more honourable way to ap­proach the chal­lenges we face to­gether’’. And so Good Morn­ing, Mr Sarra is as much an ex­pla­na­tion of the Stronger Smarter phi­los­o­phy as it is a mem­oir of Sarra’s child­hood and ca­reer to date.

A dis­claimer: I know Sarra, hav­ing re­ported on him for years, and I like him. I have a camp dog rescued from the streets of Cher­bourg on a trip I took with Sarra to watch him in ac­tion. I am men­tioned briefly in this book, when Sarra re­counts a news ar­ti­cle I wrote based on his crit­i­cism of many peo­ple work­ing in re­mote in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties as sec­ond-rate ‘‘ white trash’’ .

The ar­ti­cle sparked a fierce re­sponse, from those in agree­ment and those in­sulted.

Sarra has never shied from mak­ing blunt and provoca­tive state­ments: as a young Abo­rig­i­nal school stu­dent con­fronting the racism and ig­no­rance of teach­ers and class­mates; as an Abo­rig­i­nal leader who de­scribes in­dige­nous sup­port­ers of the in­ter­ven­tion as the ‘‘ pet Abo­rig­ines’’ of white politi­cians.

He has built his ca­reer on hold­ing a mir­ror to so­ci­ety’s pre­con­cep­tions of in­dige­nous peo­ple and ‘‘ un­trick­ing’’ Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren to re­ject the idea they are lazy, stupid and don’t care about ed­u­ca­tion.

By teach­ing them to be proud of their Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture and as­pir­ing to the same high stan­dards ex­pected of other chil­dren, Sarra trans­formed one of the worst schools in Queens­land.

While prin­ci­pal at Cher­bourg, Sarra re­fined his Stronger Smarter phi­los­o­phy, but it is ap­par­ent from this mem­oir that its roots lie much ear­lier, in his child­hood and, par­tic­u­larly, in the ex­am­ple of his mother.

Sarra is the youngest of 10 chil­dren of an Abo­rig­i­nal mother, Norma Broom of the Gooreng Gooreng peo­ple in the north of Bund­aberg, and an Ital­ian fa­ther, Pan­ta­le­one Sarra from Miglian­ico in Abruzzo. While it would have been eas­ier in many ways to call them­selves Ital­ian, the Sar­ras were reared as proud Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple: ‘‘ Be­ing called black was some­thing pos­i­tive.’’

‘‘ I con­tinue to value the lessons I learned as the youngest of 10, of a proud Abo­rig­i­nal mother and a hard-work­ing Ital­ian fa­ther,’’ Sarra writes. ‘‘ Work hard. Don’t stop un­til the job is done. Stick up for your­self and for oth­ers

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