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Closing the Gap in Education?

Stronger Smarter Approaches to Indigenous Leadership in Australia

Chris Sarra

Indigenous Education Leadership Institute, Queensland

When I was the principal at Cherbourg State School in Queensland, I remember on occasions saying to the staff there, ‘This work is more than just getting children to read and write. Our work at school here can play a part in transforming the community and, who knows, maybe our work will influence how other teachers have to work with Indigenous children right across the country!’ It turns out that in some ways I was right. Under the ‘Strong and Smart’ philosophy and the efforts of the teachers, parents, children and those solid Indigenous men who worked alongside me as brothers, we set out on that journey. We didn’t know it at the time, but in many ways our efforts provoked teachers and school leaders across the country to re-examine their approaches to Indigenous children in their schools and in particular their attitudes and expectations.

Eventually I left Cherbourg State School and, as the founding director of the Indigenous Education Leadership Institute (now The Stronger Smarter Institute) at Queensland University of Technology, I said that I wanted my team to set about changing the tide of low expectations of Indigenous children in schools. To do this we have worked with school and community leaders across Australia in leadership programs to arm them with the belief and the capacity to create high expectations, school cultures that are intent on developing and embracing a positive sense of Indigenous identity, and schools that Indigenous parents can truly connect with and that all Australians can be proud of.

From the outset I have refused to work with those in schools who have to be convinced that delivering better quality education outcomes for our children is a good thing. Instead, we work with those who are ready to be worked with, and who create a critical mass of school leaders who believe that we really can deliver on the promise of a stronger smarter future for Indigenous children.

Those who work with us understand very well the need for our children to be stronger and smarter. It is a fundamental human right of our children to have an education that makes them stronger, in a way that enables them to develop a rich and positive sense of their own cultural identity; and smarter, in a way that enables them to participate in a modern society as any other Australian would. If schools only seek to make Indigenous children smart, without developing any positive sense of cultural identity, then we do little more than assimilate them into the mainstream. In this circumstance we all lose.

I’d like to extend the discussion of the ‘strong and smart’ philosophy beyond school communities, to a broader application as it relates to Indigenous identity and, specifically, to notions of Indigenous leadership. Obviously, the patterns observed in schools regarding teacher perceptions of Indigenous children can be found in mainstream perceptions of Indigenous people in general. They affect the ways in which government policies and service delivery is shaped for Indigenous people; they also affect Indigenous leadership and potential leadership within Indigenous communities. The strong and smart philosophy applied more generally entails:

  • challenging Indigenous Australians’ perceptions about themselves and their capacity to sustain themselves
  • imagining and articulating a future to which we are all accountable as stakeholders
  • asserting and maintaining a culture of high expectations at home, in our communities and in society at large
  • aligning our interests in the pursuit of excellence.

It is vital that those of us who are on the main stage, speaking on behalf of and working with Indigenous people, do not find ourselves ascribing to and colluding with self-perceptions that make us powerless to change.

Perceptions of Indigenous Australians

My own research, as well as countless anecdotes readily available in everyday conversations and the news media, suggest that mainstream Australians often have negative perceptions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Sarra 2005). As we all know, perception is interpretation, not reality, so it should be no surprise that a corresponding large number of people hold negative views of people or groups of people they have never met or interacted with.

It is not uncommon to hear the following words or phrases used to describe Indigenous people:


  • alcoholics, drunks
  • boongs, coons, niggers, black bastards, gins, darkies
  • got it good, well kept by government, privileged
  • welfare dependent, dole bludgers, handout syndrome
  • lazy, won’t work
  • aggressive, violent, troublemakers, disrespectful.


This is certainly not who we are, which is not to deny that we have these elements in our communities, as all communities do, but it is to affirm that these descriptors are not part of Indigenous cultural identity. These are stereotypes we have acquired, just as movies depict Italians as mobsters. Surely we don’t think all Italians are in the Mafia?

What makes these words even more powerful is that there are some Indigenous people who hold such views of their communities; this is particularly true of middle-class Indigenous people who may be embarrassed, disappointed and ashamed of some of the disturbing news reported about our communities. However, ascribing to and maintaining these negative perceptions of Indigenous people is counter-productive in a society committed to social inclusion.

It is our time to assert our place in the nation with honour and dignity. For too long we have been the ‘other’ in Australian society. Historically, Australia has tried to engineer us as the ‘other’ – either as little more than slaves or domestics or as hopeless and despicable. They have even rounded up a few of our own to validate this belief and design policy to inflict punishment upon us. Many of us have always known, however, that we are more than this. A different truth has always existed about us and it is time to assert that truth in a way that will not threaten white Australia but, instead, set us all free.

Some Australians think the solutions lie in abandoning the notion of being ‘other’ in Australian society so that we can all be the same. But this is not an Australian future to which we should aspire. We must be content being the ‘other’, with no desire to be the ‘same’ as mainstream Australia. We must choose to be ‘other’, but only on the grounds that we decide what kind of ‘other’ we will be. We will triumph as Indigenous Australians when we assert ourselves in Australia as the Strong, Smart, Black and Deadly Australians that we are.

In our triumph, it is crucial that other Australians do not feel threatened or divided by this aspiration. Embracing our blackness and celebrating the notion that we are the only Australians who are connected to the oldest human group on the planet, and the true descendants of the very first Australians, has never been about putting white Australians down.

As a people, we have known what it is like to be put down. This is not something that is good to inflict upon other human beings. Of course, we must never forget the sacrifices of our old people in the past, who walked in the long grass to lay a solid platform upon which many of us as Indigenous people could proudly stand. We must also keep in our minds the times when some of us had to fight. The Redfern Riots, the courage of Lex Wotton and the Palm Island riots; while we never want to revisit such times, they serve as reminders to all Indigenous people that our children still have a journey to make into a stronger smarter Australian future. It is a journey they must be armed for. Not with rocks and sticks and petrol bombs, but with intellectual, psychological and spiritual integrity.

For me, a stronger smarter Indigenous identity means that we are proud to be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. We will stand up for ourselves. We may not always agree, but we can commit to working together cooperatively. These are essential ingredients if we are to imagine a better future for ourselves.

Embracing Indigenous leadership

The government, no matter who is in power, is not our solution. We have to be explicit about how to work productively with our communities. We have to be committed to decreasing the health, social and economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. In the process, we have to understand and figure out what type of Indigenous leadership we want to embrace and align ourselves with, at the community level and at the national level, as these leaders and their ideas can have a direct impact on the lives of Indigenous communities.

So the question is: What kind of leadership do we develop for the twenty-first century to reflect the hopes and aspirations of Indigenous Australians?

I’ve assessed over time that there seem to be three categories of Indigenous leadership:


  • those who focus on being the victim – leaders who make use of the victim culture
  • those who focus on booting the victim – leaders who find political leverage in denigrating Indigenous people as part of their ‘tough love’ strategy
  • those who look beyond the victim – leaders who embrace a positive Indigenous cultural identity as complementary (if not essential) to success rather than an impediment to it.

Being the victim

Many Indigenous Australians, and indeed many Indigenous communities around the world, have come to be seen and in turn see themselves as victims of history. It is clear that our colonial histories have left us with the idea that Indigenous people are the victims and that colonisers are the victimisers. In adhering to a victim culture, the two (victim and victimiser) are co-dependent; without each other the culture could not exist.

Over the years, Australian governments for their part have either affirmed or denied their role as victimiser, depending on the politics of the day. In turn, Indigenous communities have affirmed or attempted to shed light on their victimisation, depending on the counter-politics of the day. Some Indigenous leaders have found success in encouraging victimhood, leading a cause that leaves Indigenous people powerless to act on their own behalf and therefore at the mercy of those in power. They are encouraged to see themselves as victims – victims who should be compensated in some way or every way by the victimisers for their historical grievances.

Psychologist Dr Ofer Zur (1994) observes:

In claiming the status of victim and by assigning all blame to others, a person can achieve moral superiority while simultaneously disowning any responsibility for one’s behavior and its outcome. The victims ‘merely’ seek justice and fairness. If they become violent, it is only as a last resort, in self-defense. The victim stance is a powerful one. The victim is always morally right, neither responsible nor accountable, and forever entitled to sympathy.

Leading through victim status entails pushing for preferential treatment, as will all Indigenous leaders to some extent, but in this model Indigenous communities are likely to be seen as mere receivers of service rather than creators, implementers or consultants. Under this type of leadership things happen ‘to’ Indigenous communities, not ‘with’ them, since adhering strictly to victim status means that Indigenous people are not responsible for their own lives and are what Malcolm X called ‘zombies’, marching to the beat of someone else’s orders.

Booting the victim

There are those who have discovered that, while being the victim is compelling at some levels, it is not always politically attractive. Therefore, another group of Indigenous leaders have found political traction by blaming the victim. In this sense, Indigenous communities fare worse than their white counterparts for a variety of reasons, many of them having to do with cultural pathologies and self-destructive values held by Indigenous people. The underlying assumption in blaming the victim is that if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders just got their act together everything would work out fine. This type of leadership dismisses the victim story and promotes assimilation politics as the only way for Indigenous people to better themselves.

For me this is as troubling as focusing on being the victim, because it assumes that mainstream culture, white culture and white values are the standards by which all others should be judged. Indigenous identity is then seen as the thing to be overcome, rather than a society that should be more inclusive.

Some may choose to see booting the victim as a kind of ‘tough love’, but is it really? Since blame is a psychological construct, there are inherent biases at play when we blame people for outcomes we cannot control, based on expectations we didn’t develop. We spend much of our time in this type of leadership blaming Indigenous people for being Indigenous and living in Indigenous communities with other Indigenous people. There is an over-abundance of information to be found and used as proof that Indigenous people are the cause of their own misery. This is possible according to American psychologist Mark Alicke (2000) because the ‘evidential standards for blame’ are usually lowered, especially when people are specifically ‘seeking information to support their blame attribution’. Intentionally or unintentionally, we engage in what he calls ‘biased information search’ to support our desire to blame the victims for their unfavourable condition.

The need to blame the victim also means that leaders can present themselves, their personal stories and personal achievements, in the mainstream, as replicable by those who commit themselves to the task. What may be exception and particular is presented as general and universal, to be applied to all, even if it will predictably only benefit a chosen few. We have to be honest with ourselves.

There is therefore little discussion about some of the constraints faced by Indigenous communities, be they physical, psychological or situational. There are situational constraints for many Indigenous people in both urban and rural communities that are simply overlooked, such as access to infrastructure including roads, public transit, properly staffed hospitals and schools, culturally appropriate services and school curricula.

In some ways it is easy to see how Indigenous leaders can be seduced into a relationship with white Australians via processes of booting the victim. This is a seductive yet toxic relationship in which Indigenous ‘leaders’ are embraced readily, for several reasons. Firstly, when Indigenous leaders are intent on booting the victim, they validate the ignorance of those who might share such distaste for Aboriginal people. This in turn enables white Australians to scoff at the need to develop a deeper understanding of the complexities and challenges confronting Indigenous Australians. In their minds they don’t need to, as they have an Aboriginal friend who says the same things they do. A convenient relationship indeed, in which white Australians can be content with their ignorance and their hatred is validated, while at the same time Indigenous leaders have the potential to attract tens of millions of dollars for such posturing.

Beyond the victim

While history has no doubt dealt us a bad hand, there is no need to wallow in it so that it cripples us from acting and creating a better present and future for our communities. When people are busy being the victim or booting the victim, very rarely do they stop to ask: What am I doing to contribute to underachievement? What am I doing to contribute to the ‘disadvantage’ and victimisation of Indigenous communities?

We have to be accountable for our actions; we have to have the hard conversations, focusing less on blaming and more on the plan of action forward. Researchers like Ofer Zur have shown that ‘the victim culture’ and blaming have not been very helpful and in fact have led to further victimisation. It is clear, then, that it is time we moved away from nurturing victimisation and from blaming Indigenous people for their plight. This is not to say that we should turn away from looking critically at Indigenous communities and behaviours within families and communities that are destructive to self and others. This is also not to shut out the voices of those who are being marginalised by government policies or corporate developments etc.

What I wish to suggest here is how to move beyond the predisposition to see Indigenous people as social inferiors who are either helpless (victims) or culpable (blamed) for their lower economic performance, educational attainment or health indicators.

We have to act under the principles of self-determination, not in the political sense but in the psychological sense, in that we have the power to shape our present and future. In fact, it is our responsibility to do so! Neither the mainstream nor the government can give us honour and dignity; we must possess it in ourselves. Marcus Garvey, the Pan-Africanist and Black Nationalist leader in the US in the first half of the twentieth century, understood well that to improve conditions leaders need to inspire hope, dignity and a positive destiny.

For me that can only be done if we move beyond victimisation, beyond the appeal to boot the victim for political gain to embrace a kind of Indigenous leadership that is not based on seeing Indigenous identity as a deficit disorder.

Moving beyond the victim status in the stronger smarter philosophy means:

  • acknowledging, embracing and developing a positive sense of Indigenous identity
  • acknowledging and embracing Indigenous leadership in communities, especially among our youth
  • seeking and embracing innovative and dynamic ideas in our complex social and cultural contexts
  • seeking and embracing innovative and dynamic people, who are committed to social justice
  • committing to high-expectations leadership to ensure high-expectations communities with high-expectations family relationships.

These are five pillars that I think are achievable and necessary to move our communities forward. We’ve been instilling in school leaders across Australia that embracing a positive Indigenous identity in students is vital to the success of the students and the same is true within the broader society. We cannot expect to get the best out of people when our perceptions and expectations of them are negatively skewed. This is as true for the mainstream as it is for Indigenous leaders who adhere to negative perceptions of their communities. Likewise, Indigenous Australians have to embrace and assert their positive cultural identity, not as victims but as first Australians.

We must accept that there are differences within our communities and embrace them by recognising different types of community leadership. We must also create a space for our young people so that they can contribute to the wellbeing of their communities. If we do not prepare our youth for leadership, dynamic leadership based on a positive sense of Indigenous identity, we can expect that victimisation will continue and it will be our own fault.

We have to recognise that we live in a complex social and cultural space. It’s not just about black and white, victim and victimiser: we live in a multicultural space. Our conversations are now about social inclusion and social justice. We have to learn to share the stage without diminishing our message or diluting our aspirations. These are things that can only be done if we are collectively, psychologically self-determined. We cannot tackle, let alone accomplish, this hard task if we see ourselves as helpless victims.

We have to be open to new ideas. This doesn’t mean we accept every new idea we hear; it just means we seek out new ways of doing things and allow ourselves time to reflect and consult. We have to commit to doing things differently; to be more participatory in our own lives, in our communities. To have high expectations of ourselves, our children, our families, our communities and our leaders. We have to articulate these expectations and hold ourselves accountable for making them happen.

We have to raise our collective self-esteem and think critically and responsibly about our present, and be hopeful and decisive about our future without forsaking or diminishing our past. Indigenous Australians are not victims of history; we are survivors of circumstances. We are responsible and accountable for our actions. We have a responsibility to each other to work together to create a new way of dealing with each other and with non-Indigenous Australians. The task ahead is not an easy one, but it’s a transformation that, like Cherbourg, will be filled with rewards as well as hard work and a solid commitment from all.


Alicke, M. D. 2000. ‘Culpable control and the psychology of blame’. Psychological Bulletin 126 (4): 556–574.

Sarra, C. 2005. ‘Strong and smart: Reinforcing Aboriginal perceptions of being Aboriginal at Cherbourg State School’. PhD thesis, Western Australia: Murdoch University.

Zur, O. 1994. ‘Rethinking “Don’t blame the victim”: The psychology of victimhood’. Journal of Couple Therapy 4 (3/4): 15–36.

Closing the Gap in Education?

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen