Photo: Lara McKinley/OxfamAUS
2014/15 NSW & ACT Young Achiever Awards Young Achiever of the Year and Aboriginal Education Officer, NSW Department of Education
At 23 years of age, Rhett Burraston has experienced much, and possibly learnt more than most people twice his age. But even he, a self-described “deeper thinker”, recognises the complexities and urgency of the problem facing policy makers and Aboriginal communities seeking to reduce Australia’s appalling rates of Indigenous incarceration.
One thing Rhett does know however is that it’s both government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities themselves that have the responsibility for solving this crippling issue.
“I didn’t know I was Aboriginal until I was seven or eight; and I do remember feeling really special when I found out,” says Rhett. “But it wasn’t long before I started making the connection that the only Aboriginal people I knew at the time in my neighbourhood, weren’t the best role models.”
Raised on a public housing estate in Campbelltown in Sydney’s south-west, Rhett was exposed to more than his share of Australia’s social problems, including crime.
“My biological father was one that had been in and out of jail ... and my uncles, some not much older than me, were getting locked up too. I started to feel that being Aboriginal wasn’t so special ... and that something was wrong,” says Rhett.
There was a “negativity that prevailed [in Campbelltown’s Aboriginal community]”. But it is important to understand what underpins this, stresses Rhett, “... entrenched mental health issues, drug and alcohol problems [and beneath this] intergenerational sorrow and trauma. Unfortunately, past government policies haven’t put Aboriginal people in the best position ... this trauma is real!” Rhett finishes emphatically.
When asked what can be done to tackle these issues and reduce the resulting rates of Indigenous incarceration, Rhett returns to the twin needs for both Australia’s policy makers as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to be involved.
“For Aboriginal people in urban areas, I think the solution is to strengthen [their] identity ... and connect them back to their culture. [This is] where they’ll learn about positive values,” says Rhett. “That’s where communities need to take responsibility ... and where Aboriginal Peoples have an advantage,” he says.
“A lack of identity and positive role models can be a problem for all youth, but we’ve got thousands of years of culture to [fall back on]. [So then it’s] ... about providing quality access to that. [But while] Aboriginal communities have a responsibility, we need the mechanisms and support. And that needs to come from government,” says Rhett.
On where to deliver this support and build this identity, Rhett believes the juvenile justice system is well placed to help some kids. “We have had some great results with programs such as the ‘Learning Circle’ being conducted at the Reiby Juvenile Justice Centre [in Airds, NSW],” he says. Incorporating the values of Respect, Patience and Observation, Rhett — now an Aboriginal Education Officer at Dorchester Education and Training Unit (within Reiby) — is encouraged that programs like this can help prevent Aboriginal youth from becoming institutionalised by the justice system as well as reduce reoffending.
“But this program would work equally well in the community to help divert Aboriginal kids away from the prison system in the first place,” he says. “And this is preferable.”