Future Search The Method

An Aboriginal Future Search Conference, Australia, 1995
By Lynette Riley-Mundine & Tony Richardson, consultant and FSN member

The future search was conducted in Dubbo, a regional center in the western plains of New South Wales in April 1995. Ninety-two people attended, of whom 68 were Aboriginal people. It was a meeting of different worlds, cultures and wisdoms, which occurred under the umbrella of the Government's Western Institute of Technical and Further Education (TAFE). Through a multitude of outlets TAFE provides post-school education within a vast, dry, rural region twice the size of the state of Colorado. The aim of the conference was "To explore the future of Aboriginal people and TAFE working together.

There are some 30,000 Aboriginal people in Western NEW. Some live as minority groups in rural towns, but most live in remote isolated locations in "the bush." Historically, these people have been "third-class citizens," and improvement today is still patchy and slow. In 1995, the then Prime Minister Paul Keeting acknowledged "...it was we [the whites] who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases, the alcohol…the devastation and demoralization of Aboriginal Australia continues to be our failure."

Lynette Riley-Mundine, who is an Aboriginal woman, was appointed to a new and untried position of Aboriginal Development Manager in April 1994. From her previous work within education systems she decided TAFE was at least ten years behind the times. She found that TAFE programs lacked understanding of the culture, needs and hopes of Aboriginal people. Also Aboriginal staff had learned to "toe the line" so non-Aboriginal people wouldn't feel threatened and withdraw support.

Lynette had an ally, TAFE Director Neil Black, who was determined to see improvements. Earlier Neil had engaged Tony Richardson, who is an independent consultant to conduct a future search to establish future directions for the Institute.

Lynette attended this and became very frustrated, because Aboriginal development, while high on the Mind Map of concerns, was not a majority issue and didn't figure in the votes for action. Aboriginal issues, like her people, were on the bottom end of importance and were lost. So Lynette decided there must be an Aboriginal future search conference where their issues and opportunities would be central. This was her commitment at the end ot eh Institute's earlier conference because "this process will work for us."

Six Months later - an Aboriginal future search

The Aboriginal future search was set for six months later, and a range of expectations were built around it. Lynette and other concerned Institute people needed validity and support for Aboriginal development. Agreed-upon goals were needed between Aboriginal people and other Institute staff. There was passionate agreement that Aboriginal people needed to be listed to and to know they'd been heard, to be central in their event and to design their own improvements. This agreement was born out by the enthusiasm and support for the conference within the Institute - from many of the executive staff and all of the Aboriginal development staff located throughout the State. The future search was funded by an external Aboriginal development agency.

There was a strong determination that it be an Aboriginal conference-a conference designed by Aboriginal participants and comfortable for them.

The led to the following: Aboriginal Elders welcomed us to their district and wished us well. Lynette conducted an exercise of movement and relationships which demonstrated Aboriginal kinship. Tony worked with an Aboriginal co-facilitator, Anne Louis. All conference literature was designed with Aboriginal motifs. All handouts, instructions, and time frames were rewritten. The mind map had a Aboriginal focus. There were cultural associations throughout the conference: a "bush tucker" meal, an Aboriginal dance performance, and a "Koorioake." The conference setting was among gum trees, where people could move outside for small-group work at ease.

A design group decided that Aboriginal ownership and involvement were vital for success. There must, therefore, be 75% Aboriginal representation, which must be diverse; on-Aboriginal involvement should include only key personnel.

The Stakeholder Groups

  • TAFE students, seventeen and older (11 of 13 were Aboriginal): They knew about the treatment of the Aboriginal students and what non-Aboriginal students know about Aboriginal people and their culture.

  • Secondary students (8, all Aboriginal): Our future! They knew what they wanted from TAFE.

  • Employers (3 of 10 were Aboriginal): Prospective employers of Aboriginal students. They brought their expectations and needs of Aboriginal employees.

  • TAFE Equity Staff (6 of 11 were Aboriginal0: Key people in ensuring equity within the Institute. They knew about Aboriginal development.

  • TAFE Managers (none of the 10 was Aboriginal): The caretakers of the present system. They were directed to listen, learn and provide advice on how to get things to happen within the bureaucracy of TAFE.

  • Funding and Support Agencies (all 11 were Aboriginal): Many Aboriginal programs rely on outside funding. Their value is dependent on understanding Aboriginal community expectations and their success is a measure of a common purpose.

  • Non-TAFE education and support (8): Aboriginal development in TAFE is reliant on a huge number of organizations We required common ground if we were to achieve the needs of the people, not just of organizations.

  • Community Representatives (8): Aboriginal community members, the reason for this conference. We could not set goals without involving the people to whom they were directed.

This wide range of involvement made the Conference the success it was. The dynamics of the stakeholder groups and the mixing of the groups helped to guarantee the spark of enthusiasm and commitment to involvement. It gave the flow of energy which made the interactions and goal settings as purposeful as they were.

Immediate Outcomes

For Lynette as Aboriginal Development Manager: Validity for the Aboriginal Development Unit's operations and public commitment from the Institute Executive.

For the Aboriginal participants: For the first time in most of their lives they were listened to and they felt it. A connection was developed between the Institute Executive and Aboriginal coordinators. Aboriginal people met from across the Institute. One thing they took away was a greater understanding of what the TAFE system does and could do.

For the non-Aboriginal participants: Relationships with a diverse range of Aboriginal people, understanding their hopes and wisdom, and agreeing what each party will bring to the other.

For the Institute: A priority list of recommendations and targets for Aboriginal involvement and development. This established an agreed-upon agenda for improvements in flexibility, accessibility, information-flow, support, cultural awareness, consultation, and Aboriginal self-sufficiency and decision-making.

After Eighteen Months…

Within eight categories there were some seventy different recommendations. These recommendations are now places within a rolling Aboriginal Operational Plan. The following have been achieved:

  • As we write, the Institute is launching its first-ever Aboriginal Cultural Awareness Program and Trainer Manual to help lift cultural blinkers. It is designed and presented by Aboriginal staff.

  • The Institute now has an Aboriginal Education and Development Committee, which is a model within Australian Education for Aboriginal involvement in decision making.

  • An Institute-wide Aboriginal Resource Center is now operating, which includes a mobile Library through which a range of Aboriginal resources is made available around the State.

  • The State Government is now considering a change to Child Care Laws to allow for Child Care by the TAFE system.

  • Aboriginal TAFE staff are now trialing "flexible delivery" of courses in Small Business Development, Koori Art and Design Certificate and access to futther study. A Diploma in Aboriginal Studies is planned for 1997.

  • An Aboriginal development package is now available and is being expanded.

  • An Aboriginal Studies teach has been appointed.

Tony's Recollections

Three images of the future search stand out: (1) An Aboriginal school student walking into the room and seeing the crowd of 100 and, face downcast, saying "so many people." By the end she had so much to say; (2) The juxtaposition of two phrases on the personal time-line - "went to Switzerland" and "12 years old, mother died, left school to look after family"; (3) An older Aboriginal woman breaking down when she recalled being make to stop her studies because of "a lack of prior learning," but she'd never had opportunity for TAFE's sort of learning. Her story ended OK-she got back to school. But the intensity of her loss and then her forgiveness of the administrator who set up the barrier was remarkable.


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