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Our allies in Indigenous science

31 July 2018
By Shannon Foster, D’harawal Saltwater Knowledge Keeper
Shannon Foster pays homage to her HSC Biology teacher Dr Elizabeth Sakker.
Shannon Foster

Shannon Foster leads a tour at Sydney Olympic Park.

As a Sydney D’harawal woman, I felt honoured and privileged to deliver a Welcome to Country to commence the 2018 Australian Science Teachers Association conference (CONASTA) hosted by the University of Sydney during NAIDOC week this year.

It was there, in front of a sea of earnest science teachers that I was inspired to think about, and pay homage to, my HSC Biology teacher, Elizabeth Sakker.

She received her Bachelor of Science and PhD in Biology from the University of Sydney, and instead of scientific research, she chose a career in teaching. Elizabeth taught Biology at my Bankstown high school in the late 1980s. It was a thankless move for Dr Sakker, or Mrs Sakker as we knew her, but she truly evoked a love of biology in all her students with her passion, enthusiasm and wonder for nature.

Mrs Sakker taught me to more deeply understand and appreciate the Country that I was connected to, but she also taught me a far greater lesson – to be proud of who I am. She was the first teacher to show interest in me as an Aboriginal student. We connected through discussions of my Aboriginality and our history, science and art.

Being raised and educated during the Integration Era of colonisation, I experienced the prolonged and penetrating silencing of Indigenous cultures and knowledges. The silence was all I knew – a silence that has been referred to as the “great Australian silence” (Stanner, 1968) and the “silent apartheid” (Rose, 2012).

The hope was that if everyone was quiet and did not discuss, engage with or teach Aboriginal cultures, knowledge, science, language, stories or art, that ‘they’ would just go away.

Throughout my schooling I was never taught about Indigenous Australia – everything I learnt was explained to me by my father outside of class. So, when Mrs Sakker came along and asked me about being Aboriginal and allowed me to have a voice, she did more right there in that moment than any other teacher throughout my entire education.

Despite not being Indigenous, Mrs Sakker had unsettled the colonial discourse and undone the silence – she had connected and she cared. Mrs Sakker taught me that there was a place in the Aboriginal world for non-Aboriginal people and for people to make a difference even though they weren’t ‘one of us’. 

Mrs Sakker was my first ally and she demonstrated to me what to recognise in other allies – allies that I now work with at the cultural interface on some amazing collaborations.

During NAIDOC Week I also presented a knowledge sharing workshop to CONASTA delegates. The purpose of this session was to assist them in embedding Indigenous perspectives into their science teaching.  Standing there looking out across the room, I realised that each teacher there that morning was transforming into an ally. Non-Indigenous teachers have become important game changers and change makers in Indigenous education, particularly now that teaching Indigenous perspectives across all subject areas is compulsory in the curriculum.

There are simply not enough Indigenous educators out there, that we can be in every classroom, to teach every student, so we have to rely on our non-Indigenous allies to help end the silence and hopefully bridge the gap in education.

Given this, I now focus on imparting onto non-Indigenous teachers an understanding of what makes a good ally. How can I explain to teachers how important they are and how much of an impact they can make?

I can only reflect on the transformation that has occurred in my lifetime to the point where I am no longer expected to be silent, and in fact, I am sought out to speak and teach other educators. All those years ago, Mrs Sakker taught me what a good ally is and now I must pass down those learnings – it’s because of her, I can.