They can be superheroes: Working with communities to enable children’s aspirations

A new TV series, Cleverman, is currently showing on free to air TV in Australia. The program, which weaves Indigenous mythology through a contemporary storyline, has been described as the ‘first Indigenous superhero’ show in Australia and as a significant shift in the way First Nations people are represented in popular culture.

Ryan Griffen, who created the original concept for the show, said he wanted to make something his own son could relate to, that combined his Indigenous heritage with the superhero genre: “The passion of comic books blended together with 60,000 years of culture and history makes this something special – and when my son is old enough to watch and understand these stories, I hope it empowers him too.”

This notion of Indigenous children relating to cultural representations of superheroes and being inspired in various ways by them is something that has also emerged recently in our work at Opportunity Child. Our Executive Director, Dr Michelle Lucas, has spent considerable time working in remote and very remote Indigenous communities in Australia. In a paper published recently in the Australian Professional Educator journal called ‘Social innovation through collective impact’, Michelle described what happened when she asked a group of five-year-old Indigenous children what they want to be when they grow up:

George’s smile broadened as he began to imagine his answer to my question. ‘Superman,’ he said with conviction. ‘That’s who I’ll be when I grow up.’ Maggie beside him laughed quietly. ‘Not me. A doctor.’ Tilaya cuddled her friend closely and whispered in agreement, ‘Yes, a doctor.’ Others among the gathering group of curious and enthusiastic five-year-olds spoke of their dreams to become policemen, teachers and nurses.

Michelle explained that the reality for many Indigenous children, however, is that realising these aspirations could be a lot harder than for most other children in Australia: “Throughout their development, the dreams and opportunities to become superheroes on any level will be tempered by the complexity of life in Alice Springs and Central Australia.”

We know that one in five – or 65,000 children – start school each year in Australia with big challenges in learning and in life, including thousands of Indigenous children living in Central Australia. For them though, the numbers are much higher, with up to four out of five Indigenous children starting school each year facing significant developmental challenges. In a rich country like Australia, these statistics are shocking.

Alice Springs: a beautiful natural environment, rich traditions, culture and opportunity – as well as complex social challenges and compounding levels of vulnerability and disadvantage.

In her paper, Michelle said while people living in remote Indigenous communities can access an exquisitely beautiful natural environment, as well as rich traditions, culture and opportunity, the environment is one of complex social challenges and compounding levels of vulnerability and disadvantage.

“To achieve their aspirations, many children like George, Tilayla and Maggie… may first have to overcome diminished oral language and cognitive development, social and emotional distress: the result of a family life marked by cyclical disadvantage.”

According to Michelle, despite the efforts of many people and the billions spent in the early childhood sector, efforts to create positive change in many Indigenous communities have been hindered by “geographical displacement; transience; limited levels of community engagement; multiple disconnected programs; language barriers both ways; and unilateral policy responses”.

At Opportunity Child, we know we need a different approach to overcome these challenges. Through the conversations we are having in communities, with our partner organisations and with many others too, we can see many people agree. No single program will provide the solution to childhood disadvantage. However, by supporting our partner communities in their work, and in partnership with national experts in place-based research, service delivery, early childhood practice and catalytic philanthropy, we are using the power of collective impact to enable positive change for thousands of children.

In central Australia, Michelle said, a burning platform for change has emerged over the past couple of years, within communities but also within regional schools and the State and Territory Department of Education. The Pre Birth to 4 collective (who recently changed their name to Strong Kids. Strong Centre), who with the Sanderson Alliance in Darwin make up our NT Collective at Opportunity Child, is very much working from this platform – and they are making good progress.

Aspects of literacy and numeracy have increased at a rate three times higher than expected in the Strong Kids. Strong Centre demonstration school, Braitling Primary School.
Aspects of literacy and numeracy have increased at a rate three times higher than expected in the Strong Kids. Strong Centre demonstration school, the Braitling School.

Early results show attainment outcomes and two-year growth at the Strong Kids Strong Centre demonstration primary school (the Braitling School in northern Alice Springs) in literacy and numeracy have increased at a rate three times higher than the expected improvement rate. Parental engagement and participation has increased exponentially and, excitingly, attendance figures have gone up from 75 to 93.7 per cent.

Crucial infrastructure at Braitling School has also received a boost, with special facilities for early years students and their families being constructed and $3.3m invested by the Northern Territory Government to develop an early childhood precinct, including a shared community area, outdoor play space and café designed to foster greater family and community engagement.

This is good news, but we need to go further. We will keep working with this community and our other partner communities, as well as other communities and partner organisations around the country, as we all collaborate and learn together in creating positive early years learning environments and, ultimately, the larger changes these communities need. We are also lining funders up behind our collective impact approach and engaging in ‘innovation labs’ with philanthropic, government and corporate funding, providing us with the runway we need to enable wider systems change.

This work and our focus on collective impact and systems change to benefit vulnerable children in Australia comes at the same time as the shifts in popular culture represented by the creation of innovative programs such as Cleverman.

While Cleverman is not children’s TV, there is lots more programming in this space for all age groups than there has ever been – one example is Little J and Big Cuz, being produced by the Australian Council for Educational Research and partners including Screen Australia, due to be broadcast on NITV later this year.

We look forward to the creation of more of this sort of content to inspire people young and old, and at the same time we will continue to work collectively towards creating the conditions where all children in Australia can work towards their aspirations – whether they want to be superheroes or, perhaps, doctors, policemen or women, teachers, nurses, rangers or wonderful parents to their own children – and live in communities where all have the opportunity to thrive.

More information

Read the full paper by Michelle Lucas – ‘Social innovation through collective impact’, Professional Educator, April 2016.

To find out more about our work at Opportunity Child, visit our website. Or, sign up to our regular fortnightly email newsletter.


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