“Or like me, I get excited about seeing Michelangelo’s David in Florence. We think, ‘Wow, that is really old’. But here in Australia we can talk about a human existence that dates back tens of thousands of years, the oldest continuous society on the planet. That’s really incredible. All Australians should be excited and enthusiastic about this. It’s important for non-indigenous Australians to embrace our humanity and our connection to the land. In doing so, their connection would not date back to just 100 or 200 years but to tens of thousands of years and thus become a part of the root system of an ancient civilization. I think that is really precious. I would like children to think about that [during NAIDOC Week].”

This is a message for the young readers of In classe, from Chris Sarra, educator, former principal, teacher and now director-general of Queensland’s Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships.

Recipient of many awards (among others, Queenslander of the Year in 2004), Sarra was nominated Person of the Year - NAIDOC Week in 2016 for his Stronger Smarter Institute, an organisation he founded in order to improve educational outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and to help them overcome negative stereotypes and instil a positive sense of identity through educator workshops.

“When I was running the Stronger and Smarter Institute, I would visit hundreds of schools across Australia and one thing I would love about it, is that young students at school are really enthusiastic and hungry to learn about Australia’s First Peoples and our connection to the country. That makes me optimistic for the future. My message to principals and teachers is to join in that enthusiasm and attend to their appetite and hunger to learn about Australia’s First People, because if we can do that then we all play a part to nurture an Australia that can be more inclusive and better connected to the land that we share.”

“We have come a long way,” Sarra says, but there are still improvements that can be made when it comes to Indigenous education. He has been in the front-line for the past thirty years and he has been instrumental in transforming the low expectations society had of Aboriginal students into stories of success. A change that started in Queensland and has now reached all Australia.

Sarra was born in Bundaberg, in the same street as the famous rum distillery and across the road from Millaquin Sugar Mill where he used to play with his brothers on “sugar dunes”. He is the youngest of 10 children born to Norma, an Aboriginal woman, and Pantaleone, an Abruzzese man who in the 1950s left the small town of Miglianico, along with a wife and three children.

“[It was not always easy] growing up in Bundaberg in the ’70s. We were confronted by racism quite regularly. But my mum had given us enough strength of character to rise above it and not take it to heart. We had a very positive sense of what it meant to be Aboriginal and we were extremely proud of that,” Sarra remembers.

“I learnt the value of hard work from my father. He came from Abruzzo in the 1950s, after World War II, like a lot of Italians. I remember being as young as eight years old out in the farm picking tomatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplants and tobacco. It was a really nice way of nurturing our sense of being Italian because he was in share farming with all his Italian friends. We grew up listening to them speaking in Italian and we would have a go.

“I don’t have many regrets in life, but one of my greatest regrets was not learning to speak Italian properly with my father. I have since worked hard to try to make up for that. And of course we knew all the brutte parole. I guess as a teenager I didn’t really appreciate the value of being able to speak my father’s language.”

Pantaleone worked for the council and he was well respected by everyone for his hard work.

“[But] he would have been confronted by racism and I think, in a strange way that’s probably how he connected with my mum, because they were both pushed to the margins of society. I am forever grateful for this because it was at the margins of society that my parents met,” Sarra says.

Both Sarra’s parents always valued the importance of having an education. But when Chris was a student he was convinced he’d only have to pass the exams; he didn't consider himself particularly smart and no one really expected much of him. With the exception of a history teacher, no one ever pushed him to do more.

At the end of high school, he attended a session with a career advisor where he had to fill in a form about his plans for the future. As his first choice he put down “PE teacher”. With his mediocre marks, he didn’t expect to be admitted to the course, but he was proved wrong soon after. To his surprise, as Sarra describes in his autobiography Good Morning, Mr Sarra, that summer he received a letter with an offer to enter a program aimed at increasing the numbers of Aboriginal secondary teachers. The program was more flexible in terms of entry requirements and had a diluted workload for the successful Indigenous candidates. Sarra was one of them and he went on to attend the Brisbane College of Advance Education. There, he met one of his mentors, Gary MacLennan, a professor who “threw petrol on the fire my parents kindled in my belly”.

The teacher opened Sarra’s eyes to the actual state of education for Aboriginal kids. He asked him to go home and gather his mother’s and brothers’ experiences. What Sarra discovered was disheartening to say the least: he was shocked to hear that his mum dreamt of becoming an archaeologist, but in her days Aboriginal people were not deemed capable enough to go past Grade 3. His older sister, Tracie, at seven years of age was scorned by her teacher in front of her entire class just for being Aboriginal. To Sarra, it was a clear sign that the system itself was undermining the confidence of young Indigenous students. Looking back at his own experience, he came to the realisation that he too was undervalued. He felt angry but decided to use that rage to show his full potential and, more importantly, to work to raise the expectations teachers and principals had of Aboriginal students and, consequently, improve attendance and outcomes.

Sarra asked to finish the course with the normal workload, studying hard and refusing flexible arrangements: he was the first Aboriginal graduate of the Diploma for Secondary Education at the college and he started working in schools even before the graduation ceremony.

In the decade that followed, Sarra worked in different schools and held different positions within the Queensland Education Department. He was able to get an insight of the school systems and he kept studying. While he was doing his PhD in Psychology he accepted the job of principal of an Aboriginal primary school, Cherbourg, three hours out of Brisbane. That was another life-changing moment and a crucial opportunity for him to develop the approach that then became the core values of the Stronger Smarter Institute. When he arrived at the former mission, the attendance and overall results of the students were particularly low, a situation he was able to overturn in his six years there.

“Rightly or wrongly we live in a society where people are prepared to put us down rather than push us up. For young people, in particular, it’s important that they are surrounded by people who say ‘I believe in you’. Because when we embrace our young people like that and we say ‘I believe in you’, we give them licence to believe in themselves. We have got to consider our young as precious and sacred, and nurture a sense of hope and optimism all the time, because if we don’t, then we run the risk that they don’t believe in themselves,” Sarra says.

“When I started as a principal of an Aboriginal primary school, I challenged students to truly believe in themselves, to reject any racism or negative stereotype and to put all of that into perspective and give them the courage to really reflect on what is their sense of their true self and true potential. To not ever be distracted by people who say ‘You can’t do that’, but gravitate to people who say ‘You can do this; you can be strong and smart’. Along the way, I think it is good for young people to embrace every aspect of their cultural essence, particularly kids with mixed identities, and understand we don’t have to be identified as one or the other. We don’t have to reject our different cultural aspects under the pressure of people to say we are Australian. The truth is we can embrace all the different layers of our cultural essence and celebrate all of them.

“Whether we are Aboriginal or Italian or any other nationality as part of our parents’ or grandparents’ make up we can all embrace all of that and celebrate it and let it resonate gloriously at different times in different moments.”

These ideas have been at the core of Sarra’s philosophy and work throughout the years and have reached more than 800 schools across Australia through the workshops and programs run by the Stronger Smarter Institute. Its positive influence has had an impact on more than 54,000 Indigenous students. Sarra’s commitment is still strong and continues day after day in the different roles he has played in the past (Government advisor and university professor in Canberra) and his current position as ministerial director-general. His story is a testimony that having the right perspective and dedication can go a long way and have a major impact (for the better) in the society we live in.