In 1995 I was working as the Managing Director of Pundulmurra College, turning it from a school to a Government Department, when I was approached by Hamersley Iron, Fred Chaney and John Cunningham to set up a new Aboriginal education program.
At that time in the Pilbara local Aboriginal people had a range of different attitudes to education. Some saw education as important but weren’t sure how they could help their children to do well at it. Others saw education as a ‘colonising influence’ and didn’t support it, , and still some others couldn’t see the point of education as Aboriginal people were struggling to be accepted into the local workforce even with good education.
I was appointed to work for Hamersley Iron in 1996 to achieve two goals – establish the Gumula Mirnuwarni program and support the development of cultural awareness training by Aboriginal people for Hamersley. I worked with Bernie Ryder, and together we started developing the program by consulting with the community and creating a robust model. It was all very new at that time as no other Aboriginal education programs like this existed.
Our initial focus was on Roebourne and this later evolved to include Karratha.
One of the keys to the success of the program was appointing the right co-ordinator and we got it right with Mark Whisson. He was credible, a hard worker, understood the issues and was prepared to work really closely with the community. At the end of the first year he was appointed Principal of Karratha Senior High School and this turned into a win for two reasons.
Firstly his replacement Brad Snell was brilliant, and secondly because Mark had been involved so intimately in the program, he helped it get embedded at Karratha Senior High School. The other person who was integral in the success during the early days was Phil Harvey, the District Director of Education at the time.
Phil institutionalised this new concept into the Department of Education that revolved around the fact that Aboriginal education costs money and if it is not resourced properly it will not work. The success of Gumula Mirnuwarni was based on the injection of money to pay for co-ordinators, mentors, a homework centre, a bus to get kids to and from school, food and so on.
It really took off quite quickly. Once people saw it was a success it was not long before other students wanted to get involved. Initially our focus for the program was getting students into university, but when our first lot of graduates emerged in 1999, many didn’t want to go to university, they wanted jobs. This drove the establishment of a new apprenticeship program in Hamersley Iron where many of the graduates progressed on to.
Right from the get go we knew we had to make the program sustainable and set it up so it would grow organically. We got the structure right with a steering committee and an operational group which allowed information to flow freely and all partners to contribute.
We also recognised that without all of the partners – community, government and business – it couldn’t succeed, so we ensured the partners were involved at every stage. Our founding partners of Rio Tinto (then Hamersley Iron), the North West Shelf Project, the State and Federal Departments of Education and the Graham (Polly) Farmer Foundation, were really outstanding; they were prepared to put their money on the line for a new program which has gone on to make a real difference.