Reading for Reconciliation founder Helen Carrick spoke at RQI’s June 23 general meeting about her passion for the truth telling in Australian history and the diverse experiences that set her on this path.
A teacher librarian and historian (retired), Helen said she discovered her passion for Indigenous Australian history after hearing from a woman 22 years ago who had been involved in starting up the Nugutana-Lui Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Studies Centre in Inala.
“And she told us about her life growing up in Cherbourg and [how] she had to get permission from her superintendent to go to parties and things at Murgon,” Helen said.
“And one weekend she got permission to go, but missed the last bus home. So to keep her safe, the police locked her up in the lock-up over the weekend and didn’t tell her mother,” she said.
“And that story changed my life. I mean I’m still getting goose bumps as I say it.
“Because I just thought my god, I’ve majored in history, I’ve taught history and this isn’t ancient history…she was only a bit younger than me.”
Helen decided to volunteer to help Nugutana-Lui, which invited her to organise its library, and from that moment there was no going back.
She then spent eight years working at a ‘school of special character’ in Windsor (Brisbane) that had been purposely set up so that half of the students were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
“The priest who was there at that stage, Father Dick Pascoe, he donated the old presbytery to Aboriginal people who were moving down from Cherbourg, as they got settled into Brisbane,” Helen explained, “so then their children could just come to the school, which was next door.”
“And that was just the most wonderful eight years. I have learnt so much from those wonderful people,” she said.
Truth telling through literature
Later returning to Nugutana-Lui, Helen found herself with “a really great budget” with which she was able to purchase books for the library’s collection.
“And I thought, ‘Wow, look what’s around. How can I get these out to the broader community?’ That’s when this light went on in my head and I thought maybe I could start a book group.”
It was from these humble beginnings that the Reading for Reconciliation group got started.
“It’s a very specialised book group,” Helen hastens to add.
“Because I had taught history and this was my ‘baby’ in those days,” she says making air quotes, “my passion was to get the history out through this medium.”
Reading for Reconciliation
When she began the Reading for Reconciliation book group back in 2004, they were initially meeting in Helen’s lounge room. To recruit members, Helen recalled with a chuckle, “I used to speak at every possible event that I could gate crash.”
The group gets together to go over the texts they’ve read on Sunday mornings, from 10.30 – 12.30, at approximately six weekly intervals.
Members take turns in ‘leading’ discussion of a particular title and each ‘leader’ is expected to provide some extra background or context, or to focus the discussion. All titles chosen are available through the Brisbane City Council Library service.
New groups have also started up as far afield as Logan and Lismore, and more are expected as the national momentum towards truth telling builds.
Reading for Reconciliation was even a finalist in the 2012 Queensland Reconciliation Awards. The photo below shows Helen Carrick (centre) holding the certificate they received, along with other members of the group.
At the RQI general meeting, Helen proceeded to read from and discuss a number of books from her own personal collection.
One of the first she presented was plainly also a book which troubled her: Queensland, 1824-1900 by George Finkel. Helen explained that versions of this book were produced for each Australian state.
Published in 1975, it’s archaic take on First Nations peoples and their history remained in school libraries until early in the new millennium.
Helen said a campaign by local reconciliation groups was the catalyst to have it removed and to, prove her point, Helen produced a faded newspaper clipping from within the pages of her copy of the book and read from it:
“The history book which compares the demise of Tasmanian Aboriginals with the extinction of animals has been taken off the shelves of Brisbane City Council libraries, after complaints from a suburban reconciliation group.”
Published in 2000, the clipping went on to say the Nundah Reconciliation Group wrote to Council complaining that the book was “dated, inaccurate and paternalistic”.
Examples of more enlightened Australian literature were also discussed at the meeting, including many important works that helped turn the tide towards truth telling.
Among them was Dr Rosalind Kidd’s The Way We Civilise (1994), a groundbreaking study that detailed how successive Queensland governments controlled the Aboriginal population, and Forgotten War (2012) by Henry Reynolds.
Posts from the Past
On Helen’s suggestion, she is going to begin contributing ‘Posts from the Past’ that RQI can publish to this website.
“I often come across fascinating pieces that I’m sure would enlighten many members. They are all from historical newspapers over the decades,” Helen says.
RQI looks forward to sharing these stories with our membership and newsletter subscribers very soon.