Introducing the new principal of Cape York Girl Academy, Baressa Frazer

As an Indigenous woman and educator, Baressa Frazer does not demand anything unreasonable of non-Indigenous Australians, but simple acknowledgement, and ears to listen. A Wik woman from Aurukun, Baressa has made an incredible journey from leaving school in Year 9, to a doctoral student and a fitting appointment as school principal of Cape York Girl Academy. Fitting, because her personal journey very much mirrors that of her students. Cape York Girl Academy is an educational sanctuary for young Indigenous women whom the system has either neglected, or not made the effort to find a place for. They are no less passionate about their education than any other Australian students, but have instead faced unique hardships – such as teenage pregnancy, or expulsion from other schools – along the way. “Schools aren’t a place where every child feels safe. It certainly didn’t feel right for me, so I left. I knew there were alternative pathways present for me to take advantage of,” Baressa says.

At the age of 17, Baressa fell pregnant with her first child, and was facing the prospect of raising her infant son as a single parent. Deciding that the road without financial empowerment and opportunity was not going to be the one she would take, she enrolled in TAFE and became a qualified land management ranger. But it was during this period of continual and enthusiastic learning that Baressa discovered her educational capabilities. “So, after a while working as a ranger, and with the guidance of my mother and role model – who was a bi-lingual educator herself – I elected to return to university and study to become a teacher,” she says. “But when I was there, I noticed I was the only Indigenous person enrolled in my course.”

And from here began her passion for Indigenous education, which included service in multiple Cape York communities as a secondary teacher and principal, as well as the Head of Indigenous Education at the prestigious Scots College in Sydney. Now, in her new role as Principal of Cape York Girl Academy, Baressa has joined a very exclusive, but regrettable club. Just 0.4% of Australia’s executive workforce are Indigenous, well below the 3.3% needed to equal fair representation in accordance with population demographics. Women like Baressa, with her inspiring self-determination, are key to flipping the script on this.

It is not just representation of Indigenous women in the workforce that Baressa is keen to reform. In her time as an Indigenous educator, she has garnered a keen understanding of what it is really going to take to close the gap in Indigenous educational outcomes. “It is not until we acknowledge Indigenous stories and the historical truth of this country that we can have reciprocity across many levels of educational reform,” she says. As an Aboriginal person, Baressa wants to marry her perspectives with those of equally passionate, non-Indigenous educators in order to bring about common understanding of Indigenous students’ needs. Cape York Girl Academy fosters these opportunities through regular professional development for teachers and staff, including understanding of language and culture.

“The barriers to education experienced by Indigenous women are global. They relate to issues of cultural safety and obligation,” Baressa says.

“However, we need to change the rhetoric on our use of the term ‘ cultural barriers’, and see them instead as opportunities to enrich our schooling system.” Obligations to family and culture include important customs such as ‘Sorry Business’ – the period of cultural practices and protocols associated with death and loss. But instead of seeing these processes in conflict with curriculum requirements, Baressa believes they ought to instead add value to the Indigenous-related knowledge of other students. In essence, it is an opportunity to solidify acknowledgement of the special Indigenous rites that have existed and evolved on the Australian continent for over 60,000 years.

Baressa maintains that this should also be the case for life beyond primary and secondary education. Our tertiary education institutions, places of employment and facets of community are all ripe for the picking when it comes to the need for cultural enrichment. Notably, those that profess to be places of diversity and inclusion. “We need to ask ourselves, how are we including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in on the conversation,” she says. “Because Indigenous people are so diverse, we need to sit, look and listen to each individual community. If Australian society takes the time to listen to our stories, it may just help improve the participation of Indigenous women across multiple sectors.”

In tandem with necessary and urgent educational reform, Baressa’s focus is intimately upon the development and positive outcomes that await her vibrant students. “I feel really humbled to join Cape York Girl Academy as the principal. My educational experiences are similar to the girls here, so I feel strongly about bringing their voices to the front. We need to listen to them, and then turn listening into action,” she says.

The Indigenous students of Cape York Girl Academy have their own visions for their potential success in education, and life beyond. With the appointment of a principal who has many shared experiences, those visions may have just become a little more present and tangible.