“At least a quarter of the prisoners don’t have basic literacy skills and can’t read at all,” Keiah said.
“Many of them don’t understand why they are in jail because they can’t read the documents about their case.
“So I always tell them, ‘education is the key to your future’.”
Keiah’s motivation to teach literacy to inmates stems from her own childhood experiences.
Her mother, Ann, constantly stressed to her children the need to keep learning.
In 1992, she arranged for Keiah to receive extra tutoring with the Aboriginal Tutorial Assistance Scheme (ATAS) program, the forerunner of the Aboriginal Literacy Foundation (ALF).
Working in collaboration with local communities, ALF develops Indigenous children’s literacy and numeracy skills so they can succeed in school and beyond.
An estimated 18 per cent of Indigenous students fail to reach the national minimal reading and writing standard in Australia, compared to 6 per cent for non-Indigenous children. Low literacy often leads to significant social disadvantage later in life.
Keiah received on-and-off tutoring from the ATAS program for 10 years. She eventually left home and had two children with her partner, Mike.
But Keiah felt she had not fulfilled her full potential. In 2010, she talked with Uncle Wally, the head of her family and a Yorta Yorta leader. Uncle Wally suggested she do further study.
Over the next three years, Keiah obtained a Certificate II in Business Studies and a Certificate II in Hospitality. As a result, she was able to find a job at the Aboriginal Co-op in Ballarat.
Following the birth of her third child, Keiah discovered the Federation University in Ballarat was sponsoring an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education program at Langi Kal Kal prison. She successfully applied for the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Support Officer and now offers literacy and cultural assistance to inmates.
A certificate course for Indigenous students includes cultural studies.
“It’s important that people do not lose their roots,” Keiah said.
“I always sit with them one-on-one and check that they are learning and know what they are doing.”
Keiah is especially proud of one of her students, who is nearing the end of his sentence and has been able to secure a place at a Ballarat TAFE.
“I’m working really hard with him to make sure his literacy is good enough to go right through the course,” she said.
Keiah’s final piece of advice to her students – and other Indigenous youth – is that there are no barriers that cannot be overcome.