“Congratulations! You have been carefully selected from thousands of applicants across the nation to be an AIME Mentor in 2014!”
I read those words as the rest of the email slowly loaded on my phone and proceeded to do a very unflattering dance, disrupting half of Wentworth Food Court. I texted my mum, two friends who had also just gone through the AIME application process, and another that had encouraged me to get involved. As is standard practice, I also took a screenshot of the email and uploaded it to Instagram. Let’s just say I was excited.
I was excited to be a participant in the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME), a program where the central focus and belief is that Indigenous = success. AIME has been proven to dramatically improve the chances of Indigenous children finishing school and assisting them in progressing onto tertiary education. Established in 2005 with 25 Indigenous and non-Indigenous University of Sydney students, the program now reaches 1000 Indigenous students and has been implemented in over 100 schools across three states.
I was eager to be a part of a program where I felt I could really make a tangible difference to somebody’s life.
Then I received a troubling comment on the screenshot of my acceptance email I had uploaded in excitement. In amongst the ‘Congrats Lish!’ and the ‘I did it last year – it was fantastic’ sat a disconcerting message – ‘Flying in to save the poor Indigenous kids, making yourself feel good about yourself, you white hero.’
It threw me back.
Why was I becoming an AIME Mentor? Was it to make myself feel good? Was it to get another line on my CV?
All I could think about as I looked at that comment was an article from The Onion entitled ‘6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture’. The article satirically comments on the idea of visiting Africa on volunteering missions as being ‘in fashion’.
The comment played on my mind for the next week. It stayed with me as I sat through the first AIME training day. It ate at my conscience as I picked up my new AIME hoodie and chatted to other mentors over the free sausage sizzle. As a result, I spoke to a number of experienced AIME leaders from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds. I spoke to them about my concerns, the criticisms and their own experiences.
Those conversations affirmed that the majority of the people there with me were there for the right reasons. They were just as excited as I was when they received their emails and they were committed to being properly trained, learning how to most effectively engage with students and expand their knowledge of the rich and diverse Indigenous culture.
Nat Heath, the AIME program coordinator at the University of Sydney reflected on these conversations, highlighting that AIME is a way for people from different backgrounds to get to know each other in a friendly and safe environment. Heath foregrounded that the majority of racism stems from ignorance or lack of education, and AIME can combat this.
“I think AIME provides a platform where non-Indigenous mentors further learn about a wide range of issues facing Indigenous families and young people. This can only lead to a better Australia in the future,” he shared with me.
Heath also discussed the cultural awareness training that I myself undertook at my first AIME training.
“These sessions include things that people say that are racist which they don’t realise are racist and how this casual racism can impact on Indigenous people, communities and our mentees,” he said.
“No racism or sexism is tolerated at AIME.”
University of Sydney student and mentor of two years, Eloise Layard could understand the sentiment of the criticism I received but had only positive experiences within the program. She had first heard about AIME in one of her initial social work lectures and was captivated by the passion of the people involved. Some of her most rewarding experiences have been watching the mentees gradually become more comfortable with the program and open up to being more involved.
“I think the fact that AIME is lead by strong and dedicated Indigenous people is really important, because they really reinforce that these high school students can do whatever they want to in life and that they should be proud of being Indigenous,” she offered.
“As long as people aren’t just looking for something to put on their CV and actually want to help, there is no reason to criticise.
“When non-Indigenous people work with programs such as AIME, they need to listen to the Indigenous people in the program and not tell them what’s best, but find out what they want.”
That’s what I hope to do as an AIME mentor. I aim to listen, engage and be constantly learning, myself. I’m not a ‘white hero.’ I’m not looking for a line on my CV. I am here to learn as much as my mentees.
And I am still just as excited as when I first received that email.