Dr Catherine Keenan Wise Words

Catherine Keenan was named the 2016 Australian of the Year Local Hero for her work as a youth educator. She says a belief in the possibilities of young people should underscore every area of public policy that impacts on youth.


One day late last year, Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, came into the Sydney Story Factory to run a writing workshop. The young people there were well known to us: we’d invited them because they’d been coming to our programs for years, and we’d arranged for Markus to do a short interview with each of them.

That’s how he came to meet Bella, an eight-year-old with a poetic spirit who writes through the challenges of autism. She didn’t speak then (that’s slowly changing now) and she wrote then, as she does now, by spelling out words on a letter board, one character at a time. Bella had been working one-on-one for a year with our wonderful volunteer manager and workshop leader, Craig.

Markus asked her a few questions about herself before he asked what she would save if the Sydney Story Factory was on fire. Bella spelled out on her letter board: 'Craig’s belief in my possibilities'.

Bella’s words have become central to my idea of what education should be. Indeed, I think a belief in the possibilities of young people should underscore every area of public policy that impacts on youth, including employment.

Portrait image of Dr Catherine Keenan

‘The only thing we can say for sure about the world today’s young people will go out into is that it will constantly change. The crucial skill, therefore, is the ability to think flexibly and adapt to new situations.’

For many, the idea that it’s crucial for marginalised young people to participate in creative arts programs may seem strange. In Australia, engaging young people in arts programs has traditionally been viewed as an optional extra: a pretty bauble tacked onto real education, bought by those who can afford it.

What Bella shows us is that the truth is the exact opposite. The young people we work with at the Sydney Story Factory – those in primary and high school who are marginalised by culture, socioeconomic circumstances and learning difficulties – are precisely the young people who should first be offered arts programs. Why? Because a growing body of research from around the world suggests the many benefits – academic, emotional and social – that come from young people participating in quality arts experiences. Young people perform better at school (not just in arts subjects, but across the board); they’re more likely to go on to productive employment and tertiary education; they watch less television; they’re more likely to volunteer in their community; and they’re more politically engaged. In short, they’re more fulfilled people. They’re better citizens. And they’re more likely to overcome the disadvantage they were born into.

Just as importantly, the only thing we can say for sure about the world today’s young people will go out into is that it will constantly change. The crucial skill, therefore, is the ability to think flexibly and adapt to new situations. Creativity becomes vital, and arts programs are the best way to develop this. As the educator Sir Ken Robinson has argued, creativity should be as central in curricula as literacy.

Imagine an Australia where all young people, particularly those with few advantages, were given these opportunities. Imagine if community organisations, employers and governments alike believed in listening to young people’s aspirations and in developing their talents and strengths.

Then, as Bella so eloquently put it, we could really see their possibilities.

Dr Catherine Keenan is co-founder and executive director of the Sydney Story Factory, a community organisation that runs free creative writing and storytelling workshops for youth aged 7 to 17.

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