It’s brutally hot. A large, noisy fan propels loose papers back and forth across the floor. Every now and again the metal door clangs violently shut and a lazy dog stirs from his place in front of the whiteboard. Eleven students are ready, pencil in hand, for the start of another lesson. Today, we tackle the soft ‘c’.

‘I know a hard ‘c’ word’ one student calls out, ‘but it’s not nice to say’.

Others laugh before someone yells ‘shut up’.

Later in the day, the white board has two columns of words written in a large, careful script, the target letter underlined in red: incarcerated, peace, civil, chance. Above the columns in capitals is the day’s positive message: PEOPLE LOVE PEACE.

It’s a literacy class, yes, but unlike any I’ve encountered before. For one thing, I’m not the teacher. Here the students are Aboriginal adults – people who found themselves left behind by the formal education system, people who experience the complex legacy of colonisation every day of their lives. The students range in age from 17 to 67. There are grandmothers and grandsons, mothers and daughters, sisters and cousins all overcoming their shame to return to basics: penmanship, vowels, consonants, full stops.

The courage to walk through the door comes from the staff. Their teachers have no formal teaching qualifications. In fact, for some, the literacy campaign is their first real job. But these staff hold the only qualification that counts out here: they’re local; neighbours, aunties, friends who themselves have struggled with reading and writing and are learning on the job alongside the students – their mob.

‘It works because it’s us doing it for us’ I hear time and again.

A literacy campaign requires collaboration at a community level. It starts with acknowledgement of the issue of low literacy and a determination to address it. Then, through a series of meetings and events involving the local medical service, schools, the Land Council, the Shire Council, the community slowly mobilises and a small team with dedicated supporters forms. Months of intensive training, planning and consultation follow before the door to the classroom finally opens.

If it takes a community to raise a child, it takes a society to turn an adult’s life around. Out in these small rural communities in north-western NSW, adult literacy, like the pastoral industry, has been all but forgotten.  The well-publicised and documented disadvantage in these mostly Aboriginal communities has attracted significant resources in the form of welfare agencies, justice and policing, health services and branches of countless government departments. And yet, seldom are questions asked about why so many are before the court for driving without a licence, why so many are in breach of their Centrelink conditions, why so many have fines accruing and why so many live without stable accommodation.

The answer to these questions – low adult literacy – seems hidden in plain sight. The ability to navigate increasingly complex bureaucratic systems and to sift and grade the barrage of text-based information is currently beyond an estimated 40% of Aboriginal adults.

Low literacy stands between many and their health, housing, money, and kids’ futures. It can even make the difference between incarceration and freedom.

Literacy then is at the heart of people regaining control of their lives. For those of us working on the campaign from outside the community, our job is the reverse. We as literacy teachers, community developers, activists and academics need to relinquish control so that the staff, students and community can take control. This shift demands courage, trust and determination from everyone.

Once the first group of students walk through the door, I step away from the whiteboard. The class can and does unravel from time to time but increasingly, the staff and students come forward, supporting each other to find solutions.

This is grassroots literacy: slow, deep and long lasting.

Dr Frances Williamson is a researcher with the University of New England, currently involved in a longitudinal study investigating the impacts of an Aboriginal adult literacy campaign on health and well-being in remote communities of north-western NSW. Prior to this, Frances has worked variously as a Project Officer with the Literacy for Life Foundation, supporting Aboriginal communities to address the issue of low adult literacy and as an English language teacher. She has recently moved to Southern Tasmania, where she lives with her family and assorted animals. Here, Frances writes for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative – find more at chattermatters.com.au.