Indigenous Women’s Leadership

This past week, Australia celebrated NAIDOC Week (8-15 July), a time to recognise the leadership, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Originally standing for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee, NAIDOC Week has historically reflected the ongoing resistance to genocide, assimilation and land dispossession, famously culminating in the annual Day of Mourning in 1938 (a protest against Australia Day on 26 January). The NAIDOC committee emerged in 1956, and has in recent decades coordinated local and national events and awards to promote Indigenous excellence. This year’s theme is Because of Her We Canpromoting the multiple leadership roles of Indigenous women for their families and communities, as they push for social justice and human rights at the local community and national levels.

I share with you two events I attended that highlight the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in academia, journalism, business, law and social policy.


Shannan Dodson is a young Aboriginal woman. She stands in front of a large crowd beside a screen showing one of her tweets showing how to use a Twitter poll with humour
Shannan Dodson

Hosted by Yawuru woman Shannan Dodson from the NAIDOC Committee and Kara Hinesley from Twitter Australia, this event began with some tips for how to use Twitter more effectively, as well as highlighting how Indigenous people have shaped national conversations and social action, such as through #IndigenousX, #IndigenousDads and #IndigenousMums, to counter racist narratives and overcome a focus on deficits, and instead focus on community strengths.

The evening then led into a truly wonderful panel of highly accomplished women across law, academia, media and business.

Teela Reid is a Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman and solicitor who started the panel by discussing the diverse views of Indigenous people. Twitter has helped non-Indigenous Australians understand different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s voices. Reid gave advice to young Aboriginal women on Twitter, saying, ‘Make sure what you say, you can back it up.’

Shelley Reys AO is an Indigenous woman of the Djiribul people, CEO of Arrilla Consulting and partner at professional consultancy giant KPMG. Reys said: ‘There’s a lot of pressure on young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people be a certain type of person.’ Due to forced removal, young Indigenous people have different experiences that may not fit in with non-Indigenous people’s ideas of what it means to be Indigenous.

Bridget Brennan is of Dja Dja Wurrung and Yorta Yorta heritage on her father’s side, and works as the National Indigenous Affairs Correspondent for the ABC. She said that social media created new opportunities for Indigenous people who are rediscovering their heritage and communities. ‘There are other spaces to connect with Aboriginal people.’

Photograph from the back of the room captures a lage seated crowd. The panellists sit in the front with two large screens showing their Twitter handles
(L-R panellists) Teela Reid, Bridget Brennan, Prof Bronwyn Carlson, Lorena Allam, and Shelley Reys AO. (Far right, moderator) Shannan Dodson

Professor Bronwyn Carlson is an Aboriginal woman who was born on and lives on Dharawal Country on the South Coast of NSW. She is a sociologist and Head of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie University. Prof Carlson has done extensive research on Indigenous people’s online experiences. She notes that nearly every Indigenous person in her studies have experienced online racism. Yet Aboriginal people are also caring for one another using multiple technologies. Aboriginal people support others in need, including for suicide prevention. She shared amusing anecdotes from her research on online dating, which included one person being matched with a cousin (Aboriginal kinship ties are extensive). Sexual racism impacts negatively on Indigenous people using dating apps.

Prof Carlson discussed the mandate in academia to disseminate research findings, and how Twitter has helped her tremendously in making contacts here and overseas, as people read her op eds shared on Twitter. Twitter is also a useful way for her to share her work with Indigenous people without the pay-wall that otherwise restricts academic journals. Prof Carlson shows that Twitter is ‘monumental’ to academics. It acts like ‘an open database.’ She notes that we need more academics online. Some of her colleagues are scared to open themselves up to critique or online abuse. At the same time, Prof Carlson sees that many non-Indigenous academics are surprised to learn Aboriginal people are so prolific online. Prof Carlson says there are many excellent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics are doing amazing work online, such as Professor Bronwyn Fredericks, Dr Chelsea Bond and others who have co-hosted and published on Indigenous X.

Prof Carlson’s research shows that Aboriginal public servants tone down their opinions, or they are otherwise afraid to speak up on Indigenous issues, when using social media. Public servants ‘keep it beige,’ she says, if they speak up at all. As an academic, Prof Carlson doesn’t feel this same restriction. She speaks openly and even critiques her university. In late 2017, Prof Carlson made waves in the media, when she raised the colonialism embedded in the name of her institution, Macquarie, named after one of Australia’s early colonists who targeted Aboriginal people for genocide.

Prof Carlson holds the microphone and speaks animated while her co-panellists watch her with interest
Prof Bronwyn Carlson

Reys talked about common misconceptions about Aboriginal people in the business world (and in other areas). The fact is, what they look like and their connection to culture varies greatly. Non-Indigenous views are usually incorrect. These often-negative stereotypes limit opportunities for Indigenous people.

‘Corporations like to call it unconscious bias. I think I’d rather call it racism.’

In her consultancy, Reys has run many cultural competency workshops for CEOs and other executives. Most of them will rate their understanding of Indigenous issues as seven out of 10. By the end of the workshop, they rate themselves much lower, recognising they overestimated their knowledge. Reys is the first Indigenous partner at the elite KPMG agency. She says: ‘This is surprising, given the tremendous talent out there.’ She challenges corporations to rethink ‘who they consider a talented person to be.’

Prof Carlson is currently studying the mental health outcomes of online racism. She was asked how Indigenous girls and women might manage the online racism they encounter. She says: ‘It’s nice to know you’re part of a bigger community. Don’t internalise this rubbish – speak to other people.’

The panel humourously discussed the American hashtag #WhiteNonsenseRoundUp, which is used on Facebook to encourage White people to respond to racism rather than leaving Black people to do all the work. Online abuse makes it tough for Indigenous people to feel safe online. ‘They drain you – you want to engage, educate and defend yourself.’

An audience member talks about some backlash she’s seen about this year’s NAIDOC theme, Because of Her We Can, which some men say alienates them. Shannan Dodson, who is a committee member with NAIDOC, says that the theme reflects the reality that, when most people think of prominent Aboriginal people, they largely think of men. This year, the focus was on providing women a platform.

Lorena Allam is from the Gamilarai-Yawalaraay peoples of north west New South Wales (NSW). She is the Indigenous Affairs Editor at Guardian Australia. Allam talked about how Indigenous women’s leadership is rarely recognised even though they lead in multiple ways. ‘Indigenous women lead from behind,’ she said, including through support for their families, community organisations, doing emotional labour for many others, and coordinating social and political action.

Reys adds:

‘Indigenous women are overqualified but not recognised.’

Brennan notes that Indigenous women have a tough time at work because they carry a high cultural load. They deal with multiple responsibilities and issues. They need better support and recognition.

Close-up of the Uluru Statement. It is a beautiful, large cloth document that has been signed by prominent Aboriginal leaders from around the country. The large border is colourful Aboriginal art of various orange and brwn colours. The Statement is reproduced in full in the centre, surrounded by signatures
The Uluru Statement from the Heart

Finally, the panel is asked if they could use Twitter to poll the Australian public on any question, what would it be? One panellist jokes she can only think in swear words and declines to answer; two women refer to the outcome of last year’s national consultations with Aboriginal communities around the country (summarised under the Uluru Statement from the Heart); and two panellists would similarly ask non-Indigenous Australians to face the truth about our national history. Their collective questions were:

  • Do you support an Indigenous Voice to Parliament?
  • Can we face up to our history?
  • Why is it you don’t know? [more about Indigenous cultures and history]

The event ended with Reid reading the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which was on display in the room. It was an honour to see it up close.

Honouring Indigenous Women in Public Service

The front door has beautiful Aboriginal artworks and woodwork and a green shrub
Tranby entrance

The other event I wanted to briefly share with you is a panel held at Tranby College (the National Indigenous Adult Education and Training centre).  Our MC was young social policy officer Hayley McIntosh. The panel began with Kristy Masella, a Murri woman from Rockhampton, Dharumbal country in Central Queensland. She worked in Aboriginal Affairs for 25 years in New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory. She previously led a review of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Rights Act. She now works as CEO of a national Indigenous recruitment agency and she is the Chair of Tranby.

Masella shared personal stories about the women in her life who helped her thrive. She spoke about the need to remain focused on structural inequalities that shape the lives of Aboriginal women, including domestic and family violence. Her key message was about not judging Aboriginal women through stereotypes and instead taking the time to hear their stories.  She also spoke with reverence for Lynn Riley and co-panellist Sonja Stewart. Stewart was a trailblazer in the New South Wales state government. With hardly any Indigenous women before her, Masella said Stewart encouraged other Aboriginal women to learn from her, despite her busy schedule. She kept them safe in the bask of her shadow and modelled empathy as a leader.

Michael O’Loughlin is a Kaurna and Ngarrindjeri man and a champion Aussie Rules footballer. He was a star player with the Sydney Swans when they clawed to victory. He has been inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame, but he says that pales in comparison to the feeling of accomplishment when he was able to buy a house for his mum. He co-founded ARA Indigenous services, a business that finds viable employment for Indigenous people.

O’Loughlin paid homage to his mum and gran, who encouraged him to keep going as a 17-year-old who left his impoverished home in Salisbury, South Australia, to move to Sydney to play professionally. His mother taught him the value of hard work and giving back to his community once he found success. O’Loughlin also paid his respects to Stewart, who has been an encouraging colleague to him and many others across multiple fields.

Stewart is standing and talking animated, her co-panellists look up at her as she speaks. Various banners and Aboriginal artworks hang in the background
Sonja Stewart (left, standing), Michael O’Loughlin (centre) and Kristy Masella (right)

Finally, Sonja Stewart, a senior executive in the NSW public service, spoke beautifully about the central role of her Great Aunt, who helped her mother raise her and her siblings. Stewart noted the limitations that non-Indigenous society places on family. We do not listen to the importance of kinship and have narrow labels for important family relationships that are formative for Aboriginal people’s wellbeing and success.  Stewart also spoke with admiration for NSW politician and Wiradjuri woman Linda Burnley.

A stack of books and periodicals are shown on a table, with the black and white magazine, Mili Mili, in the foreground. The cover has an Aboriginal woman holding a baby up in the air
Tranby library

The panel told the crowd to always take the time to walk in other people’s shoes, and to take special care with Indigenous people, who have a history of not being properly heard and empowered.

The day ended with a tour of the historic Tranby College, including its beautiful library, the first and largest of its kind (after AIATSIS).

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