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I was recently asked to share my leadership story with a group of students participating in YWCA Canberra’s She Leads Diploma program. Below is an abridged version of my talk – enjoy!

I would like to start by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people as the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we are meeting on this afternoon.

I would like to particularly extend my respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, who for thousands of years have preserved the culture and practices of Aboriginal nations across their countries.

Having just last week hosted Julia Gillard at an event at the Portrait Gallery, where she discussed her memoir, My Story with 300 adoring fans, I’m feeling a little dwarfed, standing here with you today as I share my humble insights into my own experiences – I hope you take something useful from them.

So what I’ve decided to share with you are three moments in time, that I believe have fundamentally shaped my leadership journey and my career.

But first, a little about my early outlook on life – to set the scene.

When I was 16 I wanted to be a rock star. I had green dreadlocks, facial piercings, and a really intense death stare.

I played bass guitar and sung in a couple of punk and metal bands with my brother and friends.

We were about as “out there” as you could get for kids from the upper middle class, lower North Shore area of Sydney.

We wrote music about stuff that concerns most angst-ridden teenagers: conformity, oppression, “the system” – all that.

But at the heart of what we were doing, were a set of strong values, and a desire to see all people treated equally – regardless of the way they looked, how much money they had, where they were from, what music they listened to, or what they believed in.

We didn’t know it at the time, but we were proponents of social justice principles.

So I always thought I’d make a career out of writing the kind of music that would fundamentally change the world – but in my final two years of school I made a conscious decision to pursue photography and film making, my other passions.

It was a really difficult choice because I loved to do both, but as my HSC exams loomed, I reconsidered my potential career path.

I decided that storytelling through visual and written media was where I really wanted to focus my energy.

Which brings me to my first stand-out moment in time.

BROOME 2004

It was a bright summer morning, the day I found myself in a small plane, descending on Broome Airport – which looked more like a garden shed than any airport I’d ever seen!

I was about to embark on my broadcast internship with Goolarri Media, an Aboriginal owned and led television and radio station. Their vision – “to close the gap for all Indigenous peoples across the Kimberley region”.

So looking out the plane window at the red dirt and dazzling aqua blue water, I felt pretty scared.

I’d only had a short video-conference interview with the Director and staff at Goolarri the week before, to see if “I’d be alright out there”, and all of a sudden I was on the other side of the country, about to live and work with a crew I’d never met before, in a place I’d never been before, immersed in a culture so completely different to my own.

I reminded myself of my purpose and intention – I wanted to learn to harness the power of communications and media to tell important human stories, and facilitate positive social change.

It’s hard to put into words exactly how much the time I spent out there blew my mind, both on a professional and deeply personal level.

From working on documentaries about hunting and cooking in the middle of the desert in 40 degree heat, to producing important community service announcements and health campaigns with incredibly knowledgeable local people – to mentoring a young, deaf Aboriginal man in post-production techniques – it all pushed me way out of my comfort zone.

But it wasn’t just what I learned about my professional craft that shaped my world view, it was the first time that I felt like I was part of a minority (I’m pretty white as you can see), it was the first time I had met Aboriginal people the same age as me, and it was the first time I’d ever been trusted so much as a young professional.

I think I learned more about this country we live in, and my own leadership potential in that month than I have from any other experience in my life.

POP PRINCESS 2008

After a few years freelancing in film and television production, I finally came to terms with a few cold hard facts about the industry I was working in.

The penny finally dropped while I was working a 16 hour shift on a shoot for a very well known “Princess of Pop’s” music video. I realised that:

  1. The hours were long, the pace furiously unrelenting, and getting decently paid work involved competing with a lot of other people
  2. The gigs were mainly corporate – commercials, training videos, and the like
  3. I wasn’t prepared to claw my way to the top of the industry food chain

So one day on set, as she tried to get me fired from the crew for purchasing the wrong brand of herbal tea for her dressing room stash, I knew I had to face up to the fact that my dreams of telling important community stories, and making the world a better place were not coming true.

In fact, I was exactly where I didn’t want to be – spending my time and talent working for people I had little connection with, on projects that I largely didn’t care about, in an industry that facilitated an “every man for himself” culture.

So I finished the shoot, had a BIG sleep, and thought hard about what to do next.

THE CANBERRA MULTICULTURAL FESTIVAL 2009

As I wandered around my first Multicultural Festival, I took some time to hang around the not-for-profit stall area.

I was working on a project for the Heart Foundation, and really wanted to grow my networks in the sector. I was on the hunt for a volunteering opportunity.

I’d never heard of the YWCA before, and wondered if the well-intentioned ladies behind the stall had their wires crossed.

But after hearing about their mission to “work for a world where reconciliation, justice, peace, health, human dignity, freedom and care for the environment are promoted and sustained through women’s leadership”, my interest was immediately sparked.

As I signed off on my membership form that day, I had no idea what opportunities would present themselves to me in the years to come.

A friend of mine, who was also a member, spent the next few months harassing me to undertake the Y’s Board Internship Program. I gave in, applied, and much to my surprise, was selected.

In 2011 I was actually co-opted to the YWCA Canberra Board when a position became vacant.

The next year I was again politely harassed into standing for Vice President, and was voted in by the membership.

That same year I was also successful in applying for a Great Ydeas grant, which enabled me to bring together an offline and online community of women martial artists here in Canberra – to share knowledge and skills.

Last year I was politely harassed into applying for a Communications and Advocacy internship with the World YWCA in Geneva, and I was truly shocked and delighted when I was selected.

In Geneva I was fortunate enough to spend time with the World YWCA and UN Human Rights Council to explore how digital communication can enhance the work of international advocacy efforts.

And now here I am, Director of Corporate Relations and Communications at YWCA Canberra – one of the most influential, dynamic and innovative NFPs in this town.

I can honestly say that I’m “living the dream”, albeit my dream of helping share important community stories, and facilitating positive social change.

So what did I learn from Broome, a Princess of Pop, and the Multicultural Festival exactly?

On reflection, my time in Broome gave me the perfect opportunity to explore and understand my values, passions, and innate leadership qualities. Agreeing to get on a plane with a week’s notice to do that internship, was the first time I had said “yes” to something pretty big, that I didn’t feel at all confident about. I had no real reference point, no support, and I didn’t know what to expect. I’m so glad I said yes.

From The Princess of Pop I learned that sometimes it’s incredibly valuable to have a clear understanding of what you don’t want to do. While some people might see these experiences as “wasted time”, I am thankful that I had a chance to live the life of a freelancer in Australia’s film and television industry. I honed my business acumen, organisation skills, technical ability, and it definitely tested my resilience on a number of levels.

Through my membership and now employment with the Y, I have been exposed to life-changing opportunities that have allowed me to explore my own leadership potential, to understand what positive social impact I can make as a communications professional, and to form friendships, skills, and experiences that are well beyond any dollar value.

Last year I was lucky enough to attend the Better Boards Conference, and co-present with the talented Ruth Pitt on the YWCA of Canberra’s long-term strategic plan. This week the Better Boards team sent me the video of our presentation, so here it is – enjoy!

You can read my original post covering the conference here

Note: I’ve since resigned from the YWCA of Canberra board to take up an exciting role within the staff team, and I love it!

Progress-program

I was recently asking my NGO communications buddies if they knew of any courses that focused on digital campaigning and community mobilisation. The responses I received were largely along the lines of “I don’t think anything like that exists in Australia”, and “hey you should run a course on that”, so I was starting to get a little disheartened.

That was, until Sarah Stokely suggested I grab a ticket to Progress 2013 – and man I’m glad that I did!

In this post I’ve tried to capture some of the highlights of the last two days, and will no doubt add to it as my brain digests the smorgasbord of ideas, critiques, and strategic thinking I was lucky enough to learn about at this landmark event.

Richard Wilkinson

Richard Wilkinson

Richard Wilkinson, social determinants of health guru and expert on the societal effects of inequality framed our thinking as the morning keynote speaker on day one.

His opening slide encouraged us to consider the question, why are we so miserable?

He explained that at a global level (comparing country-to-country), life expectancy is unrelated to economic growth, happiness and other measures of wellbeing.

However, when we look at the population within countries, health and social problems are more prominent in countries where there is an inequitable distribution of wealth. That is, the larger the income gap, the worse off countries are across a range of areas including: homicide, mental illness, imprisonment, life expectancy, high school drop-outs, maths and literacy scores, social mobility, teenage births, social capital, and the prevalence of trust between citizens.

Research shows that people who live in unequal countries actually trust each other less. Only 15-20% of people living in unequal countries feel they can trust each other, compared to more equal countries, where it’s about 60%.

Richard explained that a naive view of inequality only looks at one end of the spectrum that focuses on poverty and income differences. Whereas a more informed view examines the layers of all the subtlety destructive tendencies that humans possess, ie the psycho-social effects.

Fundamentally it’s about a response to social hierarchy and ranking, and whether people feel valued or devalued.

Richard Wilkinson-Public health slide
Research tells us that friendship is a protective factor of health

We then had a look at the “U shape of inequality” from the 1930’s to the present day. It bottomed out in the 70s (thank you feminism) and is now sadly on the rise again. Richard says we’ve lost any vision of what a society that serves us all might look like – a thought for us to keep in mind throughout the conference.

So what might this more equal world look like, and how do we get there?

Richard challenged us to consider what would happen if we extend the idea of democracy into the economic world, and transform big business and corporate control into democratic spaces.

His talk convinced me that in many respects, some of us have reached the end of the benefits of economic growth, and that now we need to think about how to create a better quality of life for everyone, beyond consumerism.

Tim Costello on the narrative of progress

Tim says that the notion of progress needs to be unpicked. He says it can’t be a narrative about material goods, and that we need to understand its limits. The economic rationalism storyline should have already been unpicked, but it still dominates our public debate and policy making.

Australia ranks number one in the world in terms of medium per capita wealth, and number two for wellbeing. We are healthy and wealthy, but are we wise?

The story of “the wealthier I am, the happier I’ll be” doesn’t necessarily work out the way we think it will when we’re ultimately faced with greed, stress,  and fragmentation of communities.

Working out the narrative of progress was one of the challenges Tim put to the conference attendees. This was particularly important given that the NGO sector is largely written out of the progress story.

His take-home points for us:

  • If we can understand our size and our muscle, we can change this place
  • We need to empower people to define what “the good life” means for them
  • There are a lot of people in Australia who should be having a voice, and they need to be connected

Limited news: a future for media in Australia?

Future-of-media

Panelists:

Tim started out talking about how he often sees journos dealing with Twitter followers like they are some kind of pest. He said journos don’t like being publicly held to account, they don’t like being questioned, and they still resist engaging in meaningful dialogic communication.

This got me thinking about how we can break down the barriers to social media use, how we can bridge the digital divide, and how we can empower citizen journalists to deliver quality, yet independent content. I’m yet to come across a better example than the PakVotes project that I came across in Geneva earlier this year.

We then moved on to discussing the Murdoch press, and how we break down the empire and it’s constraints. The general consensus was that monetising free-to-access media is still very difficult, and the publications that have opted for the paywall option are finding it problematic.

Jamila thinks that by 2020 we’ll have online media accounts where we pay very little (eg half a cent) per article read, but that it will take a while for us to get to the point where culturally we’re ready for that to happen on a large-scale.

She flagged that sponsored content is one of the more promising ways that we can monetise online media. I saw a couple of examples of this when Mamamia ran its “Most Clickable Women” awards, and invited female bloggers to engage in the creation of branded or sponsored content.

Digital Campaigning: going well beyond clicktavism

Panelists:

This was one of the sessions I was most looking forward to attending, and it delivered! It was a real honour to hear some of the world’s leading campaigners share their approaches to strategy, implementation and evaluation.

Some tips from the gurus:

  • Technology is just an enabler, it’s how we use it that’s important
  • Seize the moment – when something happens in the real world, leverage it!
  • When people see real action in the world it galvanises support in the online environment
  • By challenging politicians to do something about an issue (by collecting signatures for an online petition, for example), you present not only a big stick, but also a very big carrot
  • It’s important to agitate around issues that “no one cares about”, but recognise this will often require a much more long-term strategy
  • Many people fail because their target audience can’t see how it will lead them to success, and they can’t see their role in the journey
  • When people take action you need to celebrate little victories along the way

Moving beyond the “gender card” – opportunities for the Australian women’s movement.

Y women

Josie Swords of Feminaust, Krista Seddon of the YWCA Victoria, Michelle Deshong of the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre, myself representing the YWCA of Canberra, and Nina O’Brien of Kindling.

Panelists:

Jane began the discussion by saying that she doesn’t see feminism as a movement. She sees feminism as a way of seeing the world, where women are at the centre of their own lives, rather that at the periphery of someone else’s. Jane noted that one of the things that we (women) consistently deal with is a trivialisation of our thoughts, feelings and desires, and that this needs to change.

Rebecca however, was more interested in talking about how we as a collective can move our agenda forward faster. She said the average GetUp member is a 55 year-old woman, and that one of the reasons women make excellent campaigners is that we’re comfortable with emotion, and the vulnerability that leads to connection.

Michelle challenged the position that Jane presented, because she feels like she has only just had the opportunity to start participating in feminism. She sees her race as the first thing that has prevented her participation, and then her gender, which is why she calls herself an Indigenous Feminist.

Michelle believes that gender equity is a conversation for everyone, and that Indigenous women want to participate in feminism while bringing their men along with them.

There aren’t a lot of Aboriginal women who are participating in the “feminist debate”, because they are more comfortable participating in the “Indigenous conversation”. The overlay of cultural context for Aboriginal peoples is very important, and shouldn’t be underestimated when it comes to participation in feminist debates.

Jane sees social media as one of the biggest ways that we can move feminism forward faster. The fact that we can have a public conversation without being mediated is unprecedented, and is something we shouldn’t take for granted.

Using the Destroy The Joint campaign as a case study, Jane passed on a few words of wisdom about progressing the feminist agenda:

  • Mock stupidity – it’s the best defence!
  • You have to fight mockery and insults with the same thing!
  • We need to make all progressive movements FUN!
  • Start with a group of people who are like-minded, and want the same outcome. You will have a much better chance of making your campaigns fun and engaging.

Finally, Michelle encouraged us to think about what the world will look like when gender equity exists, and stressed the fact that for us to get there, women’s rights first need to be accepted as human rights.

One of Her Canberra’s 15 Women to Watch in 2015

Her Canberra - 15 Women to Watch

Nominated for Mamamia’s Most Clickable Women of 2013

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