WCLP Field Trip to Shepparton

20 October 2011 By Stefan Grun

Each year Leadership Victoria’s (LV) Williamson Community Leadership Program (WCLP) participants board a bus to Shepparton on a field trip dedicated to creating awareness and understanding of leadership issues arising in a regional context.

The indigenous component of the trip, once a two-hour session, this year extended to a full day program ‘Towards Understanding’. The session, rich with indigenous activities and guest speeches, is facilitated largely by the Yorta Yorta people, the Traditional Owners of a stretch of territory located in Murray-Goulburn region.

LV Executive Director Jerril Rechter said, “As an organisation, we see the importance of exploring indigenous issues and have reflected that in the extension of this portion of our WCLP program.”

This sentiment is reflected by Program Manager Rosemary White.  She felt that allocating two hours to aboriginal issues trivialised its significance; it was a priority to dedicate more time and resources in order to create a more meaningful engagement for participants.

“The Yorta Yorta people have helped us do that,” she said.

The Shepparton field trip also gives participants access to leadership issues beyond their own sector, an experience highly sort after by emerging leaders.

Joanne Lonergan, a partner at Ernst and Young and WCLP 2011 participant, said she looked forward to focusing on issues she did not think about in her day-to-day world.  The result – new understanding – the sole focus of the day.

“I hadn’t appreciated that there were different aboriginal countries with different customs and beliefs,” she said.

“At the heart of the aboriginal people is ‘country’ and without it they have nothing.  So, having lost their country, they have a sense of nothing. I now get that.”

The dispossession activity certainly affected LV participants, its power echoed throughout the group.  Each participant was assigned a role: an elder, a mother, an activist, a policy maker.  The group then played out the course of history: early settlement, the missions, the late 1960s shift in aboriginal activism.  Quite different from learning about significant events from a book, participants felt marginalised and isolated as their ‘child’ was removed and sent to a mission.

Guy Mendelson, a current participant, said “[It] was incredibly powerful.  It highlighted my lack of understanding of history [and] re-framed my perspective on why indigenous issues are so complex.”

The session gives participants the chance to engage with community-level leaders. Mr Mendelson is the ANZ State Manager for Victoria and Tasmania.  In his very successful career he has worked with numerous leaders; heard presentations, attended workshops, and read autobiographies by many more.

He was inspired by the session’s guest speakers, Yorta Yorta leaders Jackie Walker and Lee Joachim.

“[Jackie and Lee] are two of the best leaders I have been exposed to all year.  Their passion and single-minded focus was inspiring.”

“[I learnt that] grass root leaders can be the most impactful.”

The location of the session also heightens its impact. Set in the Barmah National Park, there is that sense of ‘country’, which cannot be recreated in a Melbourne boardroom.

Jonathan Darby (WCLP ’11) from the Department of Premier and Cabinet said of the day, “Surrounded by the beautiful river red gum forest, a uniquely Australian landscape, it was the perfect place to reflect upon the disruption of a functioning society.”

But what happens once the group returns to their city lives?

Jerril Rechter is optimistic the day’s learnings will extend to participant’s work, personal and social lives. Some of the group’s key findings included: the importance of learning from the past before moving into the future, the necessity for leaders to consider all stakeholders when making decisions.  They also uncovered the importance cultural leaders have in community identity sand the challenges these leaders face.

Living in a multicultural society, these issues will be reflected by participant’s own communities, but the thinking has begun and will develop, sparked by the Yorta Yorta’s insights.

For the Yorta Yorta, the LV Alumni continue to grow.  They have left, and will continue to leave, Shepparton with better knowledge of Australian history, understanding of aboriginal issues, and an engagement with our Traditional Land Owners. They will also tell their own stories, and share their own experiences with a limitless network of emerging leaders in a variety of sectors.  The impact will be unmeasurable.

What is measurable is the indigenous work already in process within the LV community. Whether this is a direct result of the Shepparton trip, or it acted as a catalyst, former participants are actively engaging in indigenous issues.  Vinita Godinho was a WCLP participate in 2008, the same year she was seconded to Reconciliation Australia, as Program Director – Indigenous Financial Services Network.  This year she is undertaking her PhD, researching the topic: “Understanding of money in Indigenous Australia, and implications for the design of culturally appropriate banking product”. There is no doubt her work will impact the indigenous community in some way.

Finally, within LV, Projects Manager Sunita Varlamos is currently developing an initiative that matches Alumni with emerging leaders in the indigenous community. This will allow Alumni to reciprocate the efforts made by the Yorta Yorta.  They will share their professional skills and leadership learnings in a mentorship that can only be beneficial to both parties.