Tess Ryan: I write about strong, black women to highlight the positive stories we share
August 17, 2017
“While we continue to deny the leadership voice that I believe is embedded within Indigenous women, we do Australia a disservice.” Photograph: Supplied
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Tess Ryan is a proud Biripi woman completing her PhD at the University of Canberra on the topic of Indigenous women and leadership in Australia. Tess works with the Melbourne Poche Centre for Indigenous Health at the University of Melbourne.
Over three years ago, I began a PhD in Indigenous women’s leadership in Australia, specifically looking at the current era we are in. What an era it is: not a day goes by without a story coming up on my Twitter feed about yet another issue that directly affects us as Indigenous people (with our voices largely ignored). In 2017, we have some similar issues to that of Indigenous Australia from the past: the disparities in health, life expectancy, education and employment remain. Racism and discrimination are still ever present; however, the era itself presents new challenges. Access to information is more readily available in the digital era and Indigenous individuals are using it to both distribute knowledge and discuss current political and social issues affecting Indigenous people. There is ongoing talk of treaties, Makarratas and recognition within Australia’s constitution, and associated discussions on who leads and how they lead.
As Indigenous people, our understandings of identity have broadened, and how we best situate ourselves has changed from more deficit standpoints towards a confidence that suggests we can walk in many worlds and lead as Aboriginal people. This post-modern turn impacts heavily on Indigenous women leaders, with some having traversed through numerous eras of social change, and some just emerging as leaders.
Maybe it is simply an issue of “post-modernism”, where opinion is considered truth and our identity gets constantly called into question. Maybe it’s because when reading stories of deficit, I feel the weight of generational trauma that is always there, something I have grown accustomed to. When I become conscious of the burden I carry, I turn my attention to the positive stories we share, the strengths and the passion, the drive that our identity and agency gives us which makes us so resilient. This is also why I write about strong, black women.
What has become apparent during the time of writing my thesis is that the study of leadership does not capture what Indigenous women do. The women who participated in my study did so willingly and openly; however, when we began our yarning and I asked about their experiences as leaders, the majority of them shot down my question, suggesting that they don’t lead, but simply get things done.
Rather, they stated that they got off their backsides and tried to effect change, were driven by their sense of identity as Indigenous women and were entirely happy to lead from the shadows. This is not to suggest that black men aren’t out there leading. We see that in the many representations of the tireless work they also do to change the disparity for us mob.
I have seen black women in times of great personal grief and suffering stand up for the rights of everyone to be treated appropriately. I have seen them build strong governance for suicide prevention when they have been directly touched by these issues, advocate for a better justice system in the wake of losing someone in their community to the jail cells, never to come back. I’ve witnessed other women trying to do similar work within government policy, suggesting that “skin in the game” is the way forward for lasting change, and women at universities, pushing for greater education of our stories to the rest of Australia, and for our people to access and achieve knowledge through university pathways.
I have interviewed a younger Indigenous woman who worked as a youth envoy on education as part of the United Nations, who was chosen to chaperone Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai to the UN headquarters in New York. This is leading. This demonstrates an emergence of power and influence that does not fit in with the deficit stories that are brought by the mainstream media.
While we continue to deny the leadership voice that I believe is embedded within Indigenous women, we do Australia a disservice. It negates the strength and resilience that we embody as Indigenous people and ignores our ability to get things done. As we are currently discussing the possibility of establishing an Indigenous voice into Australia’s parliament, isn’t it time we started hearing the many voices of Indigenous women who are demonstrating the many different levels of leadership?