Image: Timeless by Bigambul artist Jordan Roser.
Victorian public servant Brenda McDermott is a proud Palawa woman from the Manegin Community of North West Tasmania, who has spent decades building fruitful relationships with Aboriginal communities in Gippsland and across Victoria. Her next challenge will be an ANZSOG Executive Master of Public Administration, after she was awarded the inaugural ANZSOG First Peoples Scholarship.
Ms McDermott said she hopes that the EMPA will help her understand the bigger picture of government, improve her leadership, and give her knowledge she can bring back and share with communities.
She has lived and worked in Gippsland since 1992 and is currently finishing up a secondment with the Aboriginal Economic Development Branch within the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, working with Traditional Owner groups and Aboriginal businesses.
Ms McDermott says her life story is one that shows the value of resilience, and the importance of education.
She grew up in public housing in the Melbourne suburb of Frankston after her parents eloped from Tasmania, and she has Palawa ancestry through her mother.
“I had nine brothers and sisters, my mother carried severe trauma and later developed mental illness. My father worked but the family was poor and we often went without food or heating in winter,” she said.
“I realised that education was the key to making your life meaningful, and giving you some security and direction.
“Thanks to Gough Whitlam and free tertiary education, I was able to get a scholarship to study early childhood education at Frankston Teachers College.”
While in Gippsland Ms McDermott had a part-time teaching job in early childhood education.
“I was asked a lot of questions from parents in the kindergarten community about whether their children had ADHD or were on the autism spectrum, so I decided to do a post-grad in child psychotherapy studies so I would be able to provide information and understanding,” she said.
“I loved it. The learning was fantastic. I have a good brain and I realised that I was capable of doing it. I started believing in myself and it became my joy in life.”
She then completed a Master of Education followed by a Master of Social Work, and worked as a family violence counsellor and mediator in conflict resolution, working within Victorian Aboriginal communities, and also spent time in the Victorian Government’s Native Title Unit and working with Traditional Owners.
“I had not realised how much hurt there was in people in those communities and the trauma they carried. Yet, they were full of strength and resilience and looked out for one another,” she said
Dr Richard Frankland, from the University of Melbourne has acted as a mentor for Ms McDermott and said she was “hungry to learn” with an incredible capacity to absorb knowledge.
“I’m a huge fan and admirer of Brenda. She will add so much value to the EMPA class in her own quiet way and command the respect she deserves. Her classmates will be richer for the experience of deep learning from Brenda.”
Ms McDermott says that public servants still need to rethink how they work to build stronger relationships with Aboriginal communities.
“My current role is to change how government works with Aboriginal communities, develop cultural safety and support self-determination. I have worked with a lot of Aboriginal people in Gippsland, it is slow work but we chip away at it, we need to bring understanding of cultural perspectives and ways of working with Aboriginal communities.
“The language and ways of working of Aboriginal people are much more personal. People want to spend time together in each other’s company and work from an equal table. We need to push for the relationship first, and then the work can go forward.”
She said the big challenge for the public service is cultural safety, and for public servants to be aware of their biases and to recognise that there are different ways of doing, being and belonging.
“A lot of people are very set in their ways, and they get uncomfortable with being asked to do things differently,” she said.
“The question is how do you make change without making people feel judged and give people the space they need to learn to see and do things differently. Many people are changing but there is more work to do to bring greater cultural understanding.”
The EMPA is designed to provide the skills and critical thinking abilities that public managers need to successfully step into leadership positions, and completing it will provide Ms McDermott with the knowledge and skills to take on more senior roles and have a greater impact.
Andrew Jackomos, Executive Director Aboriginal Economic Development and Inclusion at DJPR, said that both Ms McDermott and the broader Aboriginal community would benefit significantly from her exposure to the EMPA’s networking, experiences and learning in the areas of community and policy development.
“There is a significant undersupply of Aboriginal executives in the Victorian Public Sector, particularly given the current demand,” he said.
“An important step in building the diversity of organisations, particularly government departments is to have First Peoples at every level and in every area of the body, particularly in policy development, program designers and decision makers. Aboriginal peoples are critical not just in the design and implementation of Aboriginal programs and policies but also for the broader community if we claim to be a diverse community.”
Ms McDermott said that strong relationships were the key to working with Indigenous communities, empowering them and delivering change.
“Building relationships doesn’t happen overnight, the key quality is to develop and build trust, and be accountable for your actions - if you promise to do something do it, and if you can’t let them know why you can’t,” she said
“Hearing voices and listening is crucial, but listening is no good without doing. If you have Aboriginal communities saying at roundtables ‘we tell you this every year’ then something is wrong.”
“I value my relationships with the Aboriginal communities of Gippsland. They have not come easily, I’ve had to work at it, and keep my core value of integrity through it all and the commitments that I make have had to be respectful of the diverse community groups.”
She said that the EMPA would help her develop a broader understanding of how government worked and improve her ability to be a leader.
“I’m interested in the process of government and leadership, and where I struggle as a community-based person is to learn about those ways of doing things. I’d like to learn how it all works.”
“I’d also like to transfer that knowledge back through my networks with community groups, because it is also a big unknown space for many of our community members.”
“In the long-term I want to empower people to have choices, make their own leadership decisions, and be recognised as experts in their own lives. This approach will see governments and communities work together in true partnerships.”
She said that her experiences in life, and in the public sector would also allow her to make a unique contribution to the EMPA.
“As a community-based person and a two-way thinker, I can provide the groups with another way of looking at things,” she said.
The ANZSOG First Peoples Scholarship was announced at our Proud Partnerships in Place conference in February, and is open to First Peoples working in the public sector from Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand. The scholarship, worth $15,000 to $45,000, is for one of ANZSOG’s foundation programs – the Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA), the Executive Fellows Program (EFP), and Towards Strategic Leadership (TSL).