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A Life-Changing Ensemble

19 September 2016 at 10:21 am
Wendy Williams
Dr Michelle Lucas is the executive director of Opportunity Child, a national collaboration aiming to improve quality of life conditions for vulnerable children across Australia over the next 10 years. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Wendy Williams | 19 September 2016 at 10:21 am


A Life-Changing Ensemble
19 September 2016 at 10:21 am

Dr Michelle Lucas is the executive director of Opportunity Child, a national collaboration aiming to improve quality of life conditions for vulnerable children across Australia over the next 10 years. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Group with hand in the middle

Each year in Australia, 65,000 five year olds – or one in five – start school with big challenges in learning and in life.

Opportunity Child, a collective of leading partner communities, national organisations, a wider learning network and the Opportunity Child core team including Lucas, aim to dramatically change this.

By aligning their individual strategies for shared early childhood outcomes, they hope to disrupt the status quo and use a collective impact approach to develop new ways of working together towards systems change.

Lucas is a passionate believer in collective impact, which she believes keeps the people firmly at the centre of every effort.

It is an approach she has used for more than a decade to address complex social challenges throughout Australia and Asia.

Before working at Opportunity Child she was the director of collective impact at Desert Knowledge Australia, working with remote communities to improve life outcomes and develop place‐centred and integrated solutions.

Prior to that, in 2003, she established Performance Edge providing backbone facilitation to achieve positive outcomes across a range of disadvantaged communities.

In this week’s Changemaker Lucas talks about how she went from being a classical pianist to the director of Opportunity Child, why she is so inspired by the community, the potential for change and why collective impact is her “life”.

Michelle LucasWhat drew you to the social sector?

I actually have an interesting background in that I started off my professional life as a classical pianist, moved into education and was a teacher and then a leader in education and have always been, I suppose in terms of the notion of learning as contributing to social good, interested in that space. But as I was working in schools, I was also seeing that schools and learning that we are providing at the moment is actually an imperfect solution and so that gave me a real interest in which to explore things differently and to think about the system that we’re actually manufacturing and constructing around social equity and social change. And so that lead me to do some further post-grad work and built up a construct. Actually it was very, very similar to collective impact interestingly and I actually called it collective strategic action but it was in 2000, so it was well earlier than the general or the Stanford collective impact. And from there I set up a backbone agency and had been working in that for 10 years prior to moving up to Alice Springs and looking to see how I might actually contribute in a different way in the social space with Aboriginal people in particular and I have just come back from four years there.

And it seems to me absolutely seamless, about my fundamental values first and my deep interest in I guess enabling, empowering, mobilising and finding voice alongside others. And then I suppose in a musical sort of metaphor to be then bringing them together in an ensemble, to be the very best that they could be, and then all of that performance and accountability and that sense of how important it is that we work together effectively to create this equity and that we all have a part to play in it. So from classical music, that’s where I and my deep value sense which I’ve always had, from my family I guess so that’s probably how it works.

Do you still play piano?

Yes, I do. I was so lucky. I turned 50 a couple of years ago and my husband bought me a beautiful grand piano so as I’ve been moving around… I’ve been lugging my gorgeous piano with me and I’ve been playing! So I’m very fortunate in that regard.

Why is a collective impact approach important for addressing complex social challenges?

I think what we’re doing at the moment is we disassociate so many of the aspects of life. So we’re actually deconstructing what’s important to bring together to make sense of everything that we need to be looking at. And so that, from certainly a funding perspective, so you know disassociating philanthropists and corporates in some sense is in the mainstream work that we do, from the funding that the government can provide and so forth and individuals. And then also dissociating the human voice, the voice from the ground, from policy, and decision making, so to me collective impact brings that at a cross-sectoral piece which is absolutely firmly embedded in community so I guess that’s one thing to really name up is in Australia and what I’m hearing internationally, but in Australia we are far in advance in terms of the absolute commitment to hear the people’s voices and to have them lead the initiative from the census, so I think collective impact in the Australian context provides that and I think that’s an authentic, really purposeful management of that voice and bringing that voice to the fore and so it’s an important part of collective impact.

When we look at our data, and particularly Opportunity Child is focussing on early childhood, zero to eight, when you look at the data despite all of our best efforts and intentions of course, the outcomes for children are not shifting greatly, in fact in some instances, as you know, things are going backwards. We need to try something differently, which is a sort of case of that famous quote, “the situation is dire we have to take the next step”. And I consider that this is the next step. I consider it is a difficult step but I also think that our effort needs to be commensurate with the scale of the change that is required. So I think collective impact provides that and again, not a perfect approach or methodology, we don’t know it fully, but what we do know is that it provides a framework and we see really strong links emerging across Australia and then internationally of course as well, but in Australia early signs that this way of working together, can be connected and is increasingly connected to some transformative outcomes. So just watching those early signs emerge now so I guess we’re seeing it works and if it works then it’s worth pursuing and understanding more deeply and applying as widely as we can. So that’s some of the why’s. I am quite passionate about this approach!

What does a typical day for you involve as executive director of Opportunity Child?

The complexity of collective impact, working in collective impact is never far from the surface, so we’re feeling it every day. So I would say that at Opportunity Child we’re focussed very much on the exchange of knowledge and learning, from the local to the national level. So, I could be at one point speaking with senior levels of government, working through policy recommendations and so forth and talking about the requirements of shift in that space, to working with specific service providers around how they might deeply engage their own staff with increased understanding of collective impact and how they might apply it more broadly, to working with community members with lived experience who would talk to us about how this work looks for them and their contribution of participation levels in the work so, those sorts of things, speaking with researchers around our really deep evaluative framework, so there is three tiers of evaluation already that really are embedded in what we do at Opportunity Child, because it’s a huge part of CI of course as well.

So yes, sometimes down in the numbers but collective impact starts with the heart and there is a matrix of system and technical support that is required but fundamentally it is about adaptive, emergent leadership and pattern recognition and connections so that’s just trying to find the synergies and connections across the depth and the breadth of life really. Not so big really!

What do you like best about working in Opportunity Child?

I love the potential to change. We can see it happening, and to be a part of a movement that can create this sort of change at scale is just hugely exciting. It is exciting on a personal level but our vision is absolutely complete and we think… about it every single minute of every day and our vision is about the children. So if this change can actually impact the lives of kids broadly then there could be nothing more exciting.

What is your greatest challenge?

Nothing unsurmountable. It is not a challenge but a significant body of work is about lining everyone up, so collective impact relies on alignment, I’ve spoken a little bit about achieving that through a matrix of technical support but most importantly the relationships and connections, so I guess just finding the time to do that at scale is hard, but we don’t shirk from that. So that’s it.

I think when I look at collectives across Australia, because we’re modelling collective impact ourselves in OC as we’re building ourselves, at the same time as we are hoping to enable the work on the ground with communities so I guess, when we bring the OC communities together one of the things that people talk about is an overwhelming sense of accountability, and in a positive sense but also in terms of the level of commitment that’s required, it is enormous. It is enormous on an individual level but the backbone leaders that are out there, in communities are just extraordinary people, and so I think that’s one of the other things that I would really like to acknowledge is just the work that is being done out there and the work that Opportunity Child is privileged enough to be enabling is being undertaken by some of Australia’s most extraordinary leaders and it is heartfelt work.

Through your work, what is your ultimate dream?

Well, we’re quite clear about what we are trying to achieve, so at Opportunity Child, we absolutely fundamentally do this because every year in Australia 65,000 children will arrive at school developmentally vulnerable and that is only at age five so that’s reflective of a huge challenge and problem that we face and so our collective dream is pretty simple and that’s that we’ll be able to contribute to a world that is equitable, for children and they can reach every potential that they possibly have to thrive and learn. That’s what we hope.

Who or what inspires you?

Oh my gosh, the community inspires me. The voice of community, when you see shifts and people finding voice that… means there is great hope. So sometimes in situations that seem quite dire, the strong empowered voices step quietly forward and know that they can do it. That’s what inspires me, more than anything. Unbelievable.

What are you reading at the moment?

Collective impact, anything on collective impact. That’s what I’m reading. I’m actually taking it all back to first principles so I’m trying to extract from a term that is sometimes bandied around what does it actually mean. So nothing light I’m afraid. It pretty much is my life, it’s a bit embarrassing.

Do you have a favourite saying?

Yes, I do. It goes like: “If not now, when? If not me, who?”

What are you always being asked about your work?

You know what, it’s brilliant, they all want to join. They all want to join up and they all want to work with Opportunity Child. That’s just joyous. Again so that’s the question, “how do I sign up?”, which is marvellous.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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