Looking Back on One Woman’s Journey
28 November 2016 at 11:22 am
Andrea Mason is an Indigenous advocate and the CEO of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council in the Northern Territory. She is this week’s Changemaker.
The NPY Women’s Council is a community organisation that provides a range of community, family, research and advocacy services to the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara women in the Northern Territory and Central Australia.
Since 2010 Mason has led the organisation and committed to delivering long-term positive change to the communities across the NPY Lands.
She has both a personal and professional connection to the organisation, as her aboriginal identity is Ngaanyatjarra, “the N in NPY”, and she has previously said, as an Aboriginal woman, it was a career highlight to work in an Aboriginal women’s member-led organisation.
Prior to joining the council she dedicated her career to reconciliation and self-determination for Aboriginal people and in 2004 became the first Indigenous woman to lead a political party in Australia as the head of Family First.
In recent weeks she was named both the NT’s Australian of the Year as well as the 2016 Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year.
In her acceptance speech for the latter she said: “It’s all about relationships. It’s about me getting to know you, it’s about you getting to know me and making our world smaller. And I believe that if we all do this together, that Australia has the potential to do much good across all sectors in our community.”
In this week’s Changemaker, Mason talks about the importance of relationship building, breaking the cycle of domestic violence and how it feels to be recognised for the work she is doing.
What drew you to working with the NPY Women’s Council?
My Aboriginal identity is Ngaanyatjarra. So the N in NPY, my Aboriginality comes through that nation, which is the Ngaanyatjarra nation. So I’m the chief executive but I am also family to the membership and to the communities where we work.
What does a typical day for you look like as CEO of the NPY Women’s Council?
So I am a problem solver. I am an advocate. I am often called upon to be an inspirational leader. I am often interpreting and translating concepts and ideas from English to women whose English is sometimes the third or fourth language that they speak, so having to think about a complex idea but to explain it in a very simple way. Sometimes I might be asked to see a member who is in hospital. So everyday is different.
Sometimes I set a plan at the beginning of the day, sometimes I get some of the things done but there are often requests and challenges that come up during the day which I don’t plan for, but that’s the nature of working for an NGO in the not-for-profit sector.
What are some of the greatest achievements the council has made in the time you have been there?
So quite simply, the women look to extend, across the region anything that is going to be adding value to the quality of life for people and they’re also as committed to removing anything that’s going to hurt or harm families.
So in terms of harming families, the achievement of addressing petrol sniffing in our region, is seen as the organisation’s greatest achievement, in the fight to get opal fuel, a different type of fuel, to stop young people, particularly young men, petrol sniffing.
And also recently the women have been so pleased to see the increase of renal dialysis machines in bush communities because they’ve been absolutely despondent about the number of men and women who’ve had to leave bush communities to come into Alice Springs or to go down to Adelaide or to Perth to undertake renal dialysis treatment. So the effort to get more machines into our communities is the women’s commitment to try and keep people on Country so that they can continue to be part of daily life, to be able to deliver their responsibilities as senior men and women in the community, whether it is to do with sorry business or supporting young people to find their place. And so I think that’s a recent achievement that the women are very, very proud of.
What are your current priorities?
So, there’s been a growing understanding across the membership, but particularly with senior women membership, around the impact that trauma is having in people’s lives and it has been a growing understanding, particularly over the last three or four years. And so that understanding is opening up a whole range of actions, that we hope in time will help to both support people who are in trauma but also to reduce the number of people who are traumatised in our communities by the connection of emotional and physical wellbeing. That’s well known within the health sector. In our communities, our women are using that basis to extend it to try and add the cultural knowledge to that, to try and drive some due targeting of supportive services to people who are unfortunately… struggling in their life because of the impact of trauma and also what they see around them, I’m talking about the trauma that happens when people are living in homes where there is domestic and family violence.
You have received a lot of recognition for your work in breaking the cycle of domestic violence. How much further is there still to go in tackling this issue?
It is still an area of great concern… in 2014, the Women’s Council marked 20 years of its domestic and family violence service having its doors open and I said at the time that for me the goal is to close the door of this service and never open it again, because by that action, we’re acknowledging that we’ve seen the end of violence in our community and we’re nowhere near that.
There is both necessary work to support women but there is also I believe an increase in energy to do work in the area of early intervention and crime prevention. Well I have to say, it is reaching out to men and challenging men around changing their behaviour and their attitudes around violence. And one of the programs that has been being delivered in our region, the NPY region, is the men’s cross-border program and they work with men as part of their parole processes, they get referred to and are required to do that program, and our service in terms of working with the women who are victims, we work very closely with that program and they are really doing wonderful work and they just need to have more programs like that. Whether its behavioural change, attitudinal change and also acknowledging that we need to be doing it, not just at kind of the correctional end but we need to do it through all the stages of the young man’s life right through to entering into a relationship. And as that relationship is forming and growing and children coming along, those constant messages around what it means to have a healthy, safe relationship and family life. And so I think that’s also growing. I think it is necessary because just working with victims of domestic violence is not going to stop the violence, you have to have a real kind of plan but also allocate resources, so that we are giving that same message to the men, and calling men to abolish the violence, but also that the change needs to happen within as well.
A large part of your career has been dedicated to reconciliation and you have spoken a lot about the value of relationships, why is relationship building so important?
Because in Australia, it is a simple kind of statement but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we [don’t] make up a large percentage of the Australian population. So to get things to happen for the good, we need to reach out and work with the broader community and be able to tell that story so that people actually understand how they can support, but also how… our communities are very much at the core of the identity of what it means to be Australian. So, I had great role models growing up who demonstrated [this] through opening up their homes to people of all backgrounds. And I believe that that’s the way to go and it’s been something that I have always focused on, whether it’s been at work or in my personal life or in my social life, is that by having a wide range of people from all backgrounds it makes me a better person as well. I really do believe that.
You are the NT’s Australian of the Year and the 2016 Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year. How does it feel to be recognised for the work you are doing?
So the Telstra Women’s Awards is one of the most prestigious women’s awards in Australia, it is the longest running, I think it is over 20 years. So to be recognised by business women is very humbling but also I feel an immense level of pride in that. And I think also coming from the not-for-profit sector and to be given that acknowledgement above women who work in other sectors. Where sometimes, working for profit is a real focus, we know that in the not-for-profit sector… really the focus of that money is to always improve the lives of our members, and their families. So to me the growth that we have experienced at Women’s Council, particularly over the last seven years, I’m so proud that all that money is going out into the regions to support our families and to get that better deal, to get a better quality of life.
With the NT Australian of the Year I was very surprised, firstly because someone in Alice Springs spent time writing out an application to nominate me for that award. And so I think it’s one of those things where really often we celebrate our achievements in the home, as a collective team, so to be singled out and to be recognised as doing something for Australia to me I feel an incredible amount of pride but also of gratitude that people have seen the work that I have been doing and have commended me for it.
Who or what inspires you?
That’s a really interesting question, because this year I turn 50 and what inspires me particularly is the women that I work with and the staff that I work with, both men and women. People talk a lot about trust but what inspires me is that lots and lots of people have put their trust in me and have decided to come and work at Women’s Council because they believe in my leadership. That trust, that faith in me, is what inspires me to continue to push and to really pull for better quality of life for our members and our families.
But I also believe that I am a sum total of all the non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal men and women who have believed in me and sponsored me and who have encouraged me over the years. So it begins in the family, that strong domestic relationship that my parents had growing up was a very strong influence on me, but it was definitely that starting relationship that is about them that allowed me to be comfortable in really reaching out and developing a lot of relationship across the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal community.
Do you have a favourite saying?
Sure. well I have got a number of sayings back on my whiteboard back at work and one of my favourites, the favourite I think at the moment is: “We live life looking forward but we understand it looking back.”
And that is really resonating with me at the moment, obviously during this period of personal recognition but also as a strategic executive, like myself, as chief executive officer, we always, people who have got my personality we’re always looking forward, we’re always reaching forward and planning but there is an incredible reward in honest reflection and that’s in looking back to see what have we done, what have I done and wanting to improve that. So that’s my favourite saying at the moment.