Creating change from the grassroots up
12 October 2020 at 8:22 am
For over 20 years, Melissa Monteiro has been fighting for grassroots social change in Sydney’s West as the head of the Community Migrant Resource Centre. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
Monteiro’s passion for social justice started at a young age.
After listening to stories from her father of what it was like to be a frontline aid worker in India, she decided from the age of 12 that she was going to follow down the same path.
For over 30 years, she has spent her career advocating for and developing services for vulnerable and at-risk communities.
As the manager of the Community Migrant Resource Centre (CMRC), she works closely with community leaders in Western Sydney to encourage individuals and multicultural communities to identify and address their own issues.
For her efforts, Monteiro won the Western Sydney University Community Services Award in 2013, and received the judges choice award in the 2019 Pro Bono Australia Impact 25 Awards.
In this week’s Changemaker, she discusses where she draws inspiration from, what it takes to run a charity in the long-term, and holding onto purpose.
When did you realise you wanted to work in the social change space?
I used to live in a very disadvantaged area in Mumbai, and my passion started because of what I saw in my family. My grandfather, my father and my mother were all very socially aware and had a passion for social justice. My father worked for an American company in India, providing food aid. Every month or every two months, he would go and visit these very poor states in India and he would come back and tell us stories that sparked this desire and passion to help others.
What kind of impact are you trying to have through CRMC?
We’re a grassroots organisation, and I believe in making a change and difference at the grassroots. But I think it’s very important that you work at all levels because you can’t have an impact at the grassroots if you cannot bring about that change at other levels as well. And so the message to the team is always go back to basics and make it simple, because sometimes we get so lost in trying to create and bring about change that we complicate things to the degree that we’re not making it really simple for people to access our own service. Everything that we do is around simplicity. Reaching out to people, understanding that they’re in a difficult place. The client comes first, and everything revolves around the needs of the client and the community.
And where do you draw inspiration from to do your job?
Every day we’re dealing with people from various backgrounds who are carrying so much trauma from their own countries. And then they come here, they’ve lost everything and they’ve got nothing, and yet if you walk down into our reception area you’ll see all these clients waiting with a smile. It’s amazing to see that there’s always hope in people.
And you just look and you think, wow, how do you manage to do it? And so the inspiration comes from the people who we are really reaching out to.
And what does your day look like as a manager?
I don’t micromanage. We’ve got five programmes, five managers and four program managers. And so a regular day for me is having regular check-ins really keeping myself abreast of what’s happening all around us.
I focus a lot on being very strategic because it’s very important to know what’s happening. But it’s really about making it simple and trying to actually bring about change by focusing on the little things that you do. Sometimes as a manager, focusing too much on the big things all the time means you forget the little things. Taking time to respond to emails, and planning so that you’re not just running around and looking busy. I think we can be the best role models to our team when we are sure that we’ve got everything under control. How can you help someone if you yourself are in such a mess? So I need to show that as a leader in the organisation, and show that there are issues to deal with but if we are strategic and organised, those challenges aren’t anything we can’t overcome.
What would you say the biggest achievement of your career has been?
We were a small organisation when I joined 20 years ago. We had a very, very small budget from the Department of Immigration then, and after seven years time, we were hit with the settlement services review and our core funding across the whole country for all settlement services was lost. We had three years to prepare, and diversifying was the only thing that tide us over. And I think had we not done what we did at the time, we wouldn’t exist. So that was one of our biggest achievements.
Today we are a medium-sized organisation with multiple projects, multiple levels of funding, from federal and state and local government, we’ve also grown and created our own fee-for-service model. We’ve got between 70 to 100 partners and partnerships, and our footprint is very vast, covering western Sydney and the northern Sydney region.
Have you got any book or TV show recommendations for everyone reading this at home?
Right now I’m just reading Melinda Gates’ book, Moment of Lift. I think she’s such a great example of someone who is so committed to social change, and who views women as changemakers in the community and how we can actually, lift not just ourselves, but the whole community. It’s something I draw a lot of inspiration from.