Finding power within the challenges
2 August 2021 at 4:02 pm
As the CEO of Djirra, Kuku Yalanji woman (born on Wurundjeri country), Antoinette Braybrook is a strong advocate for specialist Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations that provide holistic and culturally safe support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing family violence. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
Among many other things she’s been with Djirra since it’s inception in 2002, almost 20 years.
But her path to Djiira wasn’t straightforward. Despite the fact she was top of her class at school, and had aspirations to be a lawyer, relentless racism from her peers saw Braybrook drop out of school at the age of 15.
After years of struggling to find work or a purpose in life, she bit the bullet and went back to study law as a mature-aged student.
This has paved the way for her to work with her Aboriginal board to build Djirra to what it is today, an organisation that provides legal and non-legal support to First Nations people and communities who experience family violence. And more broadly, advocacy for reducing high incarceration rates of her people and the high removal rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
Djirra delivers community-based culturally safe front line early intervention and prevention programs and undertakes policy and law reform work to improve access to justice, strengthen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s resilience, and reduce vulnerability to violence.
For her work, Braybrook was awarded the 2015 Law Institute of Victoria: Access to Justice/Pro Bono Award, the 2017 Inspirational Women of Yarra Award, and a 2015 Australian Centre for Leadership for Women award for Sustaining Women’s Empowerment. In 2020, she was inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women.
In this week’s Changemaker, she discusses the past experiences that have shaped her leadership today, the challenges and joys of fighting for personal causes, and the learnings along the way.
How did you come to be the CEO of Djirra?
My journey to Djirra began when I was around 15 years old, because that was when I dropped out of school. It wasn’t that school was hard, the education wasn’t hard, but racism was. I just couldn’t handle the relentless, soul destroying pressure of it, so I dropped out.
Along the way, I struggled with unemployment, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I also really missed school. I had aspirations to be a lawyer, but thought that that was out of reach for me because I left school at such an early age. I did odd jobs here and there, and then I finally bit the bullet and I returned to study law as a mature age student. It was really hard and I was scared because I didn’t have a great experience at school and didn’t know the basics, like how to write and construct an essay. But I guess that’s just been part of my journey to land here.
Doing my law degree opened many white doors for me, which enabled me to walk into that white world, and I’ve seen that as an opportunity to build Djirra to what it is today, with a lot of support from family, close friends and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people along the way.
What have some of your biggest learnings been as a leader?
I don’t want to be called a leader because my authority in this role comes from being an Aboriginal woman, not from a CEO title. This is a difficult space to work in and there is a constant struggle with government, finding funding and even within our own communities that we have to overcome. It’s politically dicey, so you have to learn to navigate yourself through all of the government and community politics. But all in all, the work that I’ve done over the past 20 years is culturally affirming. It’s hard, but there are amazing things that come out of it. And there’s one quote that always resonates with me, and it’s that “you have to stand for something, otherwise you’ll fall for anything”. Once I believe in something, I stand for that and I’ll fight for it, because that’s what I’m paid to do for the women that we represent, and the women that we work for in our communities.
How do you find a sense of balance between your personal and professional life?
These issues don’t turn off for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people because it’s our life, so it is hard to find that balance. I know that with the work that I do, what drives me are the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women that we work with, but also my nieces and my nephew. I don’t want them saying in years to come that nationally Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 35 times more likely to experience family violence than other women, or are 10 times more likely to die from a violent assault. I don’t want my nieces to be growing up using that narrative that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are the fastest growing prison population in the country. And I don’t want my nieces to be growing up and saying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have their children removed at far greater rates than any other demographic in the country. I want that narrative to change for my nieces, my nephew.
So how do I find a balance? You can’t, because this is my life.
What inspires your leadership?
I guess what gives me inspiration is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women that we work with. It’s the affirming kind of conversations that I have with our women that will tell me that I’m doing the right thing. It’s not awards that come with the role. I see those as an opportunity just to amplify Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s voices and get some visibility around our experiences, the awards are just there. The inspiration and affirming things come from my family and the women we work with.
When you’re not at Djirra and your various other roles, how do you like to spend your time?
I like to spend as much time with my family as I can. I also love to exercise, running through the bush with my border collie, she keeps me very active. And just in the past 12 months, I’ve started putting paint onto canvas and I’ve created all of these pieces that tell the story of my journey. The Dragonfly is our dreaming, so my paintings always have dragonflies in it. I recently exhibited my work together with five other Aboriginal women at Narana Creations, a cultural creation centre in Geelong, which was really exciting.