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The path to healing and leading

30 November 2021 at 8:51 am
Maggie Coggan
Proud Dunghutti woman Ashlee Donohue is the CEO of Mudgin-Gal, an Aboriginal led and run organisation creating a culturally appropriate and safe space to support and empower women in abusive relationships. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Maggie Coggan | 30 November 2021 at 8:51 am


The path to healing and leading
30 November 2021 at 8:51 am

Proud Dunghutti woman Ashlee Donohue is the CEO of Mudgin-Gal, an Aboriginal led and run organisation creating a culturally appropriate and safe space to support and empower women in abusive relationships. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are five times more likely to experience physical violence, and three times as likely to experience sexual violence than other women each year.

Mudgin-Gal is aiming to help these women, by providing services that support women in violent relationships. As well as this, it advocates for an anti-violence message locally and throughout the state. 

As an Aboriginal service that is completely staffed and managed by Aboriginal women. Mudgin-Gal’s strength comes from its brand, its positioning in the local community services market, and its culturally appropriate programs. 

Ashlee Donohue was first introduced to the Sydney-based organisation, Mudgin-Gal when she applied for a job there as bookkeeper, but she had no idea that this job would be the beginning of an entirely new life.

The support of Mudgin-Gal gave her the confidence to leave her abuser, go back to university in her 40s, become an author, and be the lead writer and co-creator for numerous anti-violence campaigns across sport and government. 

And last year, Donohue came back to Mudgin-Gal as the organisation’s CEO. She is now in charge of overseeing its services which include a domestic violence drop-in centre, family support centre, and legal services. 

As well as this, Donohue sits on the Our Watch Aboriginal women’s advisory committee, the City of Sydney Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Panel, and is chairperson of Warringa Baiya Aboriginal women’s legal service.

In this week’s Changemaker, she discusses her path to leadership, the strength that comes from lived experience, and how she balances the hard times with the good. 

How did you first become involved in Mudgin-Gal? 

Well, I was a 28-year-old woman who was in an extremely violent relationship and had two young children. I’d moved to Sydney from Kempsey. I was staying with my mother who was the manager of a hostel at the time, and was really keen to just get some work. I saw the position for a bookkeeper at Mudgin-Gal, I applied for it and I was lucky enough to get the job. And had Mudgin-Gal not found me, I’m not quite sure where I would be now. 

What it did was open my eyes to the relationship that I was in, and how bad it actually was. So I stayed as the bookkeeper for a couple of years, and then I went off and worked at Koori Radio for six years, and then came back to Mudgin-Gal to run the NRL’s Voice Against Violence program. So I was the domestic violence educator at the time. And then I was the lead writer for the NRL’s Voice Against Violence. I did six months at Rape and Domestic Violence Services and then went off to work on my own for a bit. I got a double degree in adult education, community management and then a master’s in education. 

And at what point did you decide to take on the leadership role you’re in today? 

I wasn’t really looking to be honest, I think I just kind of fell into it. At that time, I was working for myself and I was really run down, doing heaps of travel and flying on planes. I got to the point where I thought, “Oh my God, if I’ve got to get on one more plane I’m just going to cry”. I was approached by the chairperson from a community organisation, who asked me if I could come back to Mudgin-Gal for a few months to help with administration. I thought I would take the chance to slow down a bit and get grounded. And then I just got caught up in why I do what I do again, which is to enable Aboriginal women’s voices to be heard, to provide a safe, culturally safe space for Aboriginal women to come and just be, and to develop programs that pertain to Aboriginal women’s needs. 

How does your lived experience of domestic violence impact the way you work? Does it ever make it more challenging?

In all honesty, it makes it much more relatable. I’m not advocating for the Ashlee talking to you right now, I’m advocating for the Ashlee who was 28, dragged to her knees with a butcher’s knife held to her head, being told I was going to be gutted like a yellow belly (a fish). I identify with the women because I’ve been there. 

The thing about having an Aboriginal-owned organisation is that a lot of the women who work here have had similar experiences, so there’s no shame in talking about what’s happened. There’s a lot of shame in domestic violence, and having to ask for help to pay bills or whatever. That’s why at Mudgin-Gal, we don’t chase clients. We will put messages out there on our social media that we are running events, or that there are a whole lot of toys that have been donated and you can come collect them. So we aren’t making mums walk through our door and ask for help, we’re just putting it out there and people can just show up and feel comfortable and then go from there. 

How has your perspective and the way you live your life changed because of your work? 

Well I’m proof to any other young woman that walks through this door that things can change. Any Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander woman that walks through our door, we advocate for, we help, we talk or whatever it is they want. We don’t have a criteria, which is a really important and unique aspect of our organisation. 

How do you manage the challenges of your work and remain grounded? 

I’ve got five grandchildren, and I’ve got a mother who’s got a mouth like no other. So they really keep me grounded.  But I also love Yin yoga. I meditate morning and night, and I’ve got my own cultural practices that have been passed down that I do, but my family grounds me. And a lot of the issues that I deal with here are because of my family. And the thing is if you can’t help your family, how can you help others? And because I’m in the community, sometimes it’s hard and I need a moment. I have a great therapist that I utilise.

But you know, I think I’m kind of like Teflon, I don’t let anything stick. When you’re in this role, you cannot take anything personally and only do what you say you can do, and don’t promise what you can’t. That alleviates the pressure because you’re not saying that you can do things that you know in your heart of hearts that you can’t.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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