A Bonza Leanne Miller

20 / 06 / 2013

On a cold rainy, windy Saturday in June, Sheilas Editor Sarah Capper chatted with Leanne Miller, the Executive Director of Koorie Women Mean Business (KWMB) about being this month’s Bonza Sheila, while taking refuge at a cosy Italian café in Clifton Hill, Melbourne.

KWMB began over 20 years ago, resulting from a Victorian Women’s Benevolent Trust grant for a conference in the same name, from which the organisation was then formed. KWMB shares premises with the Victorian Women’s Trust (publisher of Sheilas), of which Leanne is also a Director.

A Bonza Sheila is a regular section where we pay tribute to a good woman. It’s a privilege to pay tribute to a woman of the   Dhulanyagen Ulupna Clan, Yorta Yorta nation.


SC: I want to start with a question about your Mum, Frances Mathyssen and your Grandmother Geraldine Briggs AO and yourself all being included on the state of Victoria’s Honour Roll for Women. Something that hasn’t been repeated, which is pretty bloody unique –

LM: It’s monumental – all three aboriginal women, Nan, my Mother and myself -all alive at the time, being inducted onto the Women’s Honour Roll. It’s not been repeated.

SC: And you often talk to me about coming from a matriarchal clan. So I’m wondering about ‘female energy’. What do you think it is, about the power of female energy?

LM: Hell. I thought we were doing the easy questions first!

SC: Well is that where you get your strength from, do you think?

LM: A good gene pool, probably.

SC: A strong line of X chromosomes.

LM: It is the X factor. Or as we say in my Mother’s country, women are the ‘doers’.

SC: ‘The doers’, I like that. Your Mother’s country being Yorta Yorta. The Murray River. Barmah State Forest.

LM: Well actually we’re from Ulupna Island. It’s part of Yorta Yorta country, downstream, along the Murray River.

SC: Is it actually an island, on the Murray River?

LM:  It is an island, in the middle of the Murray River! Lots of wombats, kangaroos.

SC: Do you get up there much? Do you camp on the Island?

LM: We camp on the Murray Riverside. We go up, we take the kids, the grandkids, and we’ll camp in 40 odd degrees! On those long hot Summer days. No wind whatsoever, just still.

SC: Basking on the banks of the female energy, which I have to go back to for a bit – was it something you were conscious of, growing up in a matriarchal clan?

LM:  It’s just part of your DNA. From the time you are born, you are told where your country is, where you come from. The significance of coming from a matriarchal clan is finding out that it is totally different to other clans, clans which are patriarchal.

The other side is that coming from a matriarchal clan is a source of strength – because it is ‘Mother’s Country’. The Earth is Mother. So there’s this whole synergy at play and we draw our strength from that.

SC: Is it too simple a theory to think that this female energy and strength drove you into working on women’s rights issues and your work with women’s organisations?

LM:  No! [Laughs]

SC: What, you just fell into that?

LM: I think I was influenced, from a really young age, by my Grandmother and Aunty Margaret Tucker, and Aunty Margaret Briggs Wirrpanda, and [writer] Aunty Hyllus Maris, and my Mother [all of which were Indigenous activists]. My Mother being hugely significant.

But initially I really didn’t want to go down that path. I decided I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted something to fall back, so I did that, I studied social work in Adelaide.

SC: But you ended up doing a cadetship in journalism, didn’t you?

LM: Well I got snapped up on a traineeship with SBS, that turned into a cadetship, and then I was kind of handballed to the ABC and back to SBS. And I ended up producing current affairs and news, and Aboriginal news for quite some time.

I spent my 21st at SBS, pondering whether I should continue with journalism type course I was doing, with people like Eddie Maguire and Caroline Jones. You know even at casual events, we’d turn up casually dressed and Eddie would still be wearing a suit and pants.

SC:  I have no doubt Eddie Maguire came out of his Mother’s womb wearing a suit. And a Collingwood scarf.

LM: I’m sure he did! But in the end, I had the sense not to pigeon hole myself.

SC: I’m not sure if this is something common to Indigenous communities, but you seem very involved in your extended family, involved in the lives of your nephews and nieces, often driving your nephews to football matches. Is this something that just pertains to your family, or is it more an Indigenous way of being?

LM: I can’t comment on other people’s families, but I have to say that both my Mother and Father have large families and I don’t know any other way of operating. We were brought up to look after and look out for each other, and their kids come to me as a second Mother – so you know, another taxi driver.

It’s interesting.  I don’t know if there are many people that can say two of my nephews played AFL. And yes, I shuttled my nephews to a lot of those blasted training sessions. Held hands with them because they didn’t like to fly.

SC: And you’ve got a cousin, David Wirrapanda, who played AFL, with the West Coast Eagles. And another cousin Tony Briggs, the playwright who wrote the Sapphires. A bit of a high achieving family!

What was the Sapphires connection with you – was it your Aunties?

LM: Yeah. The story is based on Tony’s Mother – my Mother’s younger sister. We were brought up on all of that. It was a bit surreal seeing the production. A lot of it was real. Some of it was artistic licence.

SC: Well, its got to neatly fit into an hour and a half.

LM: Yeah and it needs to target the audience. I loved the stage play. Before the film it was at Playbox theatre and it was fantastic.

SC: You went to the opening night of the film. Red carpet.

LM: With my cousin, Maxine. We slipped in early and ended up sitting next to people we see on TV. And politicians.

When I look at it, our family has kind of stuck out in its own way – in Yorta Yorta reciprocity, also known as giving back, particularly with the work [prominent activists] Aunty Marg [Tucker] did, with Uncle Doug [Nicholls], Aunty Gladys and Nan and Pop. Part of the walk-off action, my Mum was 10 when that happened.

SC: Walk off?

LM: The Cummeragunja Walk Off, when they [200 residents] walked off [the local mission] for better conditions, in 1939. It was a huge move for my Mum and my Aunties.

SC: You’ve got Aboriginal activism running through your blood.

LM: Yeah, I do. But again, it wasn’t something I initially wanted to gravitate towards – that’s why I started with journalism – it was too predictable. So I thought I’d cut my teeth, do journalism, do it quietly, just get down to business, learn a trade, give back  to some of the communities and teach them some stuff. So I did that and I look back and think I’ve not done too badly for a chick raised on a single parent pension.

SC: Absolutely.

LM: I always thought I should dabble on working on women’s issues. I think it was while I was working with Aboriginal Tourism Australia, Daphne Milward from Koorie Women Mean Business approached me and asked whether I’d be interested in delivering something for their project. I had a chat with her and Olive Walsh and a couple of other ladies, they recruited me onto a small business development program, producing training materials and a motivational video. So that’s how I moved into KWMB issues – slowly.

SC: I’ve heard you describe your job at Koorie Women Mean Business as being one of the best jobs in the state.

LM: Um. I think I inherited the best organisation! And I inherited the best foundation of a relationship that’s evolved into a rippling stream. Every time the business plan is redeveloped it’s done with members and with a contemporary process.

And having the opportunity to witness the changes that have occurred at the Victorian Women’s Trust before being approached to take on a role as a Director, has been very rewarding.

SC: You’re on a few boards.

LM: Four.

SC: Victorian Women’s Trust. Women’s Legal Service Victoria.

LM: Family Law Legal Service. And the Dugdale Trust for Women and Girls.

SC: And you’ve been on others before that.

LM: Board involvement really resonates with me because we used to go off to Board meetings with my Grandmother and play with all the kids at the old Aboriginal Advancement League.

And meetings are part of the DNA. Our meetings are done differently. The challenge for me is the adjustment to meetings held by government or working parties.

In my community, we have a code, and the code is if you have an issue, get it off your chest first, because you are all there for the one thing – for the betterment of the organisation.

SC: You know we have a slightly improving but pretty dismal amount of women on the top 200 company boards in Australia. I’m not sure of the figures for Indigenous women –

LM: You know I think our figures would surprise people, because women are actually the foundation – the challenge for us is to get men involved. It’s a bit the opposite for us. It’s about women as doers. Historically people will tell you, if you want something done, you ask our women folk, even in remote areas. So we have the opposite – we’re in short supply of finding a good man [laughs] –

To fill a position on a Board, let me just clarify!

SC: Sure, sure. I often ask the Bonza sheilas what they do to balance their lives.

LM: And what do they tell you!

SC: I think alcohol has been mentioned once or twice, as a bit of a joke. What do you do?

LM: I swim three days a week. I go home to country at every opportunity.

SC: Home to country is actually home to your Yorta Yorta country?

LM: Home to Mother’s country. And I also make an effort to go to my Father’s country.

SC: And that’s Queensland isn’t it?

LM: That’s Mackay. It’s good to know regardless of what happened in the past, my Father’s people feel the same as my Mother’s people. There may not be a lot of similarity but there’s a lot of respect.

SC: What clan is that?

LM: No, my Father is one of the descendants of the Kanaka labourers brought in from the Pacific to work in the sugar cane fields. And this year it is 150 years they’ve been in Australia so there’s quite a few things on the go. We’ll go up this year.

SC: You’ll go up with your siblings?

LM: No, they’ll go up with me!

SC: In 2002, Howard Government Minister Philip Ruddock chose you along with two other Indigenous women to travel to New York to represent Australian Indigenous women at the United Nations. How was this experience?

LM: It was for the United Nations Indigenous Permanent Forum. It was really an opportunity not to say no to. I was pretty overwhelmed going into the United Nations – behind all the touristy stuff – going into the chamber and seeing everyone in their traditional costumes.

And then I had this moment where many moons before that, Aunty Margaret Tucker had done the exact same journey – so it was really bizarre! I sat there and felt really overwhelmed by it.

It was the first time they talked about Indigenous women and family violence. So I went to some of the sideshows and listened to the Canadian Indigenous women and they talked about women disappearing in reservations as a result of reporting abuse. But they put up this impressive and moving image of all the women who had disappeared that stuck in my mind.

The other women I travelled with hadn’t been out of Australia. One was from Port Augusta and was homesick. So I took them on the Subway! I said ‘Have you ever been on a subway?’ and they said ‘no’ and I said ‘let’s go!’. We went to Harlem and Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens. We had one day off and went and listened to a choir in a gospel church and it was pretty magic.

For me it was an interesting starting point to UN life.

SC: Well you’ve been back with the NGO report.

LM: Yeah I went back with the NGO report for CEDAW (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women).

And in the same year I was given a UN Fellow and I went to Geneva. It meant I was in Geneva for 6-8 weeks. So what I did was look at change management, because we’d just lost our national body (ATSIC). It was the best experience going to Geneva on my own. I rang my Mother and told her I was going to Geneva and she said, “That’s wonderful dear. Where is it?!”, and I said, “Mum, I don’t know, I will have to Google it!”.

And later I was part of the Australian Government delegation reporting on the Convention on the Status of Women. The landscape was different because I was a government delegate – I could not take the liberties that I would have perhaps, say if I was part of the NGO delegation.

SC: You’ve done a lot of work with government. Any tips or anything you’ve learnt?

LM: I’m not sure about learning. But it’s nice to say you’ve contributed, you’ve changed the landscape. There was a stage when there were so many committees and you have to ask whether it is adding value to your life, and if not, move on.

On a personal level, to change the mindset is always a good one.

I think I have a different lens, than most people. I’m a one in ten. Sometimes I would like to line them all up and say I was an only child! But it doesn’t work that way.

We’ve put in, we’ve contributed and we’ve learnt a lot. We’ve had some great partnerships.

I won’t have a clear picture of the impact of this organisation, until I go to a national women’s gathering. You can be sitting in Brisbane at a women’s workshop, put the poster up and people love it.

SC: Koorie Women Mean Business is also one of the most kickarse names.

LM: It is and people love it. And every year we’ve produced. When that impacts beyond the state of Victoria, that’s fantastic.

It certainly hasn’t harmed us to maintain the connection and friendship with the Victorian Women’s Trust, and co-badge on initiatives where possible. And I think one of the things to look forward to with that relationship is the work on the Constitutional Recognition – that’s something I think the power of women in this country can work on to assist.

SC: So women are a critical part of that process –

LM: Yes. In my country, where I come from, if you educate a woman you educate the whole community. It’s something that has resonated in many other countries too. We have power and influence and we need to use it.

SC: That’s brilliant. I’m done!

LM: What, you don’t want my dinner party guests?!

SC: Sure, fire away. Your hypothetical dinner party from history, who would you have?

LM: I’d quite like to meet Joan of Arc. Do they have to be women?

SC: Who are you thinking?

LM: Malcolm X!!! I’d like to have dessert with him [laughs].

And I think Marlene Dietrich. And Lauren Becall. And Eartha Kitt. And Michelle Obama.

And [restaurateur and VWT board member] Dure Dara to plan the menu!

And [former assistant police commissioner] Leigh Gassner as the Maitre d! [Laughs].

And Bob Marley. For after dessert.

SC: On that note, Leanne Miller thanks for being a Bonza Sheila.

LM: In an official capacity, sure. But you know I always have been.

SC: Indeed! Thank you!

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