Effective leaders should pose and seek to answer the question “‘who do we want to be?”
Of all tiers of government, none have a better understanding of the complexity and nuances of their community than local councils. Engaging directly with local businesses, residents and service providers, they are well-placed, as facilitators and brokers, to bring diverse groups of people together.
As someone who has the daily privilege of working with local government, through the Welcoming Cities initiative, it is my experience that the best gauge of effective leadership is the capacity to engage and include all members of a community.
Effective leadership should frame the values and overarching vision for an organisation and the community it serves. Effective leadership should pose and seek to answer the question “who do we want to be?”. However, effective leadership also frees people to apply and enact these values, giving everyone the opportunity to contribute to the vision in their own, distinct way. This opportunity to participate and contribute should also translate to the marginalised, vulnerable and under-represented community stakeholders.
Questioning the success story
In Australia communities are increasingly diverse. More than 20% of Australians speak a language other than English at home. Currently, nearly half of all Australians have been born overseas, or one or both parents have been born overseas. The contribution of migrants to economic success and social vibrancy is broadly acknowledged and celebrated.
Our “multicultural success story” cannot exist in a vacuum, and addressing injustices, and supporting self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is a critical aspect of building inclusive communities.
Consequently, contemporary Australian society is often described as “a multicultural success story”. However, the nation’s colonial history and the injustices that First Nations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) people continue to be subject to remains largely unaddressed. Cultural and linguistic diversity and social cohesion existed on the Australian continent for millennia — long before tall ships stumbled upon what we now know as Sydney Harbour. Our “multicultural success story” cannot exist in a vacuum, and addressing injustices, and supporting self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is a critical aspect of building inclusive communities. Local government leaders across Australia are recognising this need. An example is the Parramatta Dialogue’s project developed by the City of Parramatta.
Parramatta has been home to the Darug People for more than 60,000 years. The area is deeply significant for Aboriginal people and the City of Parramatta Council considers it vital to put the concerns of First Nation People at the heart of cultural planning and social engagement. At the same time, the pace of change in Parramatta is unprecedented. In the next twenty years, an additional 152,000 people are expected to call Parramatta home, increasing the population from approximately 250,000 residents in 2018 to almost 400,000 by 2036. In 2019, 50% of residents were born overseas.
The Parramatta Dialogues project was implemented to strengthen mutual understanding between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and migrant communities in Western Sydney, and to build capacity for individual action towards reconciliation and welcoming.
Telling a new story about our communities
Parramatta Dialogues comprised of three dialogue sessions – evenings of storytelling and conversations – and two cultural exchange activities with participants from the community. The dialogues were designed and supported by representatives from the City of Parramatta, Our Race, the Darug Tribal Aboriginal Corporation, Reconciliation for Western Sydney, Tamil Women’s Development Group, Settlement Services International, and Community Migrant Resource Centre.
The nights consisted of facilitated conversations that gave participants an opportunity to put forward the stories/narratives they want others to hear about themselves. The program was designed to be replicated with other audiences in the future and included the goal that personal connections continue beyond the project.
One participant said, “I wouldn’t have dared to open my mouth with any stranger before. But now my mantra is ‘a friend is a stranger who I’ve never met’.”
Effective leadership seeks to unite rather than divide. Sometimes that requires safe spaces and opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds to share experiences and build connections.
With so many competing demands, it is essential to recognise that the most pressing issues are not always the most important. “Progress”, “growth” and “development” pervade leadership thinking and endeavour.
The cultural exchange activities included sessions on weaving, art, tool-making, drumming and tree planting. There was also a contemplation of reconciliation and what it means for each participant. For many, this was their first chance to meet Indigenous Australians and talk with them directly. One participant said, “I will be able to share the stories of the First Nation people with my family and friends to foster better understanding about them and what they have gone through in their own country.” Another said, “I have always felt displaced as a migrant living in Granville, but being welcomed by the First Nations Elders was so generous and affirming.”
Evaluation of the project is continuing, and Parramatta Dialogues will continue to build meaningful new relationships between First Nations and migrant communities. The conversations arising from the workshops, the sharing of cultural practices, as well as the survey data, will provide the council with ideas and best practice guidelines for working together in the future.
With so many competing demands, it is essential to recognise that the most pressing issues are not always the most important. “Progress”, “growth” and “development” pervade leadership thinking and endeavour. However, the relentless push forward has a human cost.
“First things first” should, in my opinion, be a mantra for effective leadership. It is a call to consider the purpose and value of what we hope to achieve and to prioritise the people in our communities who are often excluded. It is a call to advance communities where people of all backgrounds have equal opportunity to belong, contribute and thrive. Paradoxically, in order to advance — we need to pause, look back and ensure that nobody is left behind.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.