Noel Pearson is Director of the Cape York Institute  ( and, as enterprise is a central platform in progressing/promoting Indigenous ownership of ventures, Neil was invited to be guest speaker on community enterprise at the Leadership Academy dinner.  The East Gippsland Shire supported his involvement.

The invitation to share skills and knowledge of collaborative engagement with participants of the Cape York Institute’s Leadership Academy originated in Tasmania.

Karen Williams from the Police and Citizens Youth Club (PCYC) attended the Running on Empty conference ( where Leanne Bruce and I presented  Reducing the barriers, nurturing the voices.

Karen was excited about this non-directive approach that located ownership within communities. The PCYC staff are active participants in the  Leadership Academy, so kits and manuals were ordered for the academy members and manager of the Leadership Academy, Jean Westerhout, invited me to attend the May residential session in Cairns to give context and experience to the resources.

The Centre for Rural Communities has consistently worked to facilitate the inclusion of local knowledge into mainstream thinking through skilling and resourcing those whose lives are impacted on by changing policies and practice.  While there are additional layers of complexity, the strategies of collaborative engagement have relevance to the goals of the Leadership Academy.

Academy members come from remote communities of Cape York as well as staff from agencies involved in overseeing and monitoring the implementation of the Welfare Reform.  The Academy provides a public forum to support and promote projects of significance to Indigenous communities.  For those less familiar with public presentation the Academy offers a safe environment for members to gain confidence and be introduced to relevant networks.

The philosophy underpinning small group democracy enables people who hold different views of the world to sit together and listen to each other with respect.

It provides an excellent format for the inclusion of local knowledge in a manner where outcomes are not predetermined and relationships can be developed around local issues and action.

I was aware that Denise Hagan, a senior bureaucrat in the Queensland government, had introduced ‘learning circles’ to Lockhart River communities and I was keen to learn of the impact of this approach over time.

Mutual learning

The sessions at the academy embedded the Adult Learning Principles of respecting learners as subjects of their own learning (Vella 2002) while focusing on skill development of including those whose voices are often absent in public discussions.

The development of relevant language was a central feature of our time together. Again modeled on Indigenous protocol, sessions began with people introducing themselves and sharing where they were from.  People spoke about being shifted on to land that was not theirs – and the need to communicate with people from other areas resulted in  Creole  as primary means of communication, then for the older folk, their own indigenous language, then English.

Younger people rarely had their own language, some then English – it all depended on histories and events.

Language continued to be a theme throughout the time we spent together.

Integrating theory and practice was constant throughout the sessions as members discussed study circle guidelines identifying principles that they regarded as important in groups with which they worked.

They then facilitated discussion on collaborative leadership using these guidelines in small groups.  It was of interest that current leaders acting as role models included sporting figures such as Michael Long, Kevin Sheedy, Cathy Freeman as well as female leaders such as the Queensland Premier – no longer is leadership the sole domain of white anglo-saxon males. Leaders supported by communities prevented burn out and disillusionment

Sharing stories

We shared our story of locating learning within communities and enabling local people to become skilled facilitators with the support of tertiary education, the status of a University qualification and access to resources.

The checklist of the Model of Collaborative Engagement was used to discuss strategies within locally initiated projects.

‘Miss Lucy’ from Lockhart River showcased a book she had published in local language.  The oral nature of Indigenous languages meant that prior to ‘writing down’ her language, support to access a linguist and the time to record relevant words were necessary.  Only older people still spoke local language, younger people spoke a hybrid mix of languages (Creole) of those with whom they were now living in shared land, and then English.  The book –      was warmly welcomed by Academy members with suggestions for a book launch at the next residential session.  At the end of the presentation, Miss Lucy commented that it was now the turn of others younger than herself as she was going to visit country.

Other projects included management of educational trusts for young people with investments from mining companies; the progressive development of walking, camping and tourism ventures.  Young men taking on leadership roles after themselves suffering from use/abuse of drugs and alcohol, and one enthusiastic youth leader spoke of the excitement of taking 8 – 12 year olds to the AFL Dreaming in Melbourne.  The young people played Australian Rules at half-time and met with Michael Long and Kevin Sheedy. Another lone venture was the establishment of a healing centre as an alternative to involvement in criminal justice system.

The question of what support there was to assist this initiative?

I observed the quiet dignity of older people sitting with agency staff sharing concerns – identifying past barriers in communication that included:

  • people not sharing common language being regarded as one community,
  • the lack of common protocol in meeting with different groups,
  • the lack of written languages to share relevant protocols,
  • a history of not being listened to leading to decreasing involvement,
  • an urgent need to re-build trust and confidence.

The list goes on, this is just a small glimpse.

Making invisible – visible

The visual tool of capital indicators recording change over time appealed – with a number of people planning to use it immediately at Land council meetings and youth groups.

Throughout the 2 days Leadership Academy members of all ages, interests and abilities sat together and discussed the relevance of the study circle guidelines, strategic questioning, discussing actual projects.

What next?
A number of academy members indicated their interest in continuing their professional development in these facilitation skills.  Denise Hagan from Lockhart River also made contact after the workshop to find out who else ran similar courses.

While not having instant answer it could be an ongoing conversation between Griffiths University and the Centre for Rural Communities.


The CRC work was relevant.  Academy members planned to use tools within their own communities, and Neil and I gained insight into the Cape York Institute, the policy work, education and leadership work it is undertaking in putting issues on the public agenda.  Finding a way to offer these programs in relevant ways would be a great next step for the Centre.

Feedback at the end of the workshops included one ‘aunty’ raising her hand and proudly saying – this is the first time I’ve spoken at these meetings.

September 28, 2009