Bonnie Cavanagh has spent the last 12 years working in the public sector, and in particular, the Victorian Police. Here, she is currently the Aboriginal Portfolio Manager. In her spare time, Bonnie is an avid sports fan and works to promote inclusion as the first female President of the Broadford Football Netball Club.
Your experience spans across work with various councils and corporations at different scales. How instrumental do you believe community based programs are to solving global issues?In 2018, you won the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) Young Indigenous Leader 2-year Scholarship for your advocacy for Aboriginal Australians within the Victorian Police. What were some of your favourite achievements leading up to this award?
It’s been a combination, really, of a lot of smaller projects, training and conversations that allowed me to see a positive shift in the way police are approaching their engagement with the Victorian Aboriginal community. Particularly, organisational work in elevating support for Aboriginal self-determination and ensuring Aboriginal voices are at the forefront of our decision making with any changes or developments in our policies and procedures that have an effect on our mob. A career as a police officer though I must admit is tough! There is a lot to learn in a short space of time, constant exposure to confronting situations that you could almost never train yourself physically or mentally for, and really, a lot that rests on your shoulders to protect the public at all times while upholding community safety but also trust and confidence. At times, police don’t get it right for a whole raft of reasons, but when it comes to my portfolio, there is genuine desire to learn, do better and be accountable. It keeps me focused and motivated to continue to support the organisation on this journey to achieve better outcomes for Aboriginal Victorians and reduce over-representation in the justice system.
The Victoria Police’s 10-Year Gender Equality Strategy is very promising and a great commitment towards making change. Nevertheless, as someone holding a managerial role within the Victorian Police, statistics suggest that you are working in spaces that are predominantly white and male. Has this ever posed any challenges for you?
The new Gender Equality Strategy is definitely a great opportunity for the organisation to demonstrate genuine commitment and action to support employees of all genders. I must say though that I have been fortunate throughout my career that I have never faced significant challenges or felt I couldn’t contribute even as a young woman (I started in Victoria Police as a 19 year old straight out of Uni) in a male dominated workplace. Now that might be a sign of the times or that I have performed roles in areas that had strong, genuine leaders, both male and female, but it’s comforting to know that Victoria Police are really now only going to improve their support and remove any barriers that may have been present in the past to ensure Victoria Police is a workplace where your career progression, your career responsibilities and your contributions are not restricted by gender.
There are some really great emerging and current female leaders in the organisation too, which I hope enables aspiring female leaders to truly feel they can ‘be what they see’ and continue on a pathway towards higher management roles. There are some really great opportunities to receive mentoring, and I hope I can be seen as someone who is also paving the way for and supports up-and-coming women in the organisation.
You mention some of the negative perceptions of the police in your podcast with IPAA. How has your perspective as a Taungurung woman, and your role as the Aboriginal Portfolio Manager, helped you advocate for diversity, inclusion and fair treatment of Aboriginal Australians within the police?
It’s a sad reality that the effects of colonisation are still felt strongly today, and police unfortunately were used as instruments of government to enforce terrible policies of the times which created such a divide and deep mistrust. There is still some fear within the Aboriginal community of police and it needs significant change and commitments in our approach to re-set, increase culturally appropriate supports and repair relationships, and Victoria Police have made some genuine commitments to this. Through a recent uplift in education, increased sharing of community perspectives and community-led truth-telling including that of my own knowledge and experiences, police are genuinely challenging their own thinking and want to understand the sorts of change that is required in the organisation, so it’s now really an interesting and challenging role to support this journey as you too are balancing so many perspectives. First and foremost I am an Aboriginal community member and professionally, I am leading our organisation which to me after 13 years has been like another family, to better support my community. Having also built up my networks internally over such a long period of time, I also feel our police and employees are confident to approach me if they are seeking advice, which is a great thing! It’s an exciting time to help advocate and influence the narrative and program-of-works in true partnership with our deadly Aboriginal community, and also know I am being heard by organisational leaders.
Do you have any strong female role models or mentors who you look up to? How have they helped shape your career?
Absolutely. My predecessor is an absolutely warrior woman who supported and continues to support my development. She often challenged my thinking and in such a respectful and positive way, that I learnt so much without even knowing sometimes. I owe a lot of my confidence building to her as she always had my back. Knowing someone is there for you no matter what is really comforting! A big realisation for me early on in my life is that when you have someone who shares their thoughts and experiences with you and gives you respectful advice, it can be such a gift. It’s then all about how you listen, take it on board and apply the advice if it’s suitable moving forward. Always take the chance to ask questions whenever you need, and not take things so personally if someone has some feedback for you – if it’s delivered in a respectful way of course!
I also look up to and have been lucky enough to engage with the likes of other strong, intelligent women in the community - Tanya Hosch and Peggy O’Neal. I do a lot of work in community sports and these women constantly inspire me. They show there is a place for women at the top of elite, male dominated sporting organisations and optimise that you can really ‘be what you can see’ if you keep working towards your goals.
What would be your advice to other young women looking to follow in your footsteps?
My main advice to anyone is to always have a red-hot-crack! If there is something you are passionate about or even curious to explore, what’s stopping you? If its fear of the unknown or being judged, or anything that causes you to overthink without finding a serious risk to having a go at something, then take the leap. You are guaranteed to learn something and it allows yourself to grow through a new challenge or experience.
Do your research and grow your networks, too. The more you can absorb from the world and others can often create gentle confidence in your own approach.
I do also firmly believe that things happen for a reason, and to trust your intuition. It’s a powerful, spiritual tool us women have. Do the work and be bold enough to back yourself in, but also trust your instincts. If it doesn’t work out, oh well! You have the experience. Take the learnings on board, reflect strongly (maybe over a relaxing champagne or cup of coffee) and choose your next challenge.
I personally strive to be as open and approachable as possible too, so I too can share my insights and learnings that may help others. Even if it’s something small. I really am more than happy to support others when and where I can!