Melissa, a proud Gunai woman from East Gippsland, has long been a passionate advocate for Aboriginal affairs in Victoria and was recognized as an Emerging Indigenous Leader by the Fellowship for Indigenous Leadership. Since then, Melissa has continued her work in the Victorian Court Services as the Director of the Dhumba Murmuk Djerring for the Koori Unit.
Today, she shares more about her career journey and her hopes for a more just future for Aboriginal Australia.
In 2012, the Fellowship for Indigenous Leadership recognized you as an Emerging Leader. What have been some of the highlights of your career since then?
The Fellowship was terrific for me in several ways. I think, most importantly, what it has done for me was connect me to the broader fellowship alumni. It has been incredible to be connected to amazing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working on so many different projects and programmes.
You’re a strong advocate for mental health within Aboriginal communities. I think this issue is often brushed over and isn’t something we hear about too often. Why is it important to talk about mental health, and what needs to be changed?
Mental health is such a prevalent issue, especially today, yet it is still so taboo. As a result, individuals suffering tend to suffer in silence, and supporting family members are often left isolated. I have been in this carer position and have experienced the difficulties associated with it first-hand.
A lot of carers, like myself, feel an intense degree of shame, and because of this, become isolated from friends and family. On top of this, they are struggling to navigate a very overwhelming mental health system. It’s a challenging position to be in. You end up getting to a point where you are just trying to survive each day.
It’s a terrible problem that so many families are going through with next to no support. Many people try to reach out for help, but the system isn’t set up to provide them with the immediate support they need. Aboriginal families and carers, in particular, are trying to navigate a complex mental health system and the cultural barriers that come with that.
The Fellowship provided me with a fantastic opportunity to highlight these gaps. In particular, I got to work with Aboriginal carers and families. In doing so, I realized that the shame we experience is the most significant barrier to improving their quality of life. Now, I see the importance of telling our stories to empower others that are going through it. I come to understand the complex nature of shame through author and researcher Brene Brown, Women and Shame, The Gifts of Imperfection, The Power of Vulnerability, great reading that resonated with me and encouraged me to share my story, for myself and for my children who were also greatly impacted.
In recent years, your career has taken you to the courts. Naturally, the courts have a degree of negative perception within the Aboriginal community due to historical injustices. How has your perspective as an aboriginal woman, and your role as the Director of the Koori Unit, helped you advocate for diversity, inclusion and fair treatment of Aboriginal Australians within the courts?
You’re right that past injustices have certainly framed the courts in a negative light. This has come from layers and layers of government enforced policies from the Aborigines Protection Act to assimilation and right through to fighting for our rights leading to the 1967 Referendum. However, for me, the way to change this perception and make a difference is through giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders a voice in these spaces.
I’ve seen a lot of changes since I first worked in Justice under the Aboriginal Justice Agreement 1 and 2 , returning some years later to CSV. For example when I first joined CSV, we only had about 25 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, and now we’re up to 50. In addition to that, we have many Elders who strengthen the cultural conversation within Koori courts and Koori programs across all court jurisdictions. So from a cultural perspective, I’m excited to see these changes.
This has really accomplished ensuring that the Aboriginal voice is heard across all areas of the courts. Aboriginal people must be at every table where decisions are being made. These voices are so essential in leading change and ensuring we are building cultural safety and competency.
Do you have any strong female role models or mentors how have they helped shape your career?
I have to acknowledge my Mum and the many female Aboriginal Women in my life that grew up facing so many challenges that I didn’t have to face. Of course, there are still many hurdles that we still have to overcome, but when my mum was growing up, she wasn’t recognized as a citizen; she couldn’t go to public pools and she and later my older brothers were still subjected to random welfare checks at school, just because they were Aboriginal. So many of the things we take for granted are things that she couldn’t experience.
Whenever it gets difficult in my life, I remind myself of how much harder it was for her and for the Elders who have paved the way for us to continue their essential work.
What would be your advice to other young women looking to follow in your footsteps?
Life will throw you many curveballs, but it is so important to roll with them. Things don’t always turn out the way we planned, and it’s something we all need to accept.
The good news is, life also rewards you with many opportunities. When you receive these, make sure to use your voice and stand up for what you believe in. The voice of women and the voice of Aboriginal people is so essential, so we need to make sure that we’re at the table and part of the conversations.