Continuing Stories of Female Leadership and empowerment in a virtual landscape

Background  

The success of the Jawun model is heavily dependent on the Jawun Leadership network – a community that supports Indigenous leader development with in-place secondments, connecting leaders from corporate and government sectors through Jawun’s programs. These programs align to Jawun’s leadership development vision to strengthen a sustainable pipeline of Indigenous leadership. 
 For Jawun, 2020 marked 5 years since the beginning of its Stories of Female Leadership (SoFL) initiative, which began with the question, ‘How can Jawun foster Indigenous female leadership through collaboration with our diverse and unique network of corporate, government, academic and philanthropic partners?’.  

With a growing number of female Indigenous leaders rising to prominence, the idea for a proactive women-only network was canvassed, and in October 2017, over 40 female leaders from various backgrounds came together to create Stories of Female Leadership (SoFL), one of Jawun’s key platforms for enabling and strengthening female Indigenous leadership across the country.

Since its establishment, the SoFL network has brought to life a number of leadership initiatives that aim to empower and connect female leaders with purpose. Originating from the Kimberley region, the Lyarn philosophy (an ancient concept of spirit and intuition) has been adopted as ‘the way the network engages with each other’. Three Lyarn Dialogues and one Networking Event took place on Zoom in 2020, which allowed Jawun to shine a light on and connect the rich tapestry of female leadership that exists across a multitude of unique and diverse networks.  

Today, SoFL is a network of over 200 influential leaders from community, corporate and government backgrounds, 83 of whom are indigenous. 

Approach  

2020 commenced on a strong note with Jawun set to facilitate events for its three leadership program streams – the biennial SoFL Convention, the launch of digital forum Bala Rali (coaching and mentoring), and the re-launch of the Malparara Leadership Program (bespoke leadership program). These streams served the networks key focus areas, with 2020 bringing to life some of the initiatives that have been workshopped and designed over the years. The term Bala Rali was gifted to Jawun by Yolngu partners in Arnhem Land and the words roughly translate as meaning ‘back and forth’, an apt reflection of the two-way learning facilitated between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Malparara is a Pitjantjatjara concept for ‘working in hand’, lent to the network by a SoFL member from Pipalyatiara, South Australia.

By March 2020, the limitations posed by COVID-19 became evident, and Jawun began to explore new, innovative ways to bring its network together. Despite initial concerns around achieving impact without in-place discussions, Jawun quickly recognised the capabilities of virtual connections. What started as well-being discussions via Zoom grew into regular conversations around mental health, empowerment, and sharing of key community initiatives.  

By the end of the month, Jawun secondments were going virtual, and it became clear that leadership initiatives would need to follow suit, with all upcoming in-place initiatives cancelled for the foreseeable future. Jawun established a ‘virtual secondment’ offering, delivered through an online forum now known as ‘MyJawun’. The increased use of and familiarity with virtual participation presented Jawun with an opportunity to support the SoFL network by creating a digital space to host the network and provide an additional pathway for SoFL members to continue the work of their Bala Rali and Malparara workstreams. Despite COVID-19 restricting all in-place discussions, Jawun continued to identify alternative and additional virtual means of working with and connecting its members.  

On the 22nd of July 2020, Jawun hosted its first virtual Lyarn Dialogue with a selection of close-knit SoFL members who had previously connected at Jawun-led events and gatherings. From there, regular Zoom meetings were facilitated by Jawun to achieve virtual connection, limit geographical isolation, and amplify the voices of its female members. These would bring together Indigenous and non-Indigenous female leaders from many different backgrounds and locations, allowing members to remain connected and continue sharing with one another while COVID-19 restricted all travel and face to face connections.  

Lyarn Dialogues made it possible for women to maintain their connections and share their stories in supporting the COVID-19 initiatives in their respective areas. What was already a safe and sacred space for female leaders progressed into inspiring shared experiences that facilitated further strength and resilience amongst members. These dialogues gave voice to the work of these incredible women and broke the physical barrier of connection during challenging times. Evelyn Walker from Walkinjeri Services attended Jawun’s second Lyarn Dialogue, sharing what it meant to her:

We had the opportunity to meet and connect with our inspirational, empowering strong women around Australia today as part of the Jawun journey. Very inspiring, thank you sisters.” 

 In Cape York today, many of the topmost roles in Indigenous community organisations – including Cape York Partnership, Cape York Land Council, Pama Futures – are held by women who are part of the Stories of Female Leadership network. One example is Kirsty Broderick, Acting CEO of the Cape York Land Council. Explaining why the unique network is so valuable, Kirsty says: 

“I am the only female in the management group of the Cape York Land Council. It’s   
lonely at times—challenging norms, attitudes and the ‘usual way of doing business in a male- dominated spaceNow I am part of a network of strong women who support each other through professional and personal achievements as well as hurdles. The strength of these networks is life changing. They support and encourage you when you are in doubt and are your cheerleaders to remind you of how far you have come.” 

There are 13 women from Cape York in the Stories of Female Leadership network to date, a number that reflects the region’s long-running emphasis on nurturing female leaders (and leaders in general). 

 In November 20 SoFL members gathered on Zoom for an end of year Stories of Female Leadership Networking Event, shedding light on the outstanding leadership across the 11 regions and to amplify the story of one of the SoFL members. Managing Director of the Kimberley Jiyigas, Natasha Short shared her experiences around uniting women across the Kimberley in their passion to lead and speak within their communities: 

“Being a women’s movement that seeks to empower, inspire and promote women’s voices, it was a great opportunity to speak at the Jawun Stories of Female Leadership networking event, and share the work and future aspirations of Kimberley Jiyigas. If women are resourced and activated within their own communities to lead, we will see extraordinary outcomes emerge.” 

Jiyigas, being the Jaru word for ‘birds’, is extremely symbolic of the movement – female leaders soaring to new heights to influence social change within their communities, region and nation.  The November Networking Event provided SoFL members the opportunity to come together, reflect, share their stories on the year that was 2020 and to be inspired by the work of their Kimberley colleagues in supporting women across their region.  

Outcomes 

Although the COVID-19 outbreak meant an in-place convention and other in-place gatherings were impossible, virtual adaptations allowed for a continuation of connection, strength, and resilience amongst SoFL members. Brownyn Chambers from the University of Newcastle and long-term SoFL member shared how virtual integrations allowed her to remain connected with the network:  

“The Zoom Technology has been a great way to visually being able to see, share and talk to each other. It was much more personal. We were able to view the gatherings and activities that had been held, and to see and hear all the wonderful outcomes as if you were a part of it even though you weren’t physically there.” 

Overall, 50 women from Indigenous, corporate, philanthropic and government sectors enjoyed meaningful connections through Lyarn Dialogues and the 2020 November Networking Event. Conventions and events held around the country strengthened the group’s shared belief that connecting with other women can be a vital source of support, solutions, and succession planning.
Virtual forums provided opportunities for those members who would normally find it challenging to travel due to work, personal commitments and the restrictions placed on States as a result of the global pandemic. Running the Lyarn Dialogues online allowed for a continuation of meaningful discussions amongst female leaders during such difficult times – women could support one another and share their stories in real-time. The limitations posed by COVID-19 did not deter the network in wanting to come together using alternative mechanisms, and online discussions meant that members could participate and contribute from the comfort of their own home. In addition to the Lyarn Dialogues and Networking Event, SoFL members also had the opportunity to join other Jawun forums thanks to the omnipresence that virtual allowed for. Such opportunities included strategic dialogues, virtual Executive Visits, an Emerging Leaders Finale and an Alumni reconnection event. Overall, there remains strong representation of SoFL network members across other Jawun events, a testament to the passion and curiosity that makes Jawun’s female leadership program so valued and unique.

Next Steps 

While Jawun’s preferred model is centred around in-place engagement opportunities, 2020 allowed for the exploration of virtual capabilities that had not yet been fully explored. The limitations imposed by COVID-19 did not deter Jawun in seeking out alternative methods of communication and connection amongst its members. 

Subject to COVID-19 cases remaining under control, Jawun is well placed and eager to hold its SoFL convention, a second iteration of the Malparara program, and continue the work of Bala Rali in 2021. Resuming face-to-face opportunities whilst enhancing virtual capabilities has allowed for an exciting year ahead – Jawun is increasing the opportunities for its network to collaborate more, with a much richer leadership offering as a result. Virtual integration in 2021 is expected to add value to an already successful and valued network. Members are becoming increasingly excited about reconnecting in person knowing that the environment today also provides increased opportunities to connect virtually as well as in place.  2021 is set to be an exciting year for the Jawun SoFL network.