Opinion article

Indigenous leaders and community organisations in the COVID-19 crisis

Western Australian Aboriginal Leadership Institute (WAALI) CEO Anjie Brook discusses the unique challenges that the COVID-19 crisis has posed for Aboriginal Australians and the ways that community organisations such as WAALI have responded.

COVID-19 has presented unique and very difficult circumstances across the nation, but the Aboriginal community, as the highest risk population across Australia, has been deeply affected. During the times of quarantine, isolation and home schooling, Aboriginal women focused on their families and community, particularly Elders and others impacted by the isolation and confusion caused throughout the pandemic. The immense responsibility held by Aboriginal women to protect and support their family and community became more evident than ever before.

In the face of these challenges, Indigenous communities need strong leaders and networks more than ever. The Western Australian Aboriginal Leadership Institute (WAALI) is set up to help develop them. WAALI was formed in 2017 to provide specialist leadership programs to Aboriginal community leaders, with the vision of being a place of leadership learning for Aboriginal people through cultural ways of working. WAALI looks at the concepts of leadership, particularly in the West Australian Aboriginal context; helps prepare participants for further mainstream leadership development; and facilitates the creation of a state-wide network of influential and empowered Aboriginal leaders working collectively with non-Aboriginal leaders on meaningful and social impact initiatives.

WAALI responds to the need for leadership programs that sensitively consider Aboriginal culture, history and community. Our programs acknowledge Aboriginal people are walking between two worlds – the Western and Aboriginal – with each having their own set of rules and expectations. WAALI’s leadership programs are unique as they are guided by the cultural authority of Elders, based in culture and are developed by Aboriginal people, for Aboriginal people and increasingly facilitated by Aboriginal people, particularly graduates of our programs.

WAALI during the crisis

At the start of 2020, WAALI was celebrating the achievement of more than 100 graduates of our longest running program, Yorga Djenna Bidi Aboriginal Women’s Leadership Program, and the recruitment for the first 2020 cohort commenced.  Following the opening retreat in February, the impact of the pandemic started to hit, with social distancing, isolation, shutdowns, travel restrictions and significant restrictions in relation to funerals and weddings, births and other events. 

As the effects of the restrictions took hold WAALI went into overdrive ensuring all members of our community had a place to connect, to share, to debrief and to access support. WAALI maintained the Yorga Djenna Bidi program but offered it online in response to the restrictions. We worked hard to support women to access technology and learn online platforms.  

The conflicting demands from family and community on Aboriginal women were immense. Many of our alumni were packing and delivering care packages to Elders and families across the metro and regional areas, some driving many kilometres to check in with Elders and deliver food and essentials with little or no financial support.

WAALI went online and provided a range of opportunities. Many women were juggling home schooling and working from home, and the stress and responsibility they felt was overwhelming. The financial impact on families with businesses shutting down, the lag in government assistance, the redundancies and job losses also impacted Aboriginal women significantly. WAALI’s entire focus was on connection and support. Online yarning circles were offered up to four times a week at different times to provide a safe space for women to connect. WAALI offered online self-care workshops, online yoga sessions and offered lunchtime leadership sessions to support the women to remind themselves of their leadership capabilities at this time of immense change and uncertainty.

Many of our Alumni are small business owners including artists and cultural guides. As the pandemic forced many businesses to close, WAALI supported Kwopertok Yorga Alumni (graduates of Yorga Djenna Bidi) business owners to move their businesses online, offering a space to practice their online sessions with their alumni sisters, seek supportive feedback and gain confidence in online trading. 

One of our participants who was in Canberra when the lockdown was enforced found she was isolated away from her family in Perth, her country and community. She continued engaging with the Yorga Djenna Bidi program throughout this time, and through many hours on Zoom she completed the program and maintained connection. The WAALI opportunities she accessed online helped her to overcome her isolation and loneliness. One of our participants was visiting her sister from Queensland when lockdown happened and was unable to go home. She embraced the opportunity to apply and participate in the program while in Perth and has successfully completed the program and will return home in December. 

Indigenous leadership in recovery

Currently WAALI is moving to a different model of support. With the redundancies and job losses brought about by the economic crisis, women are reaching out to WAALI for support to update CVs, apply for jobs, update their LinkedIn profiles, access professional coaching and plan their next career move. 

These are small but important strategies WAALI has implemented to overcome the immense disconnect from family, culture and country that restrictions, isolation and quarantining has caused. The responsibility held by so many of our women to protect and care for Aboriginal Elders has been immense, especially as strict attendance limitations at funerals and intrastate travel restrictions affected cultural protocols surrounding Sorry Business. Having a safe place where they could check in with other Aboriginal women to see how they were dealing with the ever-changing and challenging situations has been helpful.

Aboriginal women are the matriarchs of the community – they will lead the communities’ recovery from the impacts of COVID-19. The need for Aboriginal leadership programs, particularly for women, has never been greater. Equipped with the skills and knowledge to provide strong, courageous and culturally based leadership, Aboriginal women will guide their families and communities through this uncertain future.

To support WAALI please visit our website www.waali.org.au
About the authors

Anjie Brook

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Anjie Brook is the inaugural CEO of the Western Australian Aboriginal Leadership Institute, which supports Aboriginal people to take up leadership opportunities to strengthen their families and communities. She has many years of leadership experience in education and the not-for-profit sector, striving to improve the outcomes and opportunities for children and youth who struggle in mainstream education and learning settings. After many years in the education sector, Anjie transferred her leadership skills to the for-purpose sector, working with youth in remote Aboriginal communities in WA and the NT with a particular focus on improving the health of children and their families.

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