Debbie Kilroy OAM

As part of our regular segment, Our Community Leaders - Great Australian Leaders in Focus which features the thoughts of some of Australia's great leaders, this month we feature Debbie Kilroy OAM.

Debbie Kilroy OAM
Chief Executive Officer, Sisters Inside Inc.

Debbie Kilroy OAM is a former prisoner, qualified social worker and practicing lawyer. Debbie spent much of her teens in youth prisons, and several years in adult women's prisons, in Queensland. For the past 18 years, she has led Sisters Inside Inc., an organisation that advocates for the human rights of criminalised women in Queensland. Since 2007, Debbie has also worked as a Criminal Defence Lawyer with Callaghan Lawyers in Brisbane.

Who do you consider to be three great leaders of our time and why?

Debbie Kilroy:

It is difficult to understate the trauma of imprisonment, and its residual consequences. Not surprisingly, both my heroes are former prisoners who have achieved great things socially, despite having to overcome this trauma:
  1. Professor Angela Davis (University of California, Santa Cruz), a 70s civil rights leader and former political prisoner. Angela has brought together real life activism and a rich academic analysis. Her work on the prison industrial complex, prisoners' human rights and issues affecting women prisoners is the bedrock of prisoner advocacy internationally.
  2. Nelson Mandela. What an amazing achievement - spending over 20 years in prison and yet being able to maintain his commitment to social change, without bitterness, and lead South Africa into a new, post-apartheid era.
  3. Aung San Suu Kyi, an inspirational woman and courageous leader who continues to stand up for the freedom of the Burmese people. She continues to stand up against repressive militarist regimes. She continues to be imprisoned today for her activism.

Our Community: What are the four attributes you would consider to be essential to a leader?

Debbie Kilroy:

  1. Walking the Talk; integrity; trustworthiness. Criminalised women are particularly good at picking a phoney. I wouldn't retain credibility for 10 minutes if my words and actions weren't congruent. I think this applies to being a respected leader in any field.
  2. Taking a collaborative leadership approach. I continue to be strongly guided by current and former prisoners, and other allies, in all my life. The ability to lead both from the front, and from behind (and know when to do each) is crucial to respectful leadership. Coming from a position of power with not power over is a fundamental principle to practice
  3. Having a clear, detailed picture of what you ultimately want to achieve. For me, this is about imagining a world without prisons and seeing abolition of prisons as my long-term goal (even though I don't expect to see this in my lifetime).
  4. Willingness to speak out for what you believe in. Taking calculated risks is essential to effective advocacy and achieving productive change.
  5. Our Community: What are the greatest barriers to new leaders emerging in Australia?

    Debbie Kilroy:

    • Discrimination. I meet so many amazing people who could be fabulous leaders. Some criminalised women survive despite overwhelming odds, and manage to raise their families and contribute to their communities. I'm particularly in awe of some of the Aboriginal women I know, who have been incredibly damaged by experiences like being part of the Stolen Generations and living under 3rd World conditions … yet they play a central role as Elders in their own communities; support many extended family members; provide community and individual healing; and still seem to find the time and energy to help educate whitefellas. Imagine if, as a society, we could tap the resources of women like these … and many others from socially marginalised groups. Instead, we seek to depower and silence anyone who challenges popular wisdoms, perceptions and prejudices.
    • The demise of genuine participatory democracy. Community activism is increasingly penalised. For example, small non-government organisations don't only provide services. They also play a crucial role in enabling citizen participation; building support systems for those on the margins of communities; and acting to try to improve the lives of community members. Yet, if they speak out, they risk losing the very funding they rely on to be able to provide community services. A generation of potential social leaders have been silenced and pacified by this culture of conformity and compliance.

    Our Community: What advice would you give to a potential leader to take them to the next stage?

    Debbie Kilroy:

    • Be clear about your values - what motivates your leadership aspirations? Without detailed reflection on these questions of meaning, you risk being driven by unresolved assumptions and experiences that can undermine your achievements. For me, this included doing substantial therapy to overcome the trauma inflicted on myself, and my children and family, by years of imprisonment.
    • Be clear about your vision - what you want to achieve, in both the short and long term. This is essential to being able to flexibly grab opportunities for advocacy as they arise, rather than being stuck on a pre-planned, singular, strategic path.
    • Understand the social context - the systems and frameworks that impinge on your work. In the case of human rights advocacy, this includes a detailed knowledge of the international human rights instruments which can provide a public rationale for your work, and human rights (or anti-discrimination bodies) which can be partners in advocacy. You also have to be aware of the shortcomings of such systems and frameworks.
    • Surround yourself with long term, loyal allies - it's invaluable to develop and maintain a small core network of people you trust, who can see your leadership from different perspectives and provide critical feedback. This group can help you stay on track and help you to continue to learn and grow. Allies from the group you are advocating for are particularly important to keeping your feet on the ground and maintaining accountability to those who are most affected by your actions.

    Our Community: What insights have you gained personally and on your leadership journey and how have they impacted on your style of leadership?

    Debbie Kilroy:

    Listen to your long-term, loyal allies and put their ideas into action. This simple insight has assisted me in developing who I am today. If I did not listen and put into action their ideas I would not have led Sisters Inside to where it is today and I would not be the woman I am today.

    Women in prison provide incredible support and loyalty when they walk with me in my day to day struggles. Women who are in prison give me great inspiration. Their survival in a traumatic and abusive system feeds my passion to continue to struggle against the abuse inflicted by prison systems. Women prisoners keep me grounded, which is crucial in leadership.

    A happy family and home allow me to undertake the work I do on a day-to-day basis. Without the support and understanding of my husband and children I would not be able to undertake the role I have. My family understands my passion and my role in agitating against the prison industrial system. They share the same values. Having a supportive family impacts on my energy and focus and how I struggle with the difficulties faced every day.

    Our Community: Who have been your own leadership mentors and how did they assist in developing your own leadership style?

    Debbie Kilroy:

    The Hon. Anne Warner, former Minister for Family Services in the Goss Government in Queensland. Anne has been the Chair of Sisters Inside for over 13 years. She has particularly taught me about strategic thinking; how to move and be influential in powerful circles; and how to maintain strong values, whilst at the same time communicating within others' frame of reference. Most importantly, how to look around corners and who is coming up behind you. Anne has been the woman who has shaped me into the woman I am today and I am so privileged to call Anne my friend.

    Kim Pate, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. There are very few organisations in the world which combine three characteristics - they are driven by women prisoners, provide practical services and have a strong public advocacy role. As my Canadian peer, Kim understands the unique pressures of these combined roles in a way that few others can. This allows us to exchange insights, information, experiences and support, which strengthens our individual leadership, and enables us to work in partnership internationally. Kim and I walk the same struggles every day. She understands exactly what I experience every day as she continues the same struggle in Canada. Kim and I are like mirror advocates in actively agitating for prison abolition but on opposite sides of the world.

    Our Community: Thinking about your own leadership journey, what are you most proud of and what would you change if you had the chance?

    Debbie Kilroy:

    Perhaps the defining moment in my leadership of Sisters Inside was a media comment I made several years ago. Sisters Inside had recently submitted a formal complaint against the Queensland Government, particularly the Department of Correctional Services (DCS), to the Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland. The Department had been looking for a means of penalising us at this time.

    Sisters Inside was running a (continuing) campaign against the routine strip searching of women prisoners - a degrading practice which clearly falls within the definition of torture in the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. (Strip searching is particularly traumatising for women prisoners, since the vast majority were sexually assaulted as a child and/or adult. This abuse of human rights contributes significantly to the deteriorating mental health of many women whilst in prison, and can have long-term consequences for women and their children.)

    When talking with the media, I likened the treatment of women in prison in Queensland to the torture of prisoners in Abu Graib. My comments provided the DCS with the perfect excuse to preclude Sisters Inside from providing services to women in prison. (This ban stood for nearly six years and was only lifted early this year (2010).) I am proud of my willingness to stand up and name the continuing sexual assault perpetrated against women prisoners by the State. On the other hand, I would now be a little more circumspect with my analogies! Maybe, we will see in the future……… depends on the issue and what's at stake. Using media is always a balancing act and I am always aware and alert when media is asking questions or looking for an interview.

    Our Community: If you had a magic wand, what would you change about community life in Australia right now?

    Debbie Kilroy:

    I'd encourage a culture of courage and thinking! Public figures would take a wide range of different points of view about social questions, rather than pandering to the prejudices of the (so-called) middle ground. Students would be taught how to think, not what to think - education would focus on encouraging students to engage with a wide range of ideas; and to analyse evidence, rather than provide correct answers. Instead of regurgitating lowest common denominator thinking, the media would challenge audiences with radical possibilities and new ideas. It would seek out a variety of leaders (many of whom are not yet in the public sphere), and encourage them to contribute their different points of view.

    Many of the adverse social attitudes in Australia are driven by ignorance rather than malice. We have become accustomed to seeing society as competitively based - the economic rationalist idea that society must include winners and losers; the consequent search for others who can be the losers. Australians need to be taught how to stand in others' shoes, to imagine how they might react in the same circumstances; to hear about others' experiences, and rational explanations of issues such as the causes of crime, the traumas associated with becoming a refugee, or the realities of life for Indigenous Australians.

    Having a Bill of Rights would play an important role in helping Australia move forward. It would create the impetus required to address many of the social ills that undermine our society. Criminalisation, for example, is driven by poverty, disadvantage, marginalisation, racism, sexism and violence against women and children. If issues such as access to housing, health care (including mental health care), education and employment were seen as a right, rather than a privilege, we would treat human needs in a totally different way. There would be greater incentive to build a culture of equality, rather than to see those Australians requiring support as charity cases. We'd see meeting the rights of Australians as an investment in our future, rather than the first item cut when the budget's tight.

    I look toward a richer Australian society, which values diversity and builds on the strengths of all its members; a genuinely inclusive society. We'd address the needs and aspirations of the marginalised and disenfranchised … and instantly reduce crime rates! We'd close down prisons, and make ex-prisoners (including refugees) feel a welcome and valued part of community life. In particular, we'd honour and learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and cultures.

    Published October 2010