Who do you consider to be three great leaders of our time and why?
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:
Our Community: What are the four attributes you would consider to be essential to a leader?
Our Community: What are the greatest barriers to new leaders emerging in Australia?
Our Community: What advice would you give to a potential leader to take them to the next stage?
Our Community: What insights have you gained personally and on your leadership journey and how have they impacted on your style of leadership?
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?
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?
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?
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