Their Stories

A leader creating safe spaces

19 April 2018

Ebony Hickey shares her experiences as part of the first cohort to graduate from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leaders Program (NATSILP) and the influence it has had on her as the coordinator of Caracaramigen – The Colac Aboriginal Gathering Place.

This year the program has a new name, Milparanga and applications are currently open.

“Leadership probably didn’t hit my radar until about two years ago,” says Victorian Ebony.

“I never finished high school… I never expected to be working in the roles that I work in now.”

In May 2017, Ebony plunged into the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leaders Program (NATSILP) in Dubbo.

“I learned about the NATSILP program online through Facebook, and I applied but I didn’t really think I was in with a chance. I gave it a shot anyway.”

And ‘giving things a shot’ is how the 31 year old has lived most of her life.

“My background is in retail sales,” Ebony explains. “But when my son was at a local playgroup, I had the opportunity to put a resume in there, so I did.”

She hasn’t looked back since.

“I took on a role as an in home support worker for Aboriginal parents with kids under the age of three. That led into a team leader role for the early years and prevention programs at the Aboriginal co-op for Geelong. Then that turned into delivering Aboriginal community development.”

From there she moved into community development within the local Aboriginal community. With growing responsibilities in her professional life, NATSILP came along at the perfect time for Ebony.

“The program really helped me not to worry about the qualifications, and not be intimidated by other people’s knowledge,” she says.

“The knowledge we hold and that has been passed down to us is just as important. I think that’s probably the main thing I took away.”

NATSILP has also helped Ebony to successfully take an even bigger leap. She is now the coordinator of Caracaramigen – The Colac Aboriginal Gathering Place, the idea for which came about after Ebony conducted a community needs analysis and found the overwhelming requirement was simple: a culturally safe space for the local Indigenous community.

“The Gathering Place actually wasn’t established before I went to the NATSILP session. After the program, the work I went back home and did with the working group helped us secure a donated building that has positioned us a year-and-a-half ahead of schedule,” Ebony says.

“The program gave me the confidence to practice what I preach. Life really changed after Dubbo.”

Among the NATSILP highlights for Ebony, she was inspired by Foundation alumni Rohan Corpus, ARLF Fellow – Course 18 and state Coordinator at Queensland Health.

“I think from him I learned to back myself, to believe in the work that I do and to believe that my community is just as important as any other,” she says.

“I talk a lot about Aboriginal community development not fitting in the mainstream community development box. I don’t think that Aboriginal people have to be told how to look after country or look after one another or manage our teaching networks by any outside influence, I think that’s been ingrained in us for hundreds of thousands of years. Still, juggling our own systems and understanding the influence of mainstream systems can be challenging.”

To Ebony, NATSILP represents a new tool in her intuitive style of leadership, and she can see it helping a broad spectrum of her community.

“I would recommend NATSILP to everyone, but especially for young women questioning who they are or where they are in the workforce. I think if you’re having doubts about your purpose or what you can achieve that is definitely where the program can be most beneficial,” she says.

“Since The Gathering Place opened in November, we’ve assisted four women out of family violence situations, we have a play group running, we’re looking at setting up a homework class, we’ve participated in art shows, we’ve set up a homeless shower and we host 42 different programs – there’s heaps going on.”

“It’s been a really gentle process but I think it’s bloomed into something that’s bigger than I could have ever imagined,” she says.

For now, Ebony’s ingenuity will be tested annually, as funding for the Gathering Place must be renewed each year.

“The community are steering this and keeping me headed in the right direction. I’ve just got to learn to trust the journey, because I know that the work that I’m doing is valuable, credible, evidence-based. Someone will back it,” she says.

Considering herself a latecomer to leadership, Ebony is well aware of the difference her initiative might make to future generations.

“If something like The Gathering Place had been around when I was a child, it would have changed my life 20 years ago. I took a photo the other day of a kid at playgroup asleep on the floor. It’s a simple thing, but for a kid to fall asleep on the floor they need to feel safe and loved and I think that’s a reminder of why we’ve got to keep doing what we do,” she says.

“Long-term, I’d like a permanent place for us. Our location at the moment is an interim building. What I want to leave from my life is somewhere for the Colac community to feel safe and have as their own. It probably sounds silly, but my grandfather went his whole life without having anywhere to go that was culturally safe for him and his family.”

“I wish that he had been here to see this change in the community, and in me.”

Support the Gathering Place

To support The Colac Aboriginal Gathering Place or to find out more, head to their Facebook page or call Ebony on 0449 948 475.

More information

Applications are currently open for the program Ebony undertook, to apply see Milparanga/ – developing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership