Kuku Yalanji woman Michelle Deshong was born the oldest grandchild on both sides of her family.
“Despite having no say in it at all, my order of birth in the family structure dictated lots of firsts for my family and lots of obligations for me – some spoken and others expected,” Michelle said.
Born in the 1970s as the daughter of an Aboriginal father and a non-Aboriginal mother in north Queensland, Michelle remembers a happy childhood, but one that also gave her a front row seat to resilience and strength, as her parents worked hard in the face of challenging perceptions when it came to race relations.
The concepts and expectations that ran through her early years offered Michelle Deshong an intrinsic understanding of how to read a room – and the perceptions of those who occupied them.
“Even as a teenager in high school I could see that people around me had ready-made perceptions of who I was and what I would ultimately become, which most people assumed would be a young Aboriginal single mother,” Michelle said.
“I was steadfast in proving them wrong and become incredibly competitive and stepped into multiple leadership roles to show my story was just beginning – I was not going to be disadvantaged by preconceived notions.
“When I turned 18 I moved to Canberra to take on a role within the public service and that was equally about proving to myself that I could do it and also showing other young, Indigenous woman like me that they had choices about how their future could pan out.”
For Michelle Deshong, it was a move that cracked her future wide open.
More than 20 years in the public service followed, in roles including a stint as a Senior Advisor in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Today, she leads the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute as its CEO.
In the years between she’s won accolades including being named as one the country’s Top 100 Women of Influence, to being awarded a prestigious Fullbright Scholarship.
But it’s her work as a leadership facilitator she holds up as her greatest achievement.
“That is my true passion, sharing my story and helping others learn the value of leadership, in whatever form that may take,” Michelle said.
“This came in to stark clarity when I was accepted in to the Australian Rural Leadership Program in 2008 and despite being a few years ago now, there are lessons I still carry with me and enact upon every single day,” she said.
“I went into the program wanting to test my capacity as a leader – not just as an Indigenous leader, or a female leader, but a leader in my own right.
“It was challenging, and like nothing I’d done before – or since to be honest. I had to face particular fears, I had to ask for help and I had to build relationships I wouldn’t have had the inclination or opportunity to do otherwise.”
For Michelle, one of the greatest lessons in leadership was challenging her own perceptions of others.
“I had been on the receiving end of stereotypes my whole life so having to recognise that I also stereotyped others was actually quite confronting,” she said.
“As an Aboriginal woman coming in to a rural leadership program that was heavily focused on rural people took some adjustment initially, and I remember landing at the airport on the first day of the first session and seeing this blond, non Indigenous woman with her RMs on chatting at a rapid rate and I thought, ‘Oh she won’t be my cup of tea!’
But more than a decade on from that first meeting, the woman in the RM boots remains a friend and mentor of Michelle’s.
“The whole program gave me perspective around how much the values and passions of other people can bring to a space even if at times that contests my own,” she said.
“An example of that is around Native Title and Land Rights; I was sharing the space with farmers and others who opposed it which made for some contentious and courageous conversations but I’ve never forgotten the value in truly understanding both sides of the story.
“Having always lived and worked in the Indigenous Services space meant I’d never had to consider what climate change or irrigation costs might mean to a rice grower or a pig farmer, but when you start to unpack those big issues you recognise the impacts on the economics of the nation, the cost of food on supermarket shelves, and how we are all so reliant on each other – and it’s up to good leaders to bridge those divides.”