Professor Jacinta Elston took part in Course 20 of the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP) almost five years ago, but it sowed seeds that have led her to say ‘yes’ to one of her biggest leadership roles yet.
After spending 25 years working with Indigenous communities in and around Townsville and fulfilling a range of leadership roles with James Cook University, Jacinta says she’s thrilled to have “escalated” her leadership focus with a new role at Monash University in Melbourne.
She may only be one-year in to her time as Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous) with the prestigious uni, but she’ steering a long-term vision for the next 12 years.
“One of the first jobs I was tasked with was helping to set up the strategic goals and ambitions for Monash moving forward in an Indigenous space,” Jacinta says.
“Monash has been supportive of the notion of a 12-year strategy and a 12-year framework, which is very unusual,” she explains.
And while Jacinta’s role involves a fair splash of trail-blazing, she says everything still revolves around her values as a leader.
“It is very much about supporting Indigenous communities. We’re a national organization, but our graduates contribute all over the country. I still have my heart focused on serving Indigenous communities across Australia,” she says.
Not only is Jacinta focused on delivering a framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education in the higher education sector for Monash, but she’s simultaneously ordering and referencing decades of work the university has done in this space, along with the initiatives being taken by dozens of higher education institutions around Australia.
“We’re really asking, what would happen if we actually have in our mind’s eye what we might be contributing over a decade, not just in terms of students enrolled but students graduating and also working in academia? We’re contributing to the Indigenous workforce agenda,” she says.
“Our ambition is about creating a better life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the way that we do things … If we’re all just chipping away at this, we’ll make a huge difference together… Over the past several years through Commonwealth requirements, they’ve elevated the position of Indigenous leadership inside university governance.”
Jacinta credits the ‘centring’ effects of the ARLP with steering her from a university in the tropics, to one in bustling Melbourne.
“I knew that I wanted to look for an opportunity to do something different and to make a bigger contribution … I did think that I had something else in me,” she says.
“One of the tasks that we’re set while in the ARLP is to think about where we might be in the future and what we might do. My move to Melbourne has aligned very much with the intentions that I wrote down five years ago.
“The biggest thing about being in Course 20 for me was about the courage to step outside and do new things. I’ve got a history of some health issues that have probably ‘kept me in place’ for some time,” she says.
“The Program showed me and gave me a sense of confidence in my own abilities to just be courageous.”
Jacinta says the ARLP even shifted the lens through which she’d viewed Indigenous communities.
“I gained real insights into the interconnectedness of Indigenous issues and rural communities, which was really quite fundamental to what I’m doing now … I’d spent a career pretty much thinking about the context Indigenous communities existed in, because of our history and the way that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have ended up either on the fringe of, or in a sort of fractured way, inside mainstream communities.
“That’s one of the things that was most useful, that recognition that we really need to tackle this from a range of different places to help strengthen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Not just support them, but uphold them and create an environment where we value them and place at our heart and our core, Indigenous Australia.”
As she juggles the demands of her busy role, Jacinta says it’s the team, the students and the communities she works with that fuel her, and she’s extremely conscious of making sure these things are always ‘in the diary’.
“It’s about connection to community, so for me, having connection to students and the people here in our Monash community is really important. But it’s also beyond that important that I feel like I’ve done something to contribute to a relationship with the Aboriginal communities across Victoria in whatever context I can.”
Jacinta secured Monash University’s support of an Indigenous staff member to participate in the Foundation’s 2018 Milparanga leadership development program.
“That investment was important,” Jacinta, who attended the graduation, says.
“I’m certainly very supportive of the ARLF and the Network and I understand the value of it … not just in your cohort, but through drawing on the whole group and the people in the Foundation itself.”
Photo first published in The Guardian.