Going after what you want in life is what led Rhi Parsons to the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation’s Milparanga Program – an experience that has shaped her vision for the future.
“I was looking for something that has that Indigenous focus. That was what was missing from my toolkit as a leader,” the passionate career and employment expert says. “I found what I was looking for in Milparanga.
“I didn’t know what to expect. All the details are a bit elusive!” Rhi laughs, reflecting on the intentional way the program transports people into the unknown and challenges their comfort zone.
“I felt like I’m not a really established leader; I’m still learning. That journey of learning about culture and identity is very important in shaping my leadership style and habits. It’s a part of who I am,” Rhi reflects.
The Wakka Wakka woman was raised in Brisbane, and has been indelibly shaped by the experiences of her mother and grandmother.
“My grandmother was taken from her father when she was only a baby, and she spent the next 18 years in an orphanage. She’s a big role model: So resilient, so kind and compassionate. That’s what I look to as strength and leadership,” Rhi says.
“Because of what she and my mum went through, I feel it’s my time to step up. From watching my elders and aunties, I feel that sense of responsibility is passed along to me.”
Turning up to the first Milparanga session in Townsville with “not the faintest idea” what to expect, and an open mind stood Rhi in good stead.
“Milparanga is a journey, and as soon as you think you know what’s coming, it changes,” Rhi says.
“It’s amazing how quickly you bond with the people on the program … they came from regions beyond the main capital cities, and from diverse backgrounds; different types of work and at different levels in their leadership journey,” Rhi reflects.
“I loved how immersive it was. The environment Milparanga creates was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It enabled us to learn things very quickly, and to connect deeply,” Rhi says.
“The things I learned about our different cultures through coming together as one mob made me really proud. It put that fire in my belly and made me excited to see what each of these leaders are doing and to evaluate the differences we’re all making in our respective fields.”
From the Milparanga facilitators and guest presenters, Rhi also gained fresh inspiration.
“Michelle De Shong (Milparanga facilitator) had one of the biggest impacts on me. She’s so intelligent and insightful. The way she shaped conversations gave me this other lens to apply to everything,” she says.
“Meeting traditional owner Paul House in Canberra was unreal. It was an honour to meet him and learn from the work he and his mob have achieved.”
Rhi has found her passion working with young people around 15-25 years of age, and has just taken on a new role as Indigenous Career Programs Manager at the Brisbane Broncos.
“This program is run largely by Indigenous women, and that structure is so compatible with how I do things and what works and is effective,” Rhi says.
“I’m naturally a people-person, and I see leadership as helping everyone to be the best they can be. Working with young people, I can build relationships and leverage this if they strike setbacks. It they fail, they can fall back on me and keep moving forward … My philosophy is that a job shouldn’t revolve around what you can get out of it. It’s about what you can give, and that’s where I get satisfaction.”
With her easy, warm interpersonal style, Rhi says Milparanga challenged her to confront her ideas about other styles of leadership.
“I’ve always looked at dominant leadership as a negative thing. Milparanga showed me that I can be that dominant energy when I need to be. I am steady and caring, but I’ve realised I can be both. I can take control of the situation. Having to sometimes take that approach with people twice my age and senior to me can be a huge challenge, especially for Aboriginal people,” Rhi reflects.
As her Milparanga experience drew to a close, Rhi was given the opportunity to continue extending herself through the Milparanga Mentoring Program, where she was matched with Aiden Pearson, an alumnus of the program.
“It’s been perfect timing, and working with him has flowed on naturally from the end of the program. It’s meant more time to sit and do that self-work. The program is immersive and hands-on, but this mentorship gives me the time to digest and learn through shared experience. Mentoring is something that I think we often want, but don’t always feel we can ask for,” Rhi says.
“This program has given me a mentor, and other people I look up to and respect so much. It’s created this big family unit.”
Looking to the future, Rhi credits the Milparanga with having upscaled her dreams and ambitions.
“A big goal for me is to show up where Aboriginal people haven’t been represented before. I’m a proud feminist, and the journey the women in my family have had is a big motivator for me. I’ve got to do my bit and then some,” she says.
“Milparanga has increased my confidence to speak up as an emerging Aboriginal leader. I didn’t know I was lacking that before I went on the program. It’s given me the confidence to own that space, and it’s just broadened my whole perspective on rural, regional and remote Australia. I’ve got friends for life around the country that I can call on.”
Rhi Parsons is a graduate of Milparanga 8.2 and a mentee in the Milparanga Mentoring Program.
Milparanga is an open application program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are looking to increase their capacity to enact leadership in the context of where they live and work. Visit https://rural-leaders.org.au/programs/milparanga/ for more information.