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Milparanga supports indigenous leadership growth

9 September 2021

Ollie Tester was on the lookout for opportunities to build his skills and support career development when he came across the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation’s Milparanga program. The self-described big-picture person, risk-taker and lover of big ideas had no qualms about jumping into the unknown.

“Milparanga was a chance for me to expand the skills that I felt I were lacking,” Ollie says.

“And because Milparanga is delivered by and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it was an opportunity for us to talk about issues that resonate with us and impact us … The learning styles of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can be a little different to typical contemporary Australian learning styles as well, so coming into this tailored working environment together was pretty special,” Ollie says.

A Noongar man who grew up in the hills of Perth, Ollie studied a Bachelor of Science and completed his Master in Environmental Management in his home state, before moving east to Canberra in 2016 to start as a graduate with what is now the Department of Agriculture Water and the Environment. Here, he works on threatened species policy, supporting local groups and communities to protect plant and animal species on Country. His role involves engaging with an extraordinarily broad base of stakeholders, from traditional owners to researchers, scientists, journalists, ministers and NGOs. Strong leadership and communication skills are essential.

“Milparanga taught me that different learning styles and communication styles can make-or-break outcomes for a project. That was a lightbulb moment for me during the second session in Canberra,” he says.

“I’ve taken that back to my workplace and I can see changes in the way I work with people now. I never really understood why people hang back and are quieter. I have this greater appreciation for people’s preferences and styles and it’s given me the tools to help information flow.”

Milparanga also shed light on the necessity of difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable conversations.

“We talked a lot about having courageous conversations in our workplaces and within our families. In terms of speaking up when something happens that we don’t agree with, we’re in a key position to do that effectively. And if we don’t do that, who will? We analysed the difference between constructive and destructive conversations and this was very empowering,” Ollie says.

Ollie is passionate about his environmental work and the ripples it has in terms of social, economic and cultural benefits. But he acknowledges that when ‘bureaucracy’ strikes it can be frustrating for a naturally big-picture person, very comfortable with embracing risk.

“I feel privileged to be doing the work I’m doing,” he reflects. “Milparanga has generated energy, excitement, and a lot of ambition in the group. A lot of my cohort have developed a specific vision to take back to their communities. I now know what I need to do in order to have an impact in my own community and I have a network to tap into to make that happen,” he says.

“The program has given participants permission to feel ok about re-evaluating and refining our focus about where and how we want to make a difference,” he says.

Ollie’s cohort remain actively connected; chatting each week and sharing opportunities with each other.

The energy generated by Milparanga is being further fuelled by the Milparanga Mentoring Program – an initiative of the ARLF to extend the leadership practice of program graduates in which Ollie has been matched with mentor Scott Anderson. Scott is a leader heavily involved in the environmental protection of Mungalla Station in North Queensland.

“Mentoring is a nice way to maintain the momentum and continue growing in my leadership journey. It also places you in a competitive position if you do want to take the next steps into bigger and better challenges,” Ollie says.

“Scott and I have a lot in common in our environmental work with Indigenous Protected Areas, but on a personal level he has had a pretty similar family experience to me in terms of family disconnection with culture.”

And it’s this personal thread that Ollie has identified through Milparanga as a key part of his future leadership vision.

“For my family, the Indigenous side, this part of our history has been quite a taboo topic. We’ve lost a lot of culture and connection to Country. I’m keen to work on that reconnection and support family going forward in maintaining that,” he says.

“I’ve seen over the generations a decline in our connection, and I want to play a role in restoring it. My legacy going forward will be that in multiple generations to come, I will have played my part in bringing about this turning point.”

Ollie Tester 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.

Participants will strengthen their ability to exercise ethical and value-based leadership that demonstrates an understanding of complexity, appreciation of diversity and the future implications of decision-making.