Their Stories

Standing tall, dreaming big

10 April 2018

Cory Paulson shares his experiences of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leaders Program (NATSILP) which he graduated from last year. The program has been renamed Milparanga this year and applications are currently open.

Cory grew up as one of the few Indigenous people in his small community near Taree, New South Wales. While his cultural upbringing was influenced heavily by his European mother’s side, both parents gave him an example of leadership and self-belief.

“Mum and dad really gave us the upbringing of ‘you stand on your own two feet, and you’re Cory Paulson first and foremost’. They said if white people put you into a box by saying anything derogatory, or on the flip side, when anyone would look at us and say we were the uptown niggers or the coconuts, you know. If they want to stereotype you like that, that is their problem, not yours.”

As a child, Cory watched his uncles, aunts and grandparents on both sides of his family take on key roles in the community.

“They gave me a lot of guidance and lead by example,” Cory says.

“I was the captain of my primary school. I represented my town for sport; rugby league and basketball. I was always in some way or form part of a leadership role.”

Yet as he reached adulthood, practicalities took over and Cory threw himself into the workforce, starting as a labourer and building up qualifications.

Moving to Broken Hill in far west New South Wales, Cory started working with Murdi Paaki Regional Housing.

“Once I started in that role, it opened my eyes to some of the Aboriginal issues in housing. These issues give me the aspiration to better myself and my family so that I can empower others around me.” Cory explains.

So when an email arrived describing a pilot leadership program – the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leaders Program (NATSILP), supported by the Australian Government and delivered by the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation (ARLF) – Cory jumped right in.

“I applied for NATSILP because I thought if they accept me, I’ll go in and see what it’s like. In the end, the outcome was unreal,” he says.

“The program has given me direction, understanding and knowledge. It’s also given me a stronger indication of where I want to go in the future.”

Cory took part in the two-session NATSILP in 2017, experiencing session one in Shepparton, Victoria and session two in Canberra.

Now in 2018, and Cory is a few weeks into his new role as CEO of the Broken Hill Local Aboriginal Land Council, one of 120 such councils in NSW.

Currently, he is familiarising himself with legislation that provides the NSW Aboriginal Land Council with its mandate, and more generally with the state, regional and local levels of governance.

“From this position I can help implement change through how we look at our land, how we can secure more of our land and how culture can be taught on those lands,” Cory says.

Cory says NATSILP was a key part of his willingness to step up to a new challenge.

“What I loved about NATSILP was meeting lots of people from different backgrounds and actually sitting back in awe of the ages and differences within the group. For me, coming in there and sitting round the table with a guy that’s chair of the biggest native title claim in WA; one of the coordinators of SNAICC; a lady with a PhD – inspirational people … I looked within myself and said well, what are you doing here?” Cory says.

“But all that just helped me come to the realization it’s not about the title you’ve got, it’s about what’s within. That’s what Scotty [facilitator Scott Gorringe] is really good at. All the people that accompanied us through that journey helped us acknowledge our weaknesses and add to our strengths.”

Cory explains that finishing the NATSILP in Canberra was an important conclusion.

“The nation’s capital is where the decision makers for our people shaped some of those strong policies that we’ve got today, and it’s also where some of the weak decisions that aren’t right have been made. They shape our past, present and future. It provided that extra dimension,” he says.

“It also showed how you can lead within your community without even going into politics and going into these huge roles. You can lead just by doing the work and shining for your mob. I met some of the great leaders we have today: Linda Burney, Senator Dodson and alumni like Waverley Stanley, and Leann Wilson (ARLF Fellow – Course 8). They all took the time to give us that little bit extra.”

NATSILP’s central premise is to provide a way for participants to walk in the footsteps of remarkable Indigenous leaders.

“It’s given me some essential ownership of how I need to lead day to day, and into the future,” Cory says. “They give us those tools and hopefully we can do them justice out there in our communities.”

The leader’s main challenge, he says, is turning his vision into achievable steps.

“I’m sort of a dreamer,” Cory laughs.

“Long term, I hope to see Indigenous culture becoming stronger and in a space where it can flourish again without boundaries. If I can start a men’s group out here in Broken Hill, and then turn that into a regional men’s group where I can pull together groups from all the regional epicentres in Far West NSW, then my next step would be to create a cross-cultural exchange between our mobs on the east coast and in the outback.

“I’d collect the data in regards to how it’s strengthened our culture – how the river, you know, the muddy water people and the salt water people – have taught each other their ways. That sort of cultural exchange would really help our people grow from within. That’s the key – not going to the books or to European knowledge of our culture, actually saying let’s see what we can do ourselves.”

NATSILP will also play a part in Cory’s big dreams for his community.

“I’m going to be asking everyone who comes through my door to do it, and I’ll be there to support and mentor them. What they did well in the program was challenge us. And it is a challenge to step out of your comfort zone and put your hand up to actually say well heck, I’m going to stand out here and stand tall and say ‘who is with me?’”

More information

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