Leanne Liddle speech on overcoming adversity with a focus on poverty among Aboriginal people

Leanne Liddle speech to the NT Women’s Network

Success strategies in the midst of adversity

25 May 2021

Government House, Darwin NT

Thank-you for inviting me to speak this evening.

I too would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on Larrakia Land and welcome leaders, past, present and emerging.

This evening I want you to know that I am here speaking tonight in my capacity as an Aboriginal woman in a leadership position un-connected to my current role in government. The views I express this evening are entirely my own.

When I accepted this invitation with the brief to talk about ‘Success strategies in the midst of adversity’ I wasn’t sure what I would say. But after a while I decided that I would not focus on success on individual terms, instead, I would focus on a deeper understanding of adversity and Aboriginal Territorians.

So as usual, as I researched for tonight’s talk, I found that adversity is defined in many dictionaries as hardship, a challenge or misfortune or a difficult or unfavorable situation. And then all definitions went on to state that adversity ‘happens to everyone’.

No doubt all of us here tonight can recall our own experiences of adversity; where we have struggled, where we have fallen and recaptured our composure, where challenges present themselves in both our personal and professional lives; perhaps you did not get that job that you really wanted, you had a health crisis, or maybe you just couldn’t pay a bill by its due date.

Often, adversity can be described as bad luck which usually leads to short term disappointment. But the definition of adversity that resonated with me in my research was poverty.

Poverty to be defined as adversity is in itself interesting; because poverty doesn’t happen to everyone.

Poverty only happens to those who are marginalized and vulnerable, those who do not have a voice, and those who are denied access to the fundamental resources to exercise choices and their human rights.

Now those who know me well, know that I don’t like to generalise.

But it is highly likely that poverty has been experienced by almost every Aboriginal Territorian, but few non-Aboriginal people.

Poverty is much more than having no savings or assets, and relatively low incomes. Because poverty like trauma is inherited, and it is intergenerational for many Aboriginal families.

And for us as Aboriginal people who experience and survive poverty it does not mean or lead to success. The adversity that I’ve seen is not aligned with the descriptive words in the research that I did: words like,  miracle – strong – resilient – and resourceful.

Instead, adversity for Aboriginal people- is aligned with the words of pain, trauma- grief-shame and embarrassment. And as Aboriginal people who make up 30 per cent of the Territory’s population and growing, we as a cohort have experienced more than our fair share of adversity.

I met such people when I spent three years consulting for the Northern Territory’s first Aboriginal Justice Agreement. People who have faced adversity all their lives- living each and every day in poverty, with the risk and real possibility of death, suicide, assault and incarceration on their and their families doorstep.

Aboriginal people who live in intergenerational poverty, whose children are not attending school, but even if they did, many are highly unlikely to get a ‘real job’ when they leave school.

Those realities – well that’s more than adversity – that’s oppression.

But what I wasn’t prepared for, was the lack of interest, attention and action to address adversity from the wider community.  In fact, I wasn’t aware that, given the level of collective adversity was so severe,  that it would be ignored or dismissed as a characteristic that should be borne by Aboriginal Territorians, as just a matter of  fact;

In my 30 plus years, I have worked in various roles throughout my career, where I have met and worked with many people who write policies and implement programs and enforce legislation that

impacts significantly on Aboriginal people.

I have worked with many people whose clientele is at least 90 per cent Aboriginal, yet many have never ever stayed in an Aboriginal community, most have never ventured outside of their comfort zone, despite their confident defense that their abilities and skills are informed and met in full by reading documents, reports, reviews and legislation, was well as relying on their university qualifications.

Yet the consequences of failed and poorly delivered policies and programs will result in significant harm or grief to us, despite that they are all designed by well-intended, educated, professional people.

People who are deemed to have met all the requirements for their job especially the one that says: ‘an understanding and appreciation of the historical and recent issues that impact on Aboriginal Australians.’

Don’t imagine for one minute that a company like Telstra is unique in its recent failure to deliver a promised service to Aboriginal people and communities. Dozens of service providers profit directly and indirectly from inadequate and failed service delivery.

That’s why the Aboriginal Justice Agreement is committed to Aboriginal communities monitoring and evaluating government and contracted service provision, and the reviewing and redesign of policies to finally make sure they achieve the intended outcomes and ensure they are held accountable to those who should benefit: Aboriginal people.

How is it that companies and others, can dictate policy for a group of people when you have no responsibility or accountability for the end result? Where your job description dictates your need to have

excellent skills and knowledge about Aboriginal people, but it is limited to what you have learnt from the media or your History and Aboriginal Affairs lectures at University – all despite the fact that Aboriginal people is  your only client base yet somehow you still won and you still have that job.

Where your career blooms like the flowers on a Frangipani tree, while the people you are employed to support in their adversity continue to wither, and they can never hold you accountable.

And what comes to mind is if I reversed that? What if Aboriginal people dictated policies and programs for non-Aboriginal people without significant knowledge and experience and Accountability? Well I’m smart enough to know that it just wouldn’t happen.

But what I want to know is how much adversity do Aboriginal people need to be exposed to, to develop strategies to succeed? What has to happen for adversity experienced by Aboriginal

Territorians to enable a shared response based on successful strategies?

Well what I do know is this: That nearly all the adversity that we have experienced as Aboriginal people is controlled by others and so too are the strategies and the resources to implement them.

As too is our ability as Aboriginal people to remove ourselves from adversity while others control the pace and the response that will dictate the length of time that we remain in adversity.

So that’s what makes talking about success strategies in the face of adversity difficult because when we do find those strategies  and present them– too often we that means me- and the Aboriginal women here tonight are met with a response of “she’s too aggressive, she’s too angry, she’s too unrealistic, or she just gives me problems”.

Yes, they are right, sometimes we are those things but so we should be because we need to be if we are to succeed and lead to genuinely address Aboriginal adversity.

Just like the women who talked to us during the Aboriginal Justice Agreement consultations who told us that life was hard for them, the levels of poverty,  the levels of racism, the levels of disadvantage, the levels of abuse but more importantly they told us they did not want that for their grandchildren.

Those women wanted a guarantee, a level of assurance that by telling their stories change would actually happen. But what scares me is that I can’t guarantee that. What scares me is that I will end up being another of those people who had good intentions, who was a nice person, yet I delivered nothing.

If that is my adversity, how can I successfully strategise?

My research indicated that I needed to adopt these four strategies when facing adversity:

One:     Take lessons from every failure and set back

Two:     Venture outside your comfort zone,

Three:   Practice integrity

Four:     Practice self-control.

But will these strategies work for me and more importantly can they work for most Aboriginal Territorians?

I wonder how many lessons of failure do we need to learn? How uncomfortable do we need to be?

How can we practice integrity when we can’t see it in front of us? And how can we practice self-control when we don’t have control over the decisions that deny our autonomy.

This then led me to ask the question- what does success look like for Aboriginal people?

Well success is courage. It’s about conviction. It isn’t about my job title or how impressive my house is.

No, for us, success is more about my actions and the outcomes than material possessions. It means not pandering to the loudest person in the room or adopting a position that reflects the path of least resistance.

For success to be achieved you need to be comfortable when the conversation and the tone is uncomfortable and sometimes it means not moving an inch no matter what the subject matter.

For those of us with positions of responsibility, courage is admitting that you failed and owning that. Courage is about standing out from the crowd- standing up for those less fortunate than ourselves- going against the mainstream.

Courage is to be the voice for those who can’t be heard for those who have no platform to speak. And I have seen this, first hand in a previous career as a Police Officer, when frail small-framed grandmothers walk into a room where there is tension and testosterone and remove children from harm’s way.

That’s courage, that’s success in the face of adversity.

It is shown when, despite decades of disappointment, a community still turns up to tell me and my team what can change in the policies and programs that will result in reduced rates of recidivism, incarceration

and harm to victims and witnesses.

Courage is shown when Aboriginal people and their allies, using whatever words they choose, declare that Aboriginal adversity is not just misfortune but systemic racism inherited from a colonial history.

What this means is that success strategies for Aboriginal Territorians must be framed within an acknowledgement of that past and its implications today.

As individuals, and collectively, as Aboriginal people we have little capacity to transform the system without support from those who inherit privilege and acquire power.  So, when I really responded to the statement of ‘success in the midst of adversity’- what that really means is the need for us, as Aboriginal  people, to make those who are born with success feel uncomfortable so we can feel more comfortable;

or at least able to exercise our basic human rights.

But with this task there is a price to pay. Many will choose not to challenge the status quo. It’s not that they don’t want to instead the challenges that they face every-day are too heavy a burden and too high a price to pay for speaking up and challenging those who stand in their way to be successful.

And then there are those that will try and fail – the ones who are told by others that they cannot possibly succeed because it’s not their role to play.

But then there are a few, courageous people who stand on their morals, their principles, those that refuse to accept the status quo, the ones who will not take the path of least resistance- the ones who

will pay the price for standing up  and speaking up  the ones who will stand outside of the square, where they may be exposed and isolated, where their material success will not be assured.

And I invite the many non-Aboriginal women who are here tonight, standing right before me to stand alongside those courageous women many who are here tonight - to recognise your privilege, and power

and fight as leaders should,  together to enable real transformation of the system and address intergenerational, communal adversity facing Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

So, to conclude: Let me leave you tonight with this take away message. As leaders, as Territorians, as women – it’s time to remind ourselves that adversity is not just misfortune.

It can be systemic and embedded in our structures and processes. It’s not necessarily a single event and it can impact more than just the person who experienced it, it can run across generations.

How much adversity we experience does not predict or guarantee success.  And success is rarely due entirely to one’s own resources and efforts but tracks along lines of privilege, advantage and connections.

Tackling adversity and the results of intergenerational adversity, requires a collective commitment and acceptance that we must all meet the costs in proportion to our capacity.

Failure to recognise and address these realities means that we as Territorians will never be able to succeed and build a society where all of us can hope to succeed in the face of adversity.

I thank you for listening.


Last updated: 22 June 2021

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