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Ruby of the Month: Andrea Mason

07 May 2013

Andrea Mason is a passionate believer in the value and work of the NPY Women’s Council. She is not the only one. There are many other converts in public and private life, government and non-government roles, and, of course, every one who works at Women’s Council.

For 32 years the Directors at NPY Women’s Council – mothers, grandmothers, daughters, wives – have set the course and strategy, working quietly and effectively to improve the lives of Aboriginal people across two states and one territory in central Australia.

And they have done this by applying these three principles to what ever they do, says NPY Women’s Council Patron Professor Marcia Langton, the chair of Australian indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne:

They “preserve and protect the life affirming values of Aboriginal society and women’s law and culture.”

They “engage young men and women in opportunities that raise their ambition for higher expectations such educational attainment on and off the Lands, promotion of young people’s aspirations and opportunities to shine, youth leadership and employment.”

And, they “support and provide assistance to individuals and families that empowers them to rise above the social profile that society has said is their future because of who they are, where they were born and where they live.”

For four years, come this August, Andrea has been Women’s Council’s Co-ordinator and has helped support the Council steering this path.

With a first degree in Aboriginal Affairs and Public Administration and second in Law, Andrea has spent her working life creating connections, and communication paths between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

“In my mid-twenties I used to run workshops for non-indigenous managers who may have to train indigenous workers or come into contact with indigenous workers,” begins Andrea.

“It was about supporting those managers to be able to work with indigenous workers and to have those workers transition to the workplace successfully. I’d divide the room into groups and have these Sale of The Century style warm up quizzes to break the ice and start everyone thinking. There’d be questions worth 10 points each around indigenous people in popular culture, sport, politics. The final question worth 100 points could bring any team back from the dead if they were behind.

“Team members had to be able to name five indigenous people with whom they had a personal relationship,” Andrea says, pausing.

“They could club together,” she finishes.

The point of the exercise, says Andrea, was to illustrate the importance of relationships to Aboriginal people and relationship building.

“For Aboriginal people the core value is about ‘being’,” explains Andrea.

“For most non-indigenous people in the workplace it’s about ‘doing’,” she continues.

“The ‘you need to be doing this’, ‘you should be doing that’, ‘what are you doing now and why aren’t you doing that’ style of thought is not something indigenous people are familiar with,” she says, going on to explain that if the whole process of transition to workplace is to be a success for non-indigenous managers working with and training indigenous people then understanding the importance of ‘being’, building and having a relationship, is paramount to that success.

Once ‘being’ is established, Andrea says, you are then able to work toward why they would ‘do’ something with or for you.

In Melbourne, alongside Women’s Council staff members and a number of its Directors, Andrea is building relationships and so getting the word out on NPY Women’s Council about what it does and how it does it.

Surrounded by corporate Australia and national leaders, it was a privilege to glimpse how these women work and to see the formula behind the award winning organisation’s success: it’s equal parts ‘cultural authority’ to drive, persistence and passion.

The NPY Women’s Council’s story is one of success and achievement won from hard fought battles, heartache and loss. Battle stories that can make the hair on the back of your neck rise in awe at the courage and conviction of the grandmothers, mothers, daughters working to benefit the individuals, families and communities in which they live.

And the rule of thumb for the Women’s Council in any advocacy campaign from minimising the risk of Domestic Violence to reducing the effects of kidney disease is the success of their advocacy campaign around petrol sniffing.

Of the 6000 people living in the region 50 percent are under the age of 25. Petrol sniffing was destroying that population. In 2005 after more than 10 years of advocacy by NPY Women’s Council as well as talking with government and producers, Opal fuel was introduced. The low-aromatic fuel costs more to produce, which is subsidised by the Federal Government, and is saving millions in health costs and family and individual devastation.

According to Liza Balmer, NPY Women’s Council’s Deputy Co-ordinator: “It’s about removing the substance, stopping supply, to give young people the space to see the alternatives, and us the space to provide the counseling, the health work and education these kids need to explore those positive alternatives.”

As Women’s Council’s story slowly unfolds, picking up momentum as it goes, Andrea’s role has been to facilitate that momentum using every opportunity. Through the support of its outspoken and feisty Patron, Professor Marcia Langton, as well as through such eye-catching initiatives as its Tjanpi Desert Weavers social enterprise, she has done that.

Tjanpi has been called the “happy face” of Women’s Council.

Begun in 1995 Tjanpi Desert Weavers provides a means for community members, especially those who wish to stay living “on country”, to address unemployment and lack of job opportunities and career pathways in the 26 remote NPY communities located in a vast geographical area covering the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia.

The “arts based social enterprise” aim is to empower women in the NPY region through the provision of meaningful and culturally appropriate employment in their homelands. Women create intricate artworks out of 'tjanpi' (desert grass), which are sold by the artists to galleries and wholesalers.

The pieces created over the years have been award winning and are highly collectable. There are about 400 women working in the medium across the communities, producing around 3000 pieces a year, including baskets, animal sculptures and beads.

Group trips to country to collect grasses, visit cultural sites, perform 'inma' (traditional dances) and collect bush tucker and medicine, contribute to the artists' and their communities’ well-being. Children accompany their mothers, aunts and grandmothers on the trips, providing invaluable opportunities for traditional knowledge to be transmitted, language and culture to be maintained and the strengthening of cross-generational activity and communication.

The other face of Women’s Council work, which revolves primarily around advocacy, provides mentoring for people in the communities and community leaders to speak up, speak out and be heard.

According to Liza, who has been with the organisation for 17 years, “Women’s Council doesn’t just talk. It also delivers.”

Among the vast range of activities it undertakes, Women’s Council delivers counseling and support services for domestic violence victims, youth work, health services and initiatives, aged and disability care services. It does this across an area the size of Germany (350,000sq kilometres) to its 6000 people in 26 communities.

Through its own means as well as through ethical and collaborative partnerships, Women’s Council’s aim is to protect two core values that it knows from experience are intrinsic to its continued success improving the lives of individuals, families and community in the western and central desert regions of Central Australia. Firstly: it protects the place and authority of NPY women, their law and culture, and secondly, it protects the important role of women in the region to their families and communities.

The success of Women’s Council can never be underestimated, believes Andrea.

They have proved the value and importance of working with the authority naturally invested in and held by the elders and leaders of the Aboriginal community.

“The problem is that without greater investment towards the future to increase the number of people, especially young women and men, receiving adequate education and employment possibilities we cannot create the leaders of the future. The consequences of poor education and unemployment will undermine the achievements of Women’s Council and others, including government, who have invested in the communities,” says Andrea.

“Our young women’s conference needs funding and a conference we want to start for young men also needs resourcing. We see these initiatives as the ‘clearing houses’ for this sort of change. If we can get our young people the space to see the alternatives, to experience the power of positive choices through better education outcomes and employment opportunities, then we will get the leaders with the capabilities to live confidently in both cultures – traditional and modern Australia,” she finishes.

No matter your political persuasion everyone agrees, NPY Women’s Council’s work, its cultural authority, ongoing strategic planning and initiatives, must continue not just for another 32 years but for as long as it takes to create strong healthy families, lives and leaders in Aboriginal communities in Central, South and Western Australia.

Westpac and the NPY Women’s Council
The Westpac Foundation provided a substantial grant to Tjanpi Desert Weavers in 2010 to support the development of local and national sales and marketing strategies and their implementation, and the employment, professional development and training of sales, marketing and Indigenous staff.

The grant has been delivered over three years and has helped build Tjanpi's capacity to effectively use the media, to better promote its work and processes, and expand its audience and diverse product and customer base. The grant also supports research and development of new income streams to build the economic stability of Tjanpi Desert Weavers, and increase the financial returns, well-being and artistic opportunities for the artists.

"It has been wonderful to secure funding from the Westpac Foundation as we have a greater capacity to ensure we are a sustainable social enterprise activity of NPY Women's Council, share with the wider Australian community the activities and achievements of Tjanpi and extend our benefits deeper and wider across the NPY Lands," says Michelle Young, Manager of Tjanpi Desert Weavers.

For more on Tjanpi Desert Weavers




  • Sina Summers

    Sina Summers 7 years ago

    Very inspiring! I have worked with groups of Indigenous women running leadership programs that ignite positive change. I have produced a documentary tracking their stories of success. They are an inspiration. If I can add some value, I would love to assist the woman, young and mature age, within the NPY area. Im sure I could learn much from them too.

  • Vicki Sauvage

    Vicki Sauvage 7 years ago

    Thank you sooo much for this inspiring story and the back story to the Women's council. On the weekend I was privileged to hear Yorta Yorta woman Robynne Nelson speak and it too inspired and awed me. Thank God these people are caring for us and this land we call Australia.