Sarah Maddison: Beyond the crisis response

Alumni Front Page Image: 
Sarah Maddison, Sydney Leadership alumnus

Assoc Prof Sarah Maddison, PhD
ARC Future Fellow, UNSW & Sydney Leadership alumnus

MARCH 2014: A senior academic with a background in Indigenous political culture, Australian democracy, social movements and public policy, Sarah had already published several books, including Black Politics: Inside the Complexity of Aboriginal Political Culture, when she participated in our flagship Sydney Leadership program in 2009. 

But after Sydney Leadership, Sarah started thinking and working differently:

“Sydney Leadership helped me to slow down a bit, to approach the question differently, to stop thinking about technical solutions and start thinking about deeper, more creative ways of engaging.

“It was also, importantly, about thinking about non-Indigenous peoples’ responsibility. Where mostly current policy is about demands that Indigenous people change the way they are, live and behave to conform to our expectations, ... [Sydney Leadership] is really challenging those ideas at a deep level—and that’s an essential part of being able to engage effectively in leadership in this area.”

Sarah went on to publish two new books in 2011: Beyond White Guilt—The real challenge for Black-White relations in Australia and Unsettling the Settler State.

Beyond White Guilt was explicitly framed using the leadership model taught by Social Leadership Australia, looking at black:white relations through the lens of an adaptive leadership challenge.

“If Sydney Leadership hadn’t introduced me to it, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take such an innovative approach to thinking about that defining challenge of the nation.”

“Over many years, the way that governments have responded to questions of Indigenous disadvantage has been to throw successive technical ‘solutions’ at ‘the problem’.

“Sydney Leadership asks you to take step back and think and ask, ‘What is my role in this?’ ‘What is the deeper thing going on?’ and ‘How might we address it together?’ It asks non-Indigenous Australians to think about what we can do in that space rather than just about how difficult that space is. It challenges people to educate themselves, to use their critical skills, to push past the discomfort that they feel due to lack of knowledge and engage critically and productively.”

“People feel so discomforted, at a deep personal level, that their tendency is to want to ‘do something’ quickly, urgently. So, for example, the policy language is framed as a ‘crisis’—and the Social Leadership Australia approach points to the fact that this is not helpful. There’s been a crisis response to Indigenous affairs for generations and it’s not been effective.”

Sarah’s second book since Sydney Leadership, Unsettling the Settler State, was an initiative to bring accounts of Indigenous people’s different ways of thinking and working into mainstream awareness.

“My co-editor and I deliberately tried to create a space in which Indigenous governance practitioners—people running or working in community organisations— could tell their stories about how they have consistently found spaces in which they can ‘disrupt’ the ‘settler state’ and do things on their own terms and in their own ways.

“I’m really proud of this little book. We enabled stories to be told that are usually just missing from the mainstream and aren’t valued.”

The result was a book of new stories on a diversity of topics including the importance of Indigenous media, re-creating and reclaiming Indigenous Tasmanian history, accounts of different models of governance in water, resources, and work in the community, including very remote communities, using structures that are completely outside the mainstream. This includes the story described through the painting on the cover of the book, which tells of the wise women, the sisters, who hold the law for the area in which a particular cultural organisation works. The women elders of the area explain that: “They [the sisters] tell us what the right thing to do is and that’s how we make decisions.”

“This is important because ‘the settler state’ likes to believe that it has successfully and completely colonised Indigenous people—but these stories tell us that’s not true and if we continue to operate in that framework we’ll find ourselves continually frustrated in those relationships. Indigenous people are managing their own lives and organisations in ways which are not like traditional liberal western government—but which are successful in their own terms—and these are important new places for starting conversations about ‘successful leadership.’”

’Successful leadership’ doesn’t just mean obvious people… it looks like people holding true to a set of principles that might be completely out of step with the mainstream but are what’s true and real for them.”

The principal area of impact of this work, Sarah, says, is “deep cultural appropriateness”:

“It’s about asking that non-Indigenous people enter into a different kind of conversation about our relationship with Indigenous people and have different kind of expectations of ourselves in those relationships.”

In 2014 Sarah will complete a new book based on her ARC fellowship work. It's a comparative story of reconciliation and conflict transformation in South Africa, Northern Ireland, Guatemala and Australia.

“Australia has a lot to tell the rest of the world,”  says Sarah.

“Australia has a much longer history of assimilation than other countries… once you’ve done the harm, finding ways back is a much longer, deeper, more complex process than anyone seems prepared to acknowledge.

“I see Australia wanting to re-inscribe a moral presence for itself back into the world around the questions of our founding and our origins. It’s a disgraceful, shameful history, so people want to move away from that because it’s so discomforting. The ultimate leadership challenge is to get people to stay in that space so they can have that moral presence in the world.”

Also in 2014 Sarah is beginning a new project, again funded by the ARC, that is exploring ‘Non-Indigenous pathways to reconciliation.’ This project will engage in focus group research with groups of non-Indigenous Australians to learn more about their understanding of reconciliation and how they have come to that understanding, with the hope that this will lead to new strategies to encourage people around the country to connect with this work.

When asked why you should consider working with Social Leadership Australia for leadership on Indigenous ‘problems’, Sarah said:

“Because this style of leadership development is teaching people to break the mould of technical-problem-centred thinking that has proven over generations to fail. And it asks people to think in an adaptive, engaged, deep way about how we might all own our part of the problem and how we might all act to create deep and meaningful change.”


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