Faye McMillan | Ccentric Podcast
Director of the Djirruwang Program at Charles Sturt University
Faye McMillan is the Director of the Djirruwang Program at Charles Sturt University.
- What inspired you to pursue a career in academia?
- You were the first Aboriginal registered pharmacist in Australia, how has this achievement helped shape your career?
- What are the unique challenges you have faced as an aboriginal woman in forging your career?
- What are the rewards and challenges for leading Indigenous engagement within a University?
- Do you think the rollout of telehealth will help provide better healthcare to rural, remote and indigenous communities? If yes – how so?
- We recently conducted a survey of all board chairs across healthcare, universities and research institutes, the majority of whom said there was little indigenous representation on their boards. Do you think there is a way we can start to improve this?
- Who or what has inspired you most in your career?
- What are your top tips for aspiring leaders?
What inspired you to pursue a career in academia?
I don’t think I was actually inspired. It was more of an accident, so I call myself the accidental academic. It was really through my studies to become a pharmacist that put me on that path. To work in academia, you must start by doing something as an undergraduate and working through. But certainly, it wasn’t something that I had thought of. Even though going to university, I really didn’t see it as a job or a career prospect for me moving forward. But I suppose the path had been started and then what opened after that was very different to when I had started my undergrad journey into pharmacy. So accidental academic.
You were the first Aboriginal registered pharmacist in Australia, how has this achievement helped shape your career?
Well, it was a pivotal moment in shaping my career to what it is today. The reason I say the first registered Aboriginal pharmacist in this country is that Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander peoples and First Nations peoples globally had been practising pharmacy for a very long time. It was a distinction between traditional medicines or complementary medicines and the fact that pharmacy is studied in a Western way. When I started to study, it wasn’t known then how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the country had studied pharmacy. So, from the time I started till the time I finished, that’s when questions were being asked will you be the first. An investigation, not by myself, but certainly by others did bring to light that I was going to be the first pharmacist who is Aboriginal to become a registered pharmacist in this country. As I said, it started that accidental academic journey. Being the first, there was the recognition that we actually do need to have more Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples teaching into the health disciplines. Even in my pharmacy journey, the subject on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was taught by Maori academic, which highlighted the need. That started a path of is this something you’re potentially interested in, and it wasn’t, but it was something that I was keen to look to see whether it fit with me. Happy to say it has, but it’s not been an easy journey. But it’s certainly been the catalyst in my career in academia.
But I still work as a community pharmacist. I still practise my skills and craft because I do think it’s important to maintain that relevancy and that connection to teaching from an authentic place. I can’t do that if I’m at an arm’s distance. It really has created that, but also whether I wanted to or not, became a role model or poster girl for what could be imagined can become reality. That also was a struggle, it was a challenge because I’d started to study as a career for myself, recognising what I could see the contribution of pharmacy was to communities. I’d started work in my hometown of Trangie as a pharmacy assistant, it was in those years of going through the vet sector to get dispensary assistant qualifications, that I could actually really see that being a pharmacist could be a very pivotal role. Particularly in rural and remote communities across Australia, where access to other health professionals isn’t as easy. That’s what drew me to it and to be in service of others, I think, when you look at many people in health industries, most of them start out with the desire to be in service to others. That was what started it and so it was very much an individual decision, but as it progressed, it actually became a lot more than just myself. There were other people who had an investment in me being successful and creating those future opportunities to try and attract more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples into pharmacy. That’s a challenge too. It’s the path that the first step was taken on. I’ve welcomed those challenges and it’s contributed to who I am today. Whilst that was a few decades ago, I can still talk to that fear and anxiety of being a minority in a large group, from several different reasons. But challenges are there and what we do with them, is the judgment of others and how we bring them about. But I think I’ve risen to those challenges and at the end of the day, I’m quite happy to look in the mirror and say, I’ve done what I can.
What are the unique challenges you have faced as an aboriginal woman in forging your career?
It is complex. In August, the university celebrates Bluestocking Week, which is the recognition of women in the early 19th century moving into the academic environment. When you look around the globe, the employment of many women into academic environments really was still ground-breaking. Recognising that women do still face challenges in the academic environment is a really critical factor. But then there’s also being an Aboriginal woman that creates another set. The Black Lives Matter movement now is really that focal point of systemic institutionalised racism. How that is pervasive in our institutions and how it can be borne out. You’ve got the gamut of those that are out and out racist, they are probably the easier ones to challenge. Racism is still a very big issue facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within the academy and the representation. Most large organisations such as universities do have an indigenous employment strategy, it’s seeking to have parity with the community in which it’s represented. that’s around three per cent and many universities are struggling with that academic contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It sits around that one per cent of the overall academic population as being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and it’s not good enough. We need to do more to provide the opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as they come into university to see academia as a genuine career prospect. But also, more than that, that their value and contribution will be acknowledged and how that happens. Apart from whatever degree they study, they bring that skillset, but they also then bring their skill set of lived experiences, which changes the lens in which the universities see themselves. But also, the lens in which others see looking into the university with regards to respect of equity and respect for inclusion and the opportunity to create diversity within their workplace. They’re real things that are still very much a challenge.
The rewards are definitely there. Graduation day for me is one of those moments in time that I like to hold dear. Unfortunately, this year COVID will put paid time to that physical connection, that visceral connection to graduation ceremonies. But when you get to see other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on their graduation day in the pride that they have in their achievements to witness their family’s pride, the community’s pride, you know, that’s the reward. That’s the ultimate feeling, that many academics hold to be the true reward for being part of this environment. Watching how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people define their own success is another reward. That may mean that they start university, they might not finish, but for some, that’s enough. We need to stop defining success as being only this one level of achievement. That’s the reward is when I do also hear that people have been able to forge their own paths and it’s taken many different shapes and forms. I think that opportunity to say I’ve been successful is one of those great rewards.
The other two is being in the true academic environment, which is being able to challenge and have some of those hard conversations, that is a real gift. It also means that it’s two faces to the coin. It’s a reward, but it’s also a challenge. It’s one of those things that I often speak about, brain acquired head injury, of repeatedly having difficult conversations. It’s that constant battle of beating your head against some things that are immovable. The statements such as the behaviour you walk past is the behaviour you accept, is something that I hold very true. I won’t walk past behaviours or comments. How I address them will be new ones to each environment. Sometimes it’s a very public stoush with regards to unchallenged as to why you think that. Sometimes it needs to be a very private conversation. That is where I see the challenges and rewards of being in this space are immense on both sides and it’s finding that balance.
What are the rewards and challenges for leading Indigenous engagement within a University?
I think the engagement part is the telling of any institution’s ability to lead in spaces. You have to have authentic engagement. It has to be meaningful; it can’t be that skim the surface of we consulted, which might mean we spoke to two people. Because that’s the beauty of when you are in any relationship, I think that’s where I’d like to see it move beyond just the term of engagement. That universities are in true relationships with the communities in which they have physical presences, but also the communities in which they serve. When students become part of the alumni of these institutions, we actually need to lead better. Often that leadership is not where people perceive it to be. It’s not your vice-chancellors, it’s not in those positions because from a student and community perspective, they’re often not the people that they do see.
The leadership needs to be from all areas, leading doesn’t mean being out the front. It means having people willing to come on a journey with you. That can often mean the academics that are responsible for the delivery of subjects, it will mean the engagement with professional staff. There I think the true leaders in our relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, but also in relationships to internal to our university communities, that often middle management are the places where we can achieve the greatest runs. It’s easy and nice to hear our vice-chancellors across institutions talking about reciprocity and being in relationships, but if that message isn’t being felt, seen and heard across the day to day, then it’s rhetoric and it then becomes a very difficult pill for people to swallow. Because they’re the big boss says this is so doesn’t mean that this is. They’re the bits that we need to do better with regards to leading in this space and looking at changing engagement to being in genuine and authentic relationships.
Do you think the rollout of telehealth will help provide better healthcare to rural, remote and indigenous communities? If yes – how so?
I think COVID has actually presented us with an opportunity to look at how we do this much better, the narrative we put behind telehealth and the value proposition that it can have for rural, regional and remote communities and the peoples that choose to be in those communities. Because it’s not just a lifestyle choice for many, it is truly a livelihood, it’s those connections to country. It’s those moments of saying, we actually need people in all parts of this country to be contributing to our economy in meaningful ways and in many rural, regional and remote communities. That’s different to how it looks in urban communities. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean there’s not value. I do think the rollout of telehealth, particularly in this environment, has meant that the strength of what telehealth can bring are being looked at and used, as opposed to what are some of the barriers to telehealth. There are still barriers to telehealth that we do need to overcome as a nation, particularly for remote communities, with regards to access to creating those links, using telehealth or e-health. It’s a great tool, but often if you don’t have the padlock to the toolbox, it’s something that you can’t use. There’s the flip side, but I do believe that it genuinely can have very positive impacts for our communities and how we use it. Not how we use it from a health service perspective, but how consumers and clients and patients use it. That’s the critical part, is getting that usability right from their end to be able to plug into the system.
We recently conducted a survey of all board chairs across healthcare, universities and research institutes, the majority of whom said there was little indigenous representation on their boards. Do you think there is a way we can start to improve this?
I do, again this is a really complex environment because boards are there for multiple purposes. Understanding what is the role of a board director is really critical in understanding the expectations of the individual. Having said that, often boards are a skills-based board and aren’t looking for representation. It’s looking at a skills matrix of, all the skills of the directors and what they bring to the organisation’s ability to deliver on its vision and its purpose. But I do think we have opportunities to give more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples learning to provide that space where positions do become available.
In the last few years, we’ve actually seen some organisations go down the route of changing their constitution with regards to their board’s makeup and including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as an essential part of their board. But again, it comes down to more community-driven. When you’re talking about the ASX companies and large institutions such as health care providers, universities and research institutes, it’s a very difficult space for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to get into. The flipside to that is that there are so few people that possess the skills and knowledge in those very specific areas that would also allow them to walk away and feel that they have had significant contribution rather than just a tokenistic approach to having people on the board. It’s not a one size fits all, which I think goes back to what we frequently say to governments that are ultimately responsible for the funding of these boards, that we can assume homogeneity exists because what we know is it doesn’t. Whilst there may be similarities that can be drawn upon, we still need to be nuanced, to be responding to the needs of those people who the services are done or are put forward.
The other part is the recognition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do bring, not just their skill set of being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, and that’s where on boards where the skills matrixes is an important part, it actually becomes another tool in their repertoire to sit alongside the others. If I use my own example of sitting on the Murrumbidgee Local Health District Board, that’s a state-based board and state-run. But there are very specific things that happen in the Murrumbidgee LHD, that wouldn’t happen in the Sydney LHD. My appointment, there was a recognition of my clinical skills as a pharmacist. It was the recognition of my skills, having been on previous boards, but also as an Aboriginal person, but also as a consumer of those services who is Aboriginal as well. It’s a multifaceted approach to board appointments that I do think really needs to be considered to ensure that the representation there is truly reflective of the people in which those boards are meant to be in service to.
Who or what has inspired you most in your career?
There’s a number of different people and spaces. There’s obviously the personal, you know, the amazing women that I’ve had the privilege of growing up within my life, like my grandmother, my mother. My siblings are all amazing people who I admire outside of being my sibling, as individual people.
But then there’s also people inside these spaces that, you look towards as If I can be similar, not the same, but some of the traits that you see in aspirational role models that you got, OK, what is it about then that I am inspired by. Often, it’s kindness, their humanistic approach. I think of Mark Burton, who was the dean of the faculty at Charles Sturt when I came to study pharmacy, his approach to genuine opportunities and how are they given. There are too many to mention professionally, but I think the ones that really do sustain me on a day to day basis are those personal inspirations. They’re not easily measured, but they are certainly truly valued.
What are your top tips for aspiring leaders?
Believe in yourself. Surround yourself with those that you know, have your best interests at heart. That your success isn’t going to frighten them and try and change your trajectory. Know the people around you and put those systems in place. Know your own value proposition too. I suppose one of the things over the last five to ten years that I really learned is, what’s your elevator pitch. What’s your two-minute pitch that if you were able to stand in an elevator with one person that you think could truly contribute to your journey, what would that sound like and practice it.
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