“The AILC was a life-changing experience for me. It was the first time that I was able to access a learning opportunity that talked about a range of different issues in Indigenous affairs, but also put me in touch with a number of influential leaders and peers that I would never have accessed otherwise.”

Michelle Deshong was born in Townsville and spent the majority of her life there before moving to Canberra at the age of 18. Six years ago Michelle returned to Townsville, where she currently resides and she has returned to full-time study. She is currently undertaking her PhD in the area of political science, on the political participation of Aboriginal women and solutions for securing representation of indigenous women at all levels, in particular in senior roles such as in federal parliament.

Michelle has been a key part of AILC’s history. She maintained her connection with the AILC beyond the course in her role as Director for 7 years, and she has facilitated workshops and course sessions over the past 10 years of the program in the areas of history, governance, leadership, capacity building and women’s issues. As she has continued to work with the AILC over these past 10 years there are many things that have continued to resonate with her. One, in particular, is the importance of understanding history and the context it provides for where we are today. Equally, governance and the importance of understanding the individual responsibilities of Directors and people in positions of leadership as well as the scope of leadership, differing leadership approaches, and learning to recognise individual differences in approach and best working ability.

Michelle believes the course equipped her with a set of tools and references that she could use both in her personal and professional life. Her participation in the AILC course aided her by raising her awareness of history, current issues and challenges, practical ways of moving forward and in particular how to value leadership at all levels. The course had a strong impact on Michelle by linking her with people she could look to for support and mentoring. The presence of people like Mick Dodson and Russ Taylor was significant in respect of the opportunity to link with people who had achieved great things and as role models.

Michelle believes that this experience was significant for demonstrating to her that making change and having an impact is not restricted to the job you are in. Michelle recognised that there were certain constraints on her, given her role as a public servant, and she shifted her focus to actively working in the community, particularly in Canberra. This work was acknowledged with an award for ACT Aboriginal Person of the Year in 2001, Certificate of Recognition for contribution to Indigenous Community and in 2003 the Certificate of Recognition for services to ACT community.

In a personal context, the course also helped Michelle to better deal with challenges related to being true to self, analysing the kinds of relationships and values that she had, and in learning how to deal with stress, grief and loss.

Michelle is an outstanding leader in her community and in the wider Australian consciousness. She has worked in the senior levels of the federal government as a Senior Advisor in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, has worked on the Heads of Government meeting, and was the National Manager of the Indigenous Services Branch for Centrelink in Canberra. She has previously been on two delegations to the United Nations, work that she will continue to do internationally. In 2010 she was a member of the National Congress for First Australians, and in 2010 attended the UN hearing for the Convention on Elimination and Discrimination against Women with the Australian NGO delegation, through her work with the National Rural Women’s Coalition. Another time, Michelle attended for the Commission on the Status of Women. Since the course she has undertaken a BA with Honours in Political Science where she received the Dean’s list award and University Academic Medal at James Cook University.

Michelle commented that the foremost benefit of the course was the relationships that are made, and that this aspect cannot be underestimated. The course was a critical opportunity to connect with likeminded people trying to achieve similar things. It gave her and the other participants practical tips and solutions to issues as well as access to an education and a conversation that is sometimes overlooked.

 “I made a lot of changes in my personal life as a result of this course and subsequent opportunities. These included re-assessment of relationships, changing jobs, going back to study, and setting some personal goals. It helped to stir a passion in me that has continued many years after completing the course and the friendships have been invaluable.”