Begin as you mean to go on: talking friendship with Leanne Miller + Duré Dara OAM

As told to Ally Oliver-Perham

We’re putting it on the record: Leanne Miller and Duré Dara OAM are impressive operators. A woman of the Dhulanyagen Ulupna Clan, Yorta Yorta nation, Leanne is the Executive Director of Koorie Women Mean Business, and an Inaugural Atlantic Fellow for Social Equity (2017). In company, you quickly notice her enviably direct manner, matched only by fellow Victorian Women’s Trust Board Member, Duré.

Duré is a feminist foodie from way back. She’s also a jazz musician, former restauranteur and social worker, and an integral part of the fabric of the Victorian Women Trust.

Leanne and Duré have worked together for over two decades – and this is how it all began.

Leanne: Koorie Women Mean Business (KWMB) was established by a number of Aboriginal women leaders in government and non-government roles. We’re talking over 30 years ago. At the helm was Jenny Florence, Executive Director of the Victorian Women’s Trust (VWT), and the KWMB project team, which included people like Mary Atkinson, Esme Saunders, Lois Peeler, Olive Walsh, and their first project worker, Julie Peers.

It started through a conversation Julie had with Jenny. She was wearing her hat as part of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Julie had noticed a discrepancy between women and men on issues like loans which were based on male income earnings. So, that drove her to think about Aboriginal women. She started an internal discussion and KWMB received some initial funding from VWT.

I volunteered at the very first outcomes of that consultation that Julie drove, and later, I also volunteered to be one of the facilitators within two of the workshops. I was just a bunny girl, to put it nicely! At the time, I was working full time in a couple of roles at different organisations and I was approached to develop a video and package around Aboriginal women in business for a KWMB project. I said, ‘Yeah, I can do that, but it’s not for me.’ So I stepped back.

Later, I was approached by Aunty Mary Atkinson and Aunty Olive Walsh at a lunch to look at another KWMB project they were thinking of doing, and I was like, ‘Why me? Maybe it’s a fit, maybe it’s not a fit.’ Aboriginal women leaders were working within Federal Government and they could see that women in regional Victoria needed this particular project and that I should learn from it. I thought, ‘Ok, alright. I can see the writing on the wall.’

Around that time, Duré invited me to consider a role that had become vacant on the Victorian Women’s Trust Board. Because KWMB and VWT were in the building, she’d come upstairs and start planting these little seeds. ‘Let’s do a coffee,’ she’d say. I was like, ‘Oh, this woman’s up to something.’ We continued to have coffees for about three months and I finally said, ‘I’ll come and sit in on a meeting.’ Mary Crooks had become VWT Executive Director by that point. She told me, ‘You should come on the Board. You should.’

I had seen the VWT granting committee meetings and I thought they were impressive. That was when I decided to join the Board, with the understanding that I was bringing a different lens.

My first impression of Duré was, ‘oh my god, she’s loud!’ And there’s all this jewellery happening, you know! She was extremely confident and she had the confidence of everyone at the table and I thought, ‘I’d like to do that.’ We’ve worked together for over twenty years now. She’s still bossy, but coming from a different level of energy, I think.

She sets me up for all these little life journeys, and sends me messages after Board meetings saying, ‘As you get older, this is what will happen…’ and I go, ‘I really didn’t want that!’ And she goes, ‘But you need to know.’ And she and Mary sit there and laugh. It’s a bit like a family sometimes when I come to a meeting with Duré and Mary and other Board Members. I think, ‘Wow, I’ve been with this family for a long time.’

Duré’s a great operator. She comes from the old school of thinking sometimes, similar to my Aunties and my grandparents’ generation. I come from a matriarchal clan, so my mother’s line is fully matriarchal; Dhulanyagen Ulupna. My childhood memories are all about driving miles and miles for meetings with all my cousins, my mother and grandmother. My grandmother never drove, so my grandfather would chauffeur. He would be quietly spoken. 

My grandmother and aunties absolutely embrace a lot of the issues surrounding women. In the 70s, there was a national women’s forum in Parliament, and my grandmother had me in tow and my mother and my older sister, and I think three of my aunts were there as well. I remember the moment when the Whitlams came through. They were really tall, and my grandmother appeared really tiny. I watched my aunt – who just passed not long ago – change from the aunt I knew, into the most eloquent, activist, connected woman to have dialogue with the PM. I said to myself, ‘I want that.’

When it comes to the women’s movement today, I think it would be nice not to work in silos. In many ways, gender equality is a common goal, but I think we’ve got to stop and actually give kudos to those who have got the runs on the board and work out how you can support that process. We need to be able to say, ‘this is what we do, and we do it well. Let’s not compete.’ I also want to understand what men feel about their role in gender equality. I think it’s definitely time for conversations to get what we want; we’ve seen that recently with the Uluru Statement From the Heart and the Recognise campaign. So if anything, we should learn from that.

Duré: “I was friends with Marieke Brugman, who was the convenor of the Trust in 1988. She invited me to see the Trust in action and I became a volunteer, helping to make tea and come along to functions. Before long, I was asked to be a Board Member. This was when Jenny Florence was the CEO. I got on very well with her and I loved the way in which she had a relationship with Koorie Women Mean Business. I’d never been on a Board before, but it was very representative.

We were always talking about your mob, my mob, our mob. We talked about everything and asked ourselves, ‘Do we want to do this? Why would we do it this way?’ It encouraged me to believe in my common sense. Back then, there was nothing dedicated to women in the philanthropic space. For the first 10 or so years, we kept saying ‘why women?’,  continuously developing the argument so we could be stronger and clearer about the problems woman and girls face.

When Julie Peers had to move on from the position of Executive Director of Koorie Women Mean Business, the elder women of KWMB actually chose Leanne. I thought it was very, very farsighted of them. It meant that we all had time to grow into our new relationship with this young woman, and what an amazing woman she was. And is.

Leanne has brought to another way of thinking and engineering to the architecture of the Trust. To this day, her directness is a source of inspiration to us on how to live up to the obligation of care for this country and people. It’s a shining example of how to run our business. Even now, before we have a function or before we appoint someone, we talk to Leanne, she can talk to her people. We’ve got a lovely relationship of learning and tugging and being able to consult.

I think Koorie women have given us the strength to believe in a new way of doing things. I don’t know that anyone can have any partnership without actually having a living relationship, you know, a relationship that’s ongoing, where people are side by side. I think that burning bras and marching through the streets has not made much difference. The difference comes from very, very long relationships, consolidated with learning about how to relate to each other. We can’t do this alone and we have to be strategic. Men and women have to work together.

I think that we’ve got to find a way of driving the rage we feel knowing that women are still doing more work, knowing that for 14 year old girls today, equity won’t be achieved in their lifetime. We must reconcile our differences so that men and women can make the change together.

I think that what being in relationships with women of different cultures has taught me is to look at the ways of what we do and question it. I’ve learned to listen and ask the question, knowing that we can negotiate because of our commitment to sharing the experience together. That’s what all relationships have to be.”

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