ANZSOG alumni profile Chris Sarra: celebrating Indigenous strengths and changing how governments work with First Nations
8 November 2022● News and media
Since ANZSOG was founded in 2002, thousands of public servants have benefited from our programs and courses. Many have gone on to senior and highly influential positions in public services across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. To celebrate ANZSOG’s 20 years of working with our owner governments to strengthen the quality of public sector leadership in Australia, this series of profiles looks at the achievement of our alumni, why they chose the public sector as a career, their views on how to lead and the importance of having a high-quality values-driven public service.
From a ground-breaking primary school principal to an adviser on Indigenous Affairs with the ear of a Prime Minister, ANZSOG alum Chris Sarra has come a long way and brought his core values of compassion, courage and commitment with him.
Dr Sarra is now the director-general of the Queensland Department of Seniors, Disability Services and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, driving new ways for governments to build partnerships and ‘do things with Indigenous communities, not to them’.
It’s been a long journey for someone who started his life on the receiving end of government policy and felt first-hand the racism and low expectations government agencies had for Aboriginal people.
Dr Sarra is a Gurang Gurang/Taribelang man, who grew up as the youngest of ten children in the Queensland town of Bundaberg to an Italian father and Aboriginal mother. He says that ‘we were financially poor, but ‘culturally and spiritually we felt very rich’ and that the key moment that changed his outlook on life was ‘a revelation I had at 17 that I had been sold short by the school system’.
“I realised that the system had led me to believe that I was something lesser than I was, probably because I was a young Aboriginal kid from a lower-class part of town. That’s really the key moment, the key thing that has motivated me and made me determined to change the system so that the people who work in the system can see the things they need to see.”
“If we let them, the systems around us will take a lesser view of who we are as Aboriginal men and women, but that’s not necessarily an authentic and true perspective on who we are. Our most authentic perspective on who we are comes from knowing we carry the blood of the first Australians and that we are from a highly sophisticated and agile people who are incredibly resilient and that is something special.
Throughout his career Dr Sarra has taken a strengths-based approach to his work in Indigenous policy. He became the first Aboriginal principal at Cherbourg State School in 1998 and oversaw a rapid improvement in the school’s outcomes based on his ‘strong and smart’ philosophy and a positive sense of Aboriginal cultural identity. He then turned this philosophy into the Stronger Smarter Institute which works with schools and leaders to spread the approach across Australia.
“This was at a time when pretty much nobody believed Aboriginal kids could be strong and smart, with everyone wanting to explain why they were so far behind. It gets back to my experience that I was sold short by the school and that was driving my work at the school because I know that if we expected more from the kids we would get more. Attendance went from 62 per cent to 94 per cent without touching anybody’s welfare payment.”
“What we were doing resonated with hardworking teachers and educators because it showed the good people in the system, who were sick of explaining why Aboriginal kids were so far behind, that they could have their belief in Aboriginal kids validated. It licenced them to go harder and have higher expectations, rather than just hearing ‘don’t get ahead of yourself, or ‘this is not what we do here’.
Building a new relationship between governments and First Nations
As head of the Department of Seniors, Disability Services, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, Dr Sarra is now working to achieve that change in practice by building a reframed relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the Queensland Government, with the goal of lifting social and economic wellbeing.
“’Doing things with us not to us’ includes voices at local levels for service delivery and design and a voice at higher levels for more effective policy design and service delivery. It’s about building those high-quality strengths-based relationships and demonstrating how things can be done differently,” he said.
“It’s important for us to come at Indigenous policy with a strengths-based approach because anything less than that means we are all diminished. It means that we don’t get to see and experience the gift of walking amongst exceptional Aboriginal people and the gift we have to offer.
“We all see the billions of dollars that are spent, hopefully we understand that the relationship has been contaminated by deficit-based thinking, the thinking that Aboriginal people are broken and need to be fixed, instead we need to have a strengths-based approach, and do things with us, not to us.
As co-chair of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Indigenous Advisory Council, a position he left in 2018, he was able to inject that thinking into debate at the highest levels of government.
“I was able to introduce a new kind of strength-based vernacular to the Indigenous policy landscape – and that was ‘doing things with us, not to us”. I think it was really significant that the PM was saying that, and that he understood it, because that meant other senior officials and politicians needed to understand that. It did thrust us into a strengths-based approach, as opposed to other leadership that was taking into another place that was ‘boot the victim’ – through things like the Basics Card, and other things that were punitive and reflected a deficit approach.”
Dr Sarra said that throughout his career he had been a values-based leader and used the expression of values to show people what behaviours were expected, and which were not expected. He said that as well as being authentic and compassionate, leaders needed to have the commitment to lead for everyone and the courage to call out bad behaviour and work for change.
He said he had not consciously planned his career but had always tried to be strategic about how he could be most influential in the education space.
“What I understood is that the only way to show people what should be done is to get in and do it. I could explain all I liked, and I was well-credentialled in terms of the theory, but I had to jump into the driver’s seat as a school principal and start doing what I’d been talking about,” he said.
“Coincidentally, it’s also how I ended up in the Director-General job at DATSIP. I would be talking about “doing things with us not to us” and a lot of senior people would say ‘OK, what does this look like?’. There was a little bit of déjà vu, here I was again trying to explain it to people, so I thought it was better to try and do what I’m talking about, and you can watch on and learn from it.”
“So, I’d never really plotted a course to get here. It kind of just came up. But I’ve also felt in this role, like I felt in Cherbourg, that the universe had me where I needed to be.”
Rebuilding the public service’s confidence
Dr Sarra said that the public service had lost confidence in itself, despite the high ability of people working within it, and needed to ‘find its mojo’ again and become a provider of policy solutions
“There are a lot of exceptionally hard-working people in the public service who are unfairly stigmatised, sometimes for good reason, but often for not good reasons. There are a lot of decent folks working extremely hard who want to make a difference but are not getting the right kind of guidance.”
“I think that has stifled confidence in ourselves as public servants and as policy thinkers. We are kind of contracting out all the policy thinking to outside consultants and this kind of vacuum of indigenous leadership emerged. What I’m trying to do is get my colleagues to back themselves, have that confidence in their intellectual capacity and rigour and have the ability to do the thinking that’s required to contemplate policy solutions to really complex issues.”
“The work that ANZSOG does with public services is superb in this regard. The EMPA helped me stretch my thinking and give me some confidence, about being able to work in that broader policy space. My most profound learning from the EMPA is that ‘policy is policy’, and it was quite emancipating to realise that I could bring more to the public service and the world than just First Nations policy experience, I loved coming to that realisation and getting a sense of confidence from that.”
“We also have to make time to stop and reflect on the notion of what it means to serve, more specifically to think about the things our various departments are responsible. For example, DATSIP also has the seniors and disability functions, including supported living for people with complex disability needs. The question for me when I visit these places is would I accept this for my own nephew or cousin or son? We need to be prepared to ask ‘would we accept this for our own family, and be prepared to do what needs to be done if the answer is no.”
For non-Indigenous people in the public service who want to learn more about First Nations people and policy, Dr Sarra has a simple idea: reach out and connect.
“Make that connection through humanity and friendship and let that be the starting place of the relationship. It doesn’t hurt to read as many books as you can on First Nations, watch First Nations documentaries but nothing replaces the magic and the profound learning that comes from letting our humanity connect, and learning what needs to be learned, making mistakes along the way, being connected in a way that positive and letting our relationships evolve over time.”
He says that his goal for his children and grandchildren is for them to grow up in a society that valued Aboriginality and its contribution to Australian identity.
“I want it to be a high expectations relationship. I would want them to be in a nation and community that embraces their sense of culture and identity for the gift that it truly is, which allows them to truly thrive rather than be something that stifles their humanity, and I think we can get there, I really do.”
Chris Sarra will be a speaker at ANZSOG’s upcoming Indigenous Public Administration Conference First Peoples to All Peoples in Brisbane from 1-3 March 2023, for more information on the conference visit the conference webpage.
Find out more about ANZSOG’s Foundation Programs
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