Researcher Janis Constable is a lifelong listener – whether she’s studying the stories of Traditional Owners in the Great Artesian Basin, paying particular attention to politicians’ language, or consulting with diverse community services as Vacro’s new Strategic HR Projects Consultant. Here, she calls in from home in the Macedon Ranges to tell us more about her background, expertise, and what she hopes to achieve with her work.

 Hi, Janis! Can you tell me a bit more about your background and experience?

 I’ve worked for 20 years in monitoring and evaluation and research work. I’ve always worked in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy, for government and community organisations. I’m a Sydney girl; I went to UNSW, and moved to Melbourne 12 years ago. I studied politics and international relations. It was great. I never wanted to be a politician or anything, but I wanted to understand political systems and the history of politics. I love words, and focused my studies on political rhetoric  – my honours thesis was on political apology giving, motivated by John Howard’s refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generations. When Rudd did deliver an apology to the Stolen Generations, there was a great outpouring of emotion, exemplifying the power of an apology.

That must have been very moving for you personally, as well as professionally – can you tell me more about your connection to Aboriginality?

My father’s Aboriginal – I know my family, and many friends of mine, were touched by the Stolen Generations. I had quite a visceral reaction to that apology. It embodied what I thought when I wrote the thesis years before. When it finally happened, it was such an outlet of emotion. I was working at the Human Rights Commission in Sydney at the time, working on the recommendations of the Bringing Them Home Report – with one of the recommendations being an apology.

My Dad’s family is from the Bathurst area, Wiradjuri country. He wasn’t brought up with much knowledge. He was the second youngest of 13 kids, grew up in Redfern, his mum married a whitefella. He was quite estranged from her growing up. I didn’t have a lot of connection or understanding. I knew we were Aboriginal, but what does that mean? As I got older, I connected with cousins – the children of the older siblings in Dad’s family, and got a better understanding of the family and where they were from. All my professional life I’ve worked in the sector. It’s part of who I am and what I do.

Tell me about your role at Vacro.

I’m working on diversity and inclusion. Vacro wanted to reflect its values and see where it might be able to increase its diversity – that’s not just Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander diversity issues, but looking at: how can we be better at what we do? It’s looking at gaps in service delivery and governance to see how we can strengthen the organisation by being more diverse and inclusive.

That’s everything from drawing upon people with lived experience, working with particular cultural groups in prison, liaising with groups in communities. Vacro actually does a lot of the work without even realising it. So, I’m focusing on what we’re doing well at the moment, and what we can do better.

I feel really lucky to be at Vacro. From afar I’ve always admired the work we’ve done. I have a background in human rights – I spent seven years at the Human Rights Commission. In the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander unit we did a lot of work around criminal justice.

Can you tell me about some of the things you’re starting up in your role?

I’ve established a diversity and inclusion working group from across Vacro, which will get together every month or six weeks. It’s an advisory committee that guides my work. I’m also helping with the implementation of the MARAM family violence framework – looking at how we can embed MARAM across Vacro’s policies. I’m auditing all of our policies and procedures, to ensure inclusive practice, and am starting work on a Reconciliation Action Plan and an LGBTIQA+ Action Plan. I’m having a lot of conversations with different community groups about how they perceive Vacro in their work practices; talking with Trans Victoria and other groups in the community, to get their advice.

What do you hope to achieve with your role?

I hope that in a few years’ time, Vacro will be seen to be an organisation that is really culturally diverse, which values diversity and inclusion, and which has the programs to support a whole range of people within the criminal justice system. We’ll be known for the work we do with African communities, Asian communities, people with disabilities, Aboriginal communities, LGBTIQA+ communities – we’ll be the go-to organisation if people want to understand how various communities in the criminal justice system are treated. I think Vacro’s really well-placed to be that organisation.

What makes you think that?

Other organisations do deliver programs in prisons, but Vacro already has a diversity of services; a really strong underpinning and presence. It’s just a natural progression. I don’t think I’ll have to push very hard to make things happen.

You come to Vacro after a long career as a researcher. What’s a standout project from that time?

My favourite project was working with some CSIRO geoscience researchers to map cultural water values in the Great Artesian Basin – all the way from the top in North Queensland right down to Gunai Kurnai country in Gippsland. We worked with Traditional Owner groups all the way along that basin, listening to their stories about water, and how important water is to culture and spirit stories. It was a two-year project – one of the best things I’ve ever done.

As an Aboriginal researcher, can you share any thoughts on why it’s so important to involve Aboriginal people in research work?

Although I was a lead researcher on that particular project, I felt like I was a sponge; learning the whole time. I let the Traditional Owners guide me in what they wanted to share with me. There are a lot of stories there that they didn’t share with me; that stays with their group, and we have to respect that. Being Aboriginal, I have an innate respect when working with other Aboriginal people. I love learning from Elders, listening to Elders. I’ve missed out in so much not being part of a traditional Aboriginal family or community. But growing up in mainstream culture, I get it from a particular cultural angle – it’s called two-way. I’m able to write in a way that’s accessible to anybody and explain things to people who want to understand.

Finally, what’s something about you that we wouldn’t learn from reading your resume?

I love France. I visit every year, and I plan to retire there. My best friends are winemakers, who live there. One day soon I hope to buy a little place in the south of France and retire there and eat cheese and drink wine.

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