This article appeared in The Cairns Post – 23 January 2021
Cape York Partnership Chief Executive Fiona Jose is determined to build a brighter future for her people – and she has the determination and skills to do it.
When Fiona Jose stepped into Cape York Partnership as chief executive, she had arrived home.
The Cape York Leaders Program graduate had spent years in the government and private sectors honing her business management skills and in 2017 had the chance to sink her teeth into the issues that were tormenting Indigenous communities.
“When I worked for government, private and NFP (not-for-profit) entities I found that when I left these organisations the initiatives and programs that focused on empowering Indigenous Australians fell away,” Ms Jose said.
“I started to really explore why that was and I realised that unless there is structural change and Indigenous people (were) involved in designing policies and programs then nothing would change or be sustainable.”
It was a realisation of a dream that began in 2008.
“When I gathered in 2008 with my people from Cape York as part of the leaders program, it felt like coming home being around people with the same goals and determination to do something meaningful walking alongside our people,” Ms Jose said. “I realised with their support, together we could be lead agents in our lives and the lives of our children.”
In the years since her appointment at CYP, the Indigenous communities in Cape York have grappled with issues that have fermented over decades.
“The Indigenous policy experience since invasion, the footprint of metropolitan policy makers, has been diabolic,” Ms Jose said.
“The level of systemic failure for so long is shameful and intolerable.
“We are the most incarcerated peoples on Earth, endure persistently high unemployment; and the gap is not closing on health and education. Indigenous organisations like the Cape York Partnership are needed to tackle these complex issues confronting our people.”
It continues to be the only Indigenous organisation in Australia dedicated to influencing Indigenous policy with Indigenous people’s perspectives, innovation and agency.
“The organisation has been a disrupter, created debate, and reshaped conversations about us, challenged the status quo, fiercely advocated for change, but at the same time developed and presented solutions. An opportunity to lead this work alongside the people of Cape York has been a dream come true.”
The Cape York Institute, where Ms Jose started with the organisation, is now one of 11 entities in the Cape York Partnership group, including schools, a health and medical clinic, civil construction and landscaping business, employment provider, ancestral language centre and family development hubs.
The latest innovation is an online fresh food social enterprise called Mayi Market, delivering food boxes to Cape York at Cairns prices.
Despite her work to empower communities, Ms Jose prefers not to be pigeonholed as a “role model”.
“Role model is trite,” she said. “I am one of many women – mothers, aunties, grandmothers, daughters, sisters trying our very best to change our world for our children.
“The biggest challenges expressed by women repeatedly is quality education, addiction, mental health and wellbeing, employment opportunities for young people.
“The way forward is systemic change, for governments to step back and support local people to plan and be genuine partners in decisions and investment that affect their people – not Brisbane and Canberra bureaucrats.”
After a year in which Indigenous communities were shaken by riots in Aurukun and left under siege by an invisible pandemic, Ms Jose is positive about the year ahead and hopes to build on the Mayi Market and focus further on job creation.
“In particular creating pathways for students to see an employment future rather than welfare at their next destination – a job guarantee is our policy solution in development.
The way forward to systemic change for governments to step back and support local people”.