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Michelle Cheah - Special Project Adviser, Koori Courts, Melbourne Magistrates Court and Founder, iengage

Michelle Cheah
'I get to combine my love of travel with developing my professional skills and also feeling rewarded contributing to a community, so for me that's a pretty great job.'

Returned Australian Youth Ambassador for Development Michelle managed to combine her interest in sport and international development and turn these interests into a job. Her career in community development has spanned the globe, but, for the moment, Michelle is focusing on social issues that crop up in her own backyard.



What is community development?

I guess my definition of community development is the process of working with local people in a community to help them achieve aims that they identify. I think it's really presumptuous for people to assume that we can go into a different community and 'fix' things. One thing I learned quickly in community development is that when you go to another country, you learn just as much from the local people you work with there as they learn from you. That skills sharing is a really important part of community development, and I couldn't have been as effective if I hadn't taken time to learn about the specific community history, structures, and issues, as well as generally about the culture, language and, my favourite part, the food!

What qualifications do you have?

My formal qualifications are in Law and Commerce, but I've also completed mediation training, got my first aid certificate, and I've always enjoyed being involved with lots of extracurricular activities like volunteering and youth leadership. There's not a specific skill set that is required for community development as there are projects in a whole range of fields. The jobs I have taken on have combined my education and experiences in ways I'd never thought to have used them!

What does your job involve?

As a special projects adviser for the Koori Courts, I liaise between the Victorian Government, the Judiciary and the Indigenous communities in Victoria to develop policies and supports to improve the criminal justice outcomes for Indigenous defendants.

Why did you choose to work in the Koori Courts?

My job has offered an opportunity for me to combine my legal qualifications with my community development experience that I gained as an AYAD and volunteering for other organisations. Even though I'm back in Australia, I still wanted to contribute to communities, I feel like I'm doing that now – just in a different forum. I think this is a great time in Australia at the moment; there's been greater recognition and acceptance of the plight of our Indigneous people recently, so it's exciting to be working in an area where there's been significant progress in improving the system and contribute to making the process fairer and better for Koori communities.

Do you have a good work-life balance?

I think I have a wonderful work-life balance as a development worker. I get to combine my love of travel with developing my professional skills and also feeling rewarded by contributing to a community, so for me that's a pretty great job. And when you enjoy what you do, even when it's really challenging and you're working hard, it's not as if I dread going to work or am bored. I've also been lucky to be able to incorporate things I love doing, like my photography, into part of my work.

In my time off, I'm really enjoying being able to connect with friends, now that I'm back in Australia. Being away makes you aware of how important having connections are.

How did you become involved with AYAD?

I'd heard about the AYAD program many years before I applied, but my path towards becoming an AYAD was somewhat unconscious. I'd always enjoyed working with people – particularly youth, contributing to community, playing sport, travelling and I've always been interested in social justice and education issues. At uni, I was also actively involved in student organisations and took on some leadership roles. But the range of jobs, volunteering roles and extracurricular activities I did was because I loved them rather than thinking they were particularly useful to get me into a particular job. It just happened to be that the skills and experiences I'd developed through those activities were needed for the AYAD project I took on – as an education and sports development officer in Vanuatu.

What skills do you need to be an AYAD?

There is such a wide range of AYAD projects available that, really, you can be from any field and use the skills you have to contribute to community projects. Community development as a career can be confusing because it's not necessarily a traditional profession where there is a set pathway to success. Basically, you can develop skills in any field and that can be used overseas or even for community development in your own country, but you must develop a good variety of skills, professional and otherwise, that you can contribute.

Other 'soft' skills or qualities that I've found really important to have in community work are cross-cultural communication skills – particularly listening skills, patience, inclusiveness and humility.

What did your job in Vanuatu involve?

I used sport as an avenue to connect with young girls to educate them about healthy lifestyles. I emphasised skills like teamwork, confidence, goal setting that they developed through sports and how that could be applied to life generally. My work involved everything from hanging out with the local girls, coaching them, running training sessions, helping to facilitate events, developing training manuals and templates, to teaching about nutrition, health issues, and even sex education.

Why did you choose to live and work overseas?

I've been lucky to have travelled from a really young age, and it's something that I try to do at least once a year – to see and learn about a new place. Travelling is exciting! It provides a wonderful opportunity to see another place but also to become interested in things that are happening just beyond our backyard and remind ourselves that there's more to life than just our daily routine.

It's been great to have a career path that's taken me to work in the Pacific, the Caribbean and South-East Asia and indulge this passion of mine. When you're living and working in a community you get so much more involved with the country, the people, the issues that they face, their culture. I've had wonderful experiences with living with a host family and being adopted as a daughter, and as a result of that I was exposed to so much more of what the place was actually about rather than just passing through like a tourist.

I find travelling is an important way for me to keep a fresh perspective and remain aware of how our actions (or inactions) impact on others, as well as what we as individuals, communities, and countries can do to make positive changes. The other part of wanting to work overseas is because I really had a strong sense of wanting to contribute something to the world.

What struck you as the biggest difference between life in Australia and the life people lead in Vanuatu?

The biggest difference I found would have to be the simplicity and the strong sense of community in Vanuatu. Things are more communal and oriented around sharing, whether that's food or resources or even the responsibility of looking after kids, which may be spread around grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and neighbours as well, and is not just by the parents. It's actually quite beautiful to feel such a strong sense of belonging in a place.

In contrast, in Australia, even though relatively speaking we don't have a very big population, I think our communities tend to be less connected. We may not know our neighbours, we might be more comfortable just sticking to people within our own social networks, and are we generally are more transient in following job opportunities or just to try something new. And I think as a result it's sometimes easier to disassociate with issues or 'other' groups of people because they aren't necessarily part of our everyday lives and we don't identify with them. If you wanted to, you could be pretty anonymous in a big city.

What are your plans for the future?

There has been a lot of interest in the experiences I've had as a community development worker, the skills I've developed and how I got there, so I've established my own business, called I-engage, which provides consultancy in community engagement. It's another way for me to share my skills and experiences through raising awareness of overseas issues and opportunities, and help others to develop the skills to be able to take on those opportunities. It's also been a platform for me to contribute to government policies, work with schools and youth in Australia, and develop my travel photography.

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