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Working at Inside Policy - An intern's experience.

By Mia Bates

A few months ago, I was approached by CareerTrackers with a late summer intern opportunity at Inside Policy. I had no prior knowledge of the team’s philosophies, values, or work, and I wasn’t feeling especially enamoured with policy work at the time. Nonetheless, I accepted the opportunity sure that I would learn something. Little did I know, this internship would provide answers to many questions that had arisen for me in 2023.


I began my new internship only a week after saying goodbye to the most wonderful position with ACYP - the Office of the Advocate for Children and Young People. I learned so much in this role, and I departed with some pressing questions around where I should focus my energy as a professional, a student, and most importantly, as an Aboriginal woman who just wants to see mob thriving, more than I want any particular degree or career.


Through ACYP, I had the privilege and pleasure of making weekly visits to two NSW youth justice facilities. Zoë, the advocate, created a position which enabled me to build relationships with my little brothers and sisters in custody. This role was not about collecting data or delivering a report. Rather, Zoë had observed that our little brothers and sisters in custody were so often missing their mothers, aunties, and sisters. They needed more strong Aboriginal women around them while they were isolated from these relations. I was honored by this opportunity, and moved by Zoë’s compassionate sense of our young peoples’ need to draw connection, hope, and strength from community.


I spent the next twelve months getting to know my little brothers and sisters, listening to what makes them strong, what challenges them, what they want and need, and hope for their futures. Together we learned to paint, dance, and weave through the generosity of Elders and community leaders, and we sat in yarning circles where we taught and learned from each other every week. I came to know kind, clever, creative, and resilient children and young people who have much to give to their communities. They taught me so much and I was pushed further in pursuit of my aspirations to work with mob to counter the harms of this system of ‘justice’. 


As my contract with ACYP came to a close, I was encouraged to pull all my experiences and learnings together, write some recommendations, and deliver a findings report. I poured a great deal of energy into this report. It felt important, and I only had a couple of weeks to figure out what I needed to say. As I stood before the advocate to present what I had found, all I could do was cry. In the moment, I didn’t understand my own tears. No doubt, this was deeply important and moving work to me on a personal level, but I wasn’t feeling that pain. I was overwhelmed, and confused, and really fortunate to have a beautiful manager who delivered the presentation for me.


Upon reflection, I understood that I was overcome by a fear and a sadness, because it was difficult to feel I could uphold my responsibilities to our beautiful young people and do justice to their stories, using the language of the systems which dehumanize and harm them. I guess my body had realized before my brain, that I hadn’t felt comfortable or capable of reducing everything I had learned to policy recommendations. I felt limited by my understanding of what was practical, realistic, and appropriate in the context I was working, and I felt like I was letting my people down.


So, this was my key concern as I joined the Inside Policy team – how do I do this work better? What are the practical realities of advocating for change within flawed systems? How do we balance pragmatism with respect for the people and the communities who are the subjects of our advocacy? Can we be both authentic and realistic? How do we speak the language of policies, systems, and strategies, while retaining the humanness, the spirit, and the emotion of the stories and issues were exploring? Can it be done? I wondered if I was better off staying on the ground, in the community, where I felt more capable of upholding my responsibilities.


So, with these questions in mind, I was struck by inspiration and hope as I encountered the Inside Policy values – curiosity, reflection, quality, pragmatism, responsibility and trust - which Natalie Walker had set out to drive the team’s work. It was only day two of my internship, and I was just reading the employee manual, but I was overcome with optimistic anticipation for what I would undoubtedly learn this summer. I considered how these values could offer some guiding principles for navigating the conflicts I was grappling with. I was particularly struck by the value of curiosity in the face of my own sense of disillusionment and frustration.


In my second week, I had the good fortune of meeting Leili Friedlander. We were sharing some stories, and Leili told me she had worked in a policy team for Youth Justice, where her main project was around ensuring children and young people were paid when their artworks were exhibited and sold while they were in custody. However, Leili had left the position before hearing about the outcomes of this work. So, I was thrilled to inform her that earlier in the year I had been involved in the very first paying exhibition at one of the centers! I could describe the impact of her policy work very clearly; what a great deal those funds meant to the young people as they imagined returning to community, how meaningful it was for their hard work and talent to be respected and valued, and all the excited energy they enjoyed before and after the exhibit.


This was an important opportunity for me to feel the impact and powerful potential of policy reform, and to be reassured that this work can indeed be lived and felt by the community. I also speculated that I had become so preoccupied with what needed to change in the world that I was forgetting to observe how good policies were playing out around me. I was reminded by Leili, that I could draw inspiration and joy from the progress of everyone who came before.


Across the next ten weeks, I approached the team for their wisdom and advice around balancing what is practical with what is needed as we pursue systems change. I discovered that I was conceptualising this field of work in a pretty one-dimensional way. While we are often advocating for the needs of communities, I was excited to learn about the range of forms this work could take, and to consider how we can achieve different outcomes by being very intentional about how we gather, interpret, and present data.


Renee Chan distinguished for me between ‘extractive and prescriptive’ methods of data collection, compared to ‘open and relational’ methods. This language was very useful for me as I reflected that the methods we use to interact and engage with communities can be meaningful in themselves – sometimes more meaningful than any subsequent outcomes.


Intention was raised by everyone on the team. Everyone spoke about how projects are selected according to their capacity to promote meaningful social change, and according to a client’s commitment and openness to working within your values. Renee also encouraged me to think about how we understand our own intentions in this work; she described how we show up and relate to people through our intentions, and how this can impact the effects and outcomes of the work at every stage of a project. Renee suggested understanding consultancy as an opportunity to work with communities and support their capacity to ‘teach’ government how to behave and do better. She conceptualized her role as one of translation and bridging gaps and encouraged me to see the potential for meaningful consultancy which supports communities to access spaces and forums from which they are otherwise excluded.


I was aware throughout my internship of the teams’ collective commitment to ongoing relationships, communication, and collaboration with communities. It was heartening to see these processes built into so many project plans, and to see everyone advocating for feedback loops in the instance they weren’t built into a client’s budget. Koorinya Moreton reminded me that working with our communities is so, so important, as research has always been done to our people. It was evident that everyone in the team understands and seeks to counter that harmful legacy of research through their practices.


Koorinya also gave me some great practical advice: she spoke about how we can prepare government and organizational stakeholders to be challenged by decolonised approaches to working. She described how we can proactively clarify what ‘doing things differently’ within an established system might look like. Koorinya explained that when we do this in the early stages of a project, we are less likely to encounter resistance in the instance that working respectfully with communities, and speaking authentically to their hopes and needs doesn’t fit into a government box or tone. 


I also developed an unprecedented respect for great project management through this internship. When I attended Nat’s project management training session, I was very honest about my expectation that it would be a little beyond my field of interest, or boring in other words. I was heartened to see how Nat manages project in accord with the team values that I love so much. I enjoyed reflecting that we can do all kinds of work in compassionate and human-centered ways.


Nat also helped me to understand the importance of respectful, reciprocal, and meaningful relationships with not only community, but government and organizational clients. Diane Biaggini drew my attention to how Nat’s project management approach sets Inside Policy apart, enables better relationships with clients, and in turn, supports the achievement of better outcomes for community. I was reminded again that the frustration and disillusionment I was feeling toward these systems was not productive, and that these systems are enlivened by people who need to be respected and understood as relations. Project management is an element of the work I would likely have completely neglected or at least considered secondary to a supplier’s capacity to engage community in a meaningful way. I learned a lot here about how we need to attend compassionately to the needs of stakeholders at every level. I am beginning to understand now that we need to achieve balance and see our relationships with community and government as interdependent and mutually beneficial.


Ultimately, I think a lot of the barriers I perceive when I think about doing this work are self-imposed. I am inhibited by my own concerns about how ideas will be received, and whether or not decision makers will understand. So, another key lesson for me was to challenge my own assumptions and speak confidently in accord with what I learn from community. I am grateful to the Inside Policy team for sharing so many practical insights and tools, which will enable me to shape a principled and value driven way of working. I have a much more meaningful and tangible sense of how systems change is connected to our work on the ground through my intern experience, and I’m so grateful that I could be inspired and learn so much from the team.










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