October 2019

Florence Drummond: A voice to be heard

  • By Liz Swanton

Florence Drummond is determined to build connections and create conversations that showcase Indigenous involvement in the mining sector

Articulate and ambitious, Florence Drummond is passionate about what she is doing and where she is going, but she already knows what she is most proud of. ‘Creating this platform to give visibility and voice to Indigenous people. Full stop,’ she says, and there is no missing the certainty in her voice.

‘This platform’ is Indigenous Women in Mining and Resources Australia (IWIMRA), a network Florence co-founded with her sister Jessica to showcase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in the sector, with the focus on learning through the art of storytelling and to encourage others to consider careers in resources.

It was a case of necessity being the mother of invention. Frustrated by the lack of opportunity and unity for Indigenous women, Florence and her sister looked for a familiar national network and when they couldn’t find one, they created IWIMRA.

‘We wanted to facilitate stronger connections between Indigenous women working in a sector that is traditionally male and non-Indigenous,’ Florence says.

‘It started through conversations with other people, about the lack of quality progression. I thought: surely there’s something out there that can support professional development.

‘I’m mindful of not always categorising Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. But we need to start in a space where we feel culturally safe. I found there was not a lot out there specifically available for Indigenous people in the industry.

‘We built IWIMRA through our personal networks and by asking who’s out there, what are they doing, and trying to learn more about their stories. Most of us in the sector live on other people’s country, in other people’s communities, so we also wanted to know from other women how they fulfil their cultural and spiritual obligations to their families and their own communities when they are so far away from home.’

Growing a community online

Social media helped build the connections and so began a network from which great things will come. Florence has been encouraged by the industry’s support of IWIMRA, because she believes the resulting conversations will be highly productive and in line with the future of mining.

‘Facebook has made a huge difference in terms of launching IWIMRA. It’s such a great vehicle in that it is safe and approachable. Our conversations about Indigenous people in mining have always been very difficult conversations to have, but unpacking this through storytelling has allowed people to understand better.’

Florence says IWIMRA is focused on people and their stories. It has allowed members to connect locally and internationally with other Indigenous women working in the industry. The result is conversations about similarities and challenges and how to work together to improve outcomes.

‘One of the most rewarding things is, when we do share these stories, how much traction we get; it’s like a public applause. I absolutely love that! We’re showcasing women who feel invisible, or feel the work they do isn’t appreciated. Telling their stories reflects a deeper commitment to greater opportunities for themselves and their families. And the comments on our posts amplify the love and make our community stronger.’  

Working with AusIMM

As part of its progress, IWIMRA recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with AusIMM with the aim of working together.

The agreement unites the two organisations in their understanding of the contribution Indigenous people make to the industry and their commitment to supporting ongoing opportunities for professional development. Florence believes the partnership has the potential to provide greater benefits to assist upskilling the current workforce.

‘We don’t have a lot of Indigenous geologists, metallurgists and people in highly technical fields. By working with AusIMM, we’re committed to better showcasing people in those professions, so that others can be inspired to reach out and learn more.

‘How do we progress to something better if we don’t see it every day? That’s my goal with this relationship. And vice versa; IWIMRA is committed to helping understand Indigenous engagement with the industry. Like any relationship, it is about intent and communication.

‘I am confident this will help to further reconcile relationships on a professional level, and help share stories of positive outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the mining industry, as well as helping to understand significant national conversations, in particular, the Uluru Statement from the Heart.’

Building a career and early influences

Florence’s own career in the mining industry started six years ago, when she joined Rio Tinto’s northern operations as a machine operator mining bauxite, basing herself in Weipa on the Cape York Peninsula.

Florence is excited about building her career in an industry she never considered when she was first looking for what the future had in store.

A proud Dauareb/Wuthathi woman, she was born and raised on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, the oldest of eight children. Even in childhood she stood out from the crowd, her family living in a house her grandfather built just after WWII. She says it is significant in her community to own a house when so many are still in public housing, and speaking about it brings forth her first expression of gratitude.

Her second relates to the value her parents placed on education. After going to primary school on Thursday Island, Florence had five years as a boarder at the Kooralbyn International School in Brisbane. She says her schooling there has had one of the most important impacts in her life.

‘It gave me an understanding of what is out there in the world, and who is out there – the different countries, languages, cultures. It was an amazing way to spend my high school years.’

She laughs at the fact she never asked her parents why they chose that school, although she mischievously suggests perhaps because it was the furthest place from home! Thinking back, she believes the experience shaped her mind to think bigger and broader about her life, to remain curious, knowing there were no real limits on what she wanted to be.

‘It really did change how I thought about different races of people. As we grow through those impressionable years, we form our ideas on society and the world – we’re shaped by those thoughts and the environment we are in.

‘Around me everyone had different languages – but we were all friends. We slept in rooms next to each other, went to dinner together, spent the weekend together. So from growing up on an island of a few thousand people, and then going to a school that took two flights and a twohour bus ride to get to, it was a very different experience.’

When Florence left school she worked in the events and hospitality industry while she tried her hand at tourism and law at university.

Although she left before graduating, these study areas were part of an inner desire to help others and she has some regret for not valuing the potential of that education at the time and really following through. She admits she was easily distracted and lost focus, but she built a life and enjoyed it – until years later, living and working in Melbourne and a long way from her community, she realised she needed to be closer to home.

‘I also wanted to earn a decent living, to have a quality lifestyle and there were very few opportunities for that in my community. When I was home for Christmas on holidays and saw my Grandmother’s ailing health, I knew it was time to come home. I saw there were jobs on offer at Weipa – I never even knew there was a mine site at Weipa.’

Florence flew back to Melbourne and convinced her partner to pack up their apartment and make the move north – although apparently he thought it was just for a holiday.

‘We had a caravan and a 4WD, so we pretty much drove all the way up to Weipa with no job, no anything, just the determination to make it happen. And it did happen – after two months of being here, pretending to be tourists and living in the caravan park, we both got jobs with Rio Tinto.’

Joining the world stage

Florence’s international schooling came full circle earlier this year. As part of her journey with IWIMRA, Florence was the only Torres Strait Islander delegate from Australia at the United Nations 63rd Commission on the Status of Women in New York. She is extremely grateful to the National Rural Women’s Coalition and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Alliance for creating this opportunity.

‘Ever since I was a child I wanted to work for the UN. I had this heroic idea I could work for the UN, make great decisions and change the world. With this real-life experience I wanted to understand what relationship the UN has with government and industry, and what role they play in a global context.

‘It was exciting to interact on an international platform and have conversations with women from different cultures, and in so many ways we all shared the same stories.

‘There is a lot of culture that is similar. Dating back to colonisation, we have so much of the same history and it’s interesting to see how far each country, or each culture, has grown and improved since then. It was excellent to have conversations on that level, and to talk about what more we can do.’

Testing the limits

For Florence, the move to Weipa and joining the industry was the catalyst for much that has happened since. Florence admits she often pushes herself outside her own comfort zone, and understands the importance of taking ownership and leading by example. She feels her greatest responsibility is to encourage her nieces and nephews to be courageous and to never give up.

She feels as if she is ‘holding a space’ for other Indigenous women so they have the confidence to step up – and she is adamant that it must happen, for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the entire mining industry.

‘I think it’s important to acknowledge and understand the significant relationship, cultural and spiritual, that Indigenous people have to the land. This understanding could assist with much more informed, respectful and sustainable relationships.

‘What I have learnt so far is that many mining companies have great plans in place that are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 and Indigenous Procurement Policy, we just need to communicate this better. Highlighting our commitments and achievements of what we are developing together will help to build a sustainable future.’

Florence is determined to be part of that movement and that message, but there is a part of her looking even further and higher. She has plans to study in the fields of finance and international diplomacy to greater develop her understanding and participation globally.

‘When I was younger, I never understood how Australia, being a first world country with third world conditions in some communities, is a bit of a see-saw…I wanted to go and work for the UN and work on things globally, but in my backyard things aren’t…’ she pauses, ‘…things aren’t great.

‘How do you try and balance the humanitarian focus that you have and what you would love to do, with trying to make actual improvements at home in your own community, in your own country?’

At the helm of something greater, Florence is poised for a future she is still discovering.

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