Erica Smits is proud of her family’s history of advocating for Indigenous Australians. But she didn’t feel like she was doing enough to honour that history.
“I wasn’t using my voice enough – I wasn’t being heard. I was letting opportunities pass because I didn’t have the confidence to speak up and go for it” she says. “NSWALC was a great place to work, but I’d gotten complacent and felt like I needed to do something more.”
Erica’s next step was to accept the role as a compliance officer in a new unit at the Office of the Registrar, Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 (NSW) (ORALRA).
“At ORALRA we make sure the NSW local Aboriginal land councils are abiding by the act. We look into complaints, governance, membership enquiries, land claims, and Aboriginal Owners. I am currently working with the compliance team, we look after complaints, compliance with the act and support the land councils to ensure they comply and practice good governance.
Erica says she found the courage to take the next step in her career thanks to the AGSM Emerging Indigenous Executive Leaders Program (EIELP). The program is designed to help elevate the next generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander managers through executive-level leadership development training.
“A lot of the modules touched upon the concept of finding our voice,” she says. “If I want to be a leader in the community, I need to be able to stand up in front of hundreds of people and communicate with them. That’s the main thing I took away from the EIELP – I needed confidence to have a bigger impact, and I got it.”
Strong roots in the fight for Indigenous rights
Erica is a proud Gamillaroi/Murri woman who comes from a family with a long history of fighting for Aboriginal rights. Her uncle Harry Hall was instrumental in the 1965 Freedom Ride that drew attention to the poor living conditions of Aboriginal people in New South Wales. Another uncle, Steve “Bear” Hall, was an important Indigenous figure in the rugby league community during a 26-year career that spanned from 1992 to 2018.
Her Aunty Kaylene continues to live in Walgett and teaches the Gamilaroi language at the local schools. And Erica’s father Keith “Chubb” Hall had many achievements during in career in Education/Health, which included being elected as the first chairman of the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group in the late 1970s and being honoured as a life member.
“Most of the time people don’t know me as Erica – they know me as Keith Hall’s daughter,” she says. “I’ve have a lot of staunch Aboriginal role models, and I stand on their shoulders. Land rights have been instrumental to my family, and I always knew it was a path I wanted to follow in my career.”
After learning more about her family’s impact in Indigenous communities across NSW, Erica wanted to find a bigger platform to make an even bigger impact. She had spent three years at the Darkinjung Aboriginal Land Council from 2008-11 before her decade at NSWALC and knew she needed to take the next step
“I was ready to move more into the political side of things where I could make real changes,” she says. “I did great things at NSWALC, but if you want to make real change you need to be in that higher government space.”
Connecting with her community
Erica first heard about the AGSM EIELP was from the 2020 NSWALC CEO James Christian, who wanted Erica and some of her colleagues to enrol. She jumped at the chance.
“I’m one of those people who always wants to be learning – I never say no to training or education,” she says. “I think it’s so important to better myself so I can figure out where I want to be and how I can get there.”
In addition to courses specifically tailored to her Indigenous experience, Erica says building a connection with her EIELP cohort and listening to all their experiences had a great impact on her.
“We had people from all different walks of life from all around Australia. There were people from transport, government departments and health organisations. Networking with them was awesome.
“It’s such a huge part of who we are as Aboriginal people, making these connections. If the Indigenous community knows who you are and what you stand for, it can really help you make a difference. And the EIELP was really great for that.”
Although most of the course was online due to COVID-19, Erica says the week-long trip to Cairns was a high point of the EIELP. There the cohort was able to meet face-to-face during seven days of intensive education that focused on concepts such as working with purpose, leading authentically and developing effective leadership styles. That practical learning was mixed with fun outings like a trip to the Great Barrier Reef.
“Aboriginal people are such physical beings – we love being around each other. We needed that physical interaction after only meeting online for majority of the program due to COVID.”
Continuing her AGSM lifelong learning
Erica’s AGSM journey didn’t end with the conclusion of her EIELP in May 2021. She’d always planned on completing an MBA but was going to take a year off after the EIELP to research the different programs available to her.
But when she learned about the AGSM Indigenous Leaders Scholarship – Commencing Students, her plans changed. She applied before completing the EIELP and was awarded the scholarship, which allowed her to enrol in the AGSM MBAX (Online), specialising in Social Impact, in June 2021.
The AGSM MBA complimented the leadership skills Erica had developed through the EIELP and enabled her to continue improving her confidence and professional skills. She says she’s already seeing the benefits in her day-to-day work at ORALRA.
“The human resources subject has already really helped me,” she says. “Just learning how to act with empathy, how to communicate with different backgrounds and different generations. As a leader, I don’t want to just tell people what to do but I want to help them find their own path.”
The flexibility of the MBAX allows Erica, who’s based on the Central Coast of New South Wales, to work full-time and care for her two children and elderly parents while studying on her own terms when and where it suites her.
“If I hadn’t received the scholarship and if the program wasn’t online, there’s no way I’d be able to do it right now,” she says.
And while the EIELP helped her find her own voice, Erica says the AGSM MBAX is helping her figure out better and more structured ways to use it.
“We’re an old culture but a relatively new in terms of assimilating, and we need to make sure we do that without losing our customs. I’ve done subjects about business strategy and sustainability, and for me it’s about applying these frameworks to sustaining my Indigenous culture and to keep it around for centuries to come – to make sure we can help the next generation get to where we all need to be.
“It’s part of why I’m so passionate about land rights. My grandfather, aunties, uncles and my father fought for these rights back in the 70s and early 80s. If that ends up going away, what did they fight for?”
Building a platform for Indigenous rights advocacy
Erica is enjoying her work in the newly created compliance unit at ORALRA. But she has her sights set on something bigger.
“ORALRA can help me open more doors and find more opportunities. Eventually I’d like to maybe move into Aboriginal Affairs or work in an advisory role for a minister or government department. Ultimately, I’d love to be CEO of an Aboriginal organisation where I could make some real changes to help my mob and working for the public service opens more of those doors,” she says.
For now, Erica is committed to making sure future generations of Indigenous Australians, like her children and future grandchildren, continue to benefit from these land rights.
She says the EIELP can also help future generations and recommends it to anybody who gets a chance to enrol.
“I’ve lived in NSW my whole life, and the EIELP showed me what other Indigenous communities around the country are doing, and how they’re different to ours,” Erica says.
“I was able to meet people from all generations, from teenagers all the way up to elders, some with really strong ties to their heritage and others who were just learning about it.
“The content itself is so relevant to our people – courses that reflect our experiences and embed tools that we can take back and use in our professional lives immediately. Learning from Professor Mark Rose, AGSM Adjunct Faculty member and Indigenous programs Academic Director, who talked about his own personal experience and opinions on things that really matter to us Indigenous Australians today was huge.”