Woman Webb, Michelle (1968 - )
Written by Jeannie Morrison and Anna Haebich, Curtin University
Michelle Webb was born in the south of Tasmania in 1968. Both of her parents are Aboriginal and she has six sisters and one brother. 'Some of my older sisters were married and having kids by the time I came along', she recalled, 'so there were always lots of people around especially women. The family spent a lot of time together even our social circle consisted of family. I grew up in a pretty rough kind of housing commission area with lots of poor families and lots of black fellas around there too. It was rough around the edges but had an amazing sense of community. We were raised Seventh Day Adventist and up until I was 14 it was family and church, that's what we did' (Interview).
Being Pallowa didn't mean anything to her as a child because 'we just did what we did, and I'm pretty pale skin so you blend fairly easily into society. But I remember when I was in year three, and I tell this story when I teach, we went on an excursion to the State Library and in the State Library there is an audio recording of old girl Fanny Cochrane singing and as a family we didn't do museums and art galleries but I remember Dad took us to the museum and showed us the canoes, all the old artefacts from before Tasmania was colonised and listened to Fanny Cochrane sing in language on this audio and Dad telling us she was family, these are your paternal ancestors' (Interview). On a subsequent visit with her class 'I get to big noting myself ... and going "yeah that's my grandmother and my dad used to have a canoe like that" and I got slapped on the bum and put back on the bus, because when I was growing up the commonly accepted discourse was that Aboriginal people weren't alive in Tasmania, we didn't exist and so I got sat on the bus for the rest of the excursion and ran home and told dad what happened and got slapped around the head as well and was told "you don't talk about that outside of family", so it was the first time I realised we might have been a bit different. It added another layer of shame and secrecy because you couldn't talk about being Aboriginal outside of our family or the extended family group. I suppose it was fear of the kids getting taken away. You just had what you needed to hide and, if you could, integrate and get by. Some of my older sisters were darker than me, more aboriginal than me, whatever that means, and they probably copped more than I did but I learnt quite young you needed to be quiet about this stuff' (Interview).
When the 'no fault' divorce laws had come through Webb's father left her mother. Although, she believes, this was a 'good thing' as 'it was not a nice environment to grow up in, the violence was horrible' , her 'Mum lost a bit of control on some of the younger ones like me. I started not going to school and hanging around town and ended up pregnant at 15, which wasn't real smart but in hindsight I was obviously hurt and distressed because of the family break up. It was probably the first time I started looking outside of my family for friendship and support and unfortunately I found the wrong kind of people. So much happened in a very short space of time I became a mum of two kids and then a widow when I was 18 and that obviously profoundly changes your life. I'm actually lucky that my sisters pulled together and helped me to look after my two babies. Then I hooked up with an old boyfriend and ended up playing house with him buying a little house in the suburbs and by the time I was 23 I realised that wasn't really what I wanted to do and started working at a Women's refuge and started to learn about feminism and would come home from my shifts and he'd be lying on the couch watching Home and Away and I'd be running around picking up kids from day-care and cooking dinner and I thought this is patriarchal crap going on here and just learning new words and new concepts and realising that I wasn't as stupid as I thought I was and that I actually got what some of these flash women were talking about and decided then and there that I didn't want to relate to men anymore' (Interview).
'That was the catalyst for leaving Tasmania I came out, my family tried to get custody of my kids which is a whole other story in itself around how family deal with difference and how there are real limitations sometimes on what family will support you with and you don't know that until you give them a tough curly question to deal with. So I left Tassie to come to Perth, twenty years ago, me and my partner Lee and two kids Damien and Sharni and our dog Tess and we just cruised in an old HT station wagon for a year and it was probably the best year of my life. Just no directions, we're heading west we had to be in Perth by October. I'd only left Tasmania once before I wasn't even a really good traveller. One of the main reasons for leaving Tasmania was to leave my family because I couldn't' cope with their homophobia' (Interview).
The move enabled Webb to develop herself outside the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. 'We talk a lot about how wonderful family is for black fellas and it is but sometimes it's a little bit suffocating and it's also a bit demanding and I needed to get away from that in order to find out what I was capable of, what potential I had' (Interview). She did a' Women into Technology' class at TAFE 'to learn how to use a computer. And then a group of us did a women's study certificate at TAFE then some mates of mine saw an ad for the Aboriginal Bridging Course. I did not for one second think I would pass. Just no one in my family had ever gone to University no one in my family didn't even finish high school so if that's not part of your reality you don't have the inspiration to do that. And when you do start to get these little ideas that maybe I am smart enough to do this, it's almost like there's this invisible cord pulling you back, just really undermining your confidence. I remember in the first six months just getting really angry, so I got quite radical and quite loud. I learnt so much about the world and about myself and so many Noongars took me into their hearts and their homes and there was no "there are no Tasmanian Aboriginals", didn't hear that once from fellas here which you know you hear that from white fellas here even today, and never once did the black fellas I was doing the course with ever question your cultural integrity, just supported and nurtured it' (Interview).
At the end of '95 Webb 'kind of felt, maybe we should stay here for a while, because the plan always was to go back, and with a lot of encouragement from lots of wonderful people "you're actually smart enough to do an undergraduate so why don't you apply for Uni?" I got in. Still had no idea what a degree even meant to be quite honest. I should say that throughout the whole three and a half years that I did my undergraduate I constantly came back to the Centre to get affirmation and to get positive reinforcement, so it was like a surrogate family really. Then a couple of my lecturers from the Bridging Course asked me to come back and do some sessional teaching, but I couldn't public speak. I would wag work at the museum if I had to speak in meetings because I couldn't talk in front of people. But again it was one of those moments where it's like what decision I make here has the potential to change the direction of your life. Working with students I realised I had something to give to them because I had similar experiences and we had connections around not having a lot of privilege. So I thought I'd give this teaching a go and I'd learned to public speak because women … Kept telling me just shut up and get on with it. That changed my life. Once I got comfortable teaching I saw what an enormous amount of power you have when you have a hundred odd students waiting to hear what you have to say and I realise I think I'm an educator. I think that's what I'm on the planet for' (Interview).
Reflecting on her role as a leader, Webb comments: 'I'd been given this amazing opportunity to give back and really, really took seriously the importance of nurturing young women who were coming in and you know they didn't look anything like me, they didn't sound anything like me but you could see that their confidence was shattered they had very little self-esteem and that they'd been put down constantly both for being black and for being a woman, being told they were stupid and I just went wow this is actually where I need to be. I have a cultural and political responsibility to help these young women reach their potential. It didn't always work of course but it feels good when you know you've made an impact on a young woman's life. Some have gone on to do great things and it might not be running huge organisations, it might be finishing their degree and being able to look after their families in a really positive way and that to me is as important a model of leadership as having a female Prime Minister' (Interview).
'I think as women we actually expect it to be hard. So it's not a big surprise. Men I think they get a bit surprised when it gets hard but we have expectations that its gunna be a bit of a tough ride. Most of the things we've done haven't come easy so we're well prepared and well-practiced to work quite hard for what we need cos that's what we do. What I see other women do, and a couple of men is how I'd like to model, and leadership is a funny word because I don't know if that's what we do, leadership sounds like some kind of solo thing and you're flying out there alone. I think for me leadership is knowing that you're not alone and being able to be part of more than you, I don't know if that makes sense, but leadership is not an individual thing for me it's about actually encouraging and nurturing participation so there's a group of you forging forward rather than one woman having to cop all the flack at the front line while the rest of us follow behind. I'd like to think of leadership as a big line across ways so that we're taking up a huge space making a trail that is humungous' (Interview).
Webb tries to model herself 'academically on people like Aileen Morton Robinson, Maggie Walter, Dawn Bessarab, and that might be because I'm about to do my PhD that I've chosen those women to think about at the moment, they've done it, Marion Kickett, they've done it. I like the way it's 'no holds barred', it's like I'm doing this PhD and I can do it, it's their constant assertion, that's leadership for me, constantly asserting that when you get to a space where you're pretty comfortable and you're professionally secure and you're getting a bit of a reputation as an academic like these women have, they don't just rest there. It's all about keep bringing women forward keep encouraging, and that's leadership. It's not about telling everyone what to do, it's actually pulling forward so that if you're making five steps the women coming after you are making four, so it's not such a big journey for them. And that's the philosophy that I learned from our Bridging program. So this wasn't a leadership model or a way of thinking that I had developed before I started, this is stuff that has developed as a result of some amazing women who never gave up on you. I think for many non-Indigenous women, leadership is a job that they do, that they manage something or they're pioneers in this or spokeswomen for that. I think for Aboriginal women leadership is one of the many things they do, that they have such strong roles in community and family' (Interview).
Leadership for Webb is 'not a job it's not a profession its personal because if you don't make a change now then our kids are going to be trying to do the same stuff that we're doing now. So there's a sense of urgency for black women I think that white women don't understand. They don't understand that this is about life and death. It's always personal. And there's a level of honesty about some of the problems in our community that the rest of society isn't very honest about and just the obligations and the respect and the sense of loyalty to each other is the best part about being a black fella surely, surely it's the best part. The biggest reward Aboriginal women leaders have is belonging, belonging. And the worst and best thing is the heart connection. That's the worst thing about wanting to take on any kind of leadership role straight away putting, yourself out there. You're open to both praise and criticism and really as a cultural group we're dealing with internalised oppression and internalised colonial thoughts that we're just trying to get our heads around. I think it's easy for us to try and pull down women that become leaders, that become spokespeople, that you know there's some Aboriginal women out there that say stuff that I so don't agree with philosophically but absolutely admire their conviction in saying it and taking a public stand, because I'm a little bit shy to take too many public stands, and right or wrongly I often use that I'm a visitor to this country I'm not Noongar I can't make public statements on certain things, but some of that is fear, that you're open to so much critique because you put your heart into it so that's the worst thing about leadership. But the best thing about leadership is that you're trying to make change and facilitate other people to become involved in that change that is important to your heart not important to your professional development or your career or even your wage. This is heart stuff this is about us, if we don't fix it who else is going to. So yeah the worst and best thing about being a very vocal and out there Aboriginal woman is the heart' (Interview).
Webb was interviewed on the last day before she commenced her PhD. 'I get blown away that in 1995 I did a Bridging Course and I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would work at a university. You know when I got my undergraduate I made them write me a letter to say that I'd finished all the units because I didn't' believe that I passed and all the years I've been here either as a worker or a student there's a fear that someone's going to find out that you're not really smart enough to be here and they're going to kick you off campus. I think today I feel good enough. And that's huge. It's been women who have got me through an undergraduate and my Masters and now my PhD and I want to be that for others. I'd really like to be able to offer support and mentoring and dare I throw that word leadership, and maybe it's not about cultural leadership maybe it's about academic leadership maybe it's about helping other women who feel like they're not smart enough to actually navigate this process so that they have options and choices and to get more Aboriginal women with higher degrees because when we've got those we can fight the system at a completely different level and we can be advocates for community and challenge academic standards, using indigenous methodologies, using yarning as a method, having young people steering the research, that kind of stuff, I think we can chip away at these big institutions which makes it easier for those coming after us or those coming with us' (Interview).
National Library of Australia Oral History Collection
- 'Indigenous childhood: A new way of telling things the old way', in Gold, Victorian Cultural Collaboration, Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), http://www.sbs.com.au/gold/story.php?storyid=154. Details
- Award 2: School of the Year: Winner: Michelle Webb, 2007 NAIDOC Perth Award Winners, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC), Perth, Western Australia, 2007, 10 pp, http://www.naidocperth.org/website2010/docs/NAIDOC%20Perth%202007%20Award%20Winners.pdf. Details
- 'Michelle Webb', in Curtin University: Building Mental Wealth: People, Curtin University, 9 September 2011, http://bmw.curtin.edu.au/people/webb.cfm. Details