Mitra Khakbaz, Deputy CEO of Host International believes we must weave diversity through the very fibre of our organisations, across all levels of form and function to meet the growing diversity of our society.
Mitra asks how do we begin to hear the diverse voices of people who are refugees or who have been displaced from their countries of origin? Mitra speaks of the role of participatory leadership where all voices are heard through a process that facilitates participation and power-sharing within communities. Apart from her work with Host International, Mitra is on a personal mission to empower and support women and girls going through resettlement in Australia. In her conversation, she shares insights into her emerging conceptual framework for a support network that seeks to address the pressing issues for this cohort of women. Across our conversation, Mitra draws on a rich tapestry of her own unique journey as a young woman, seeking a secure future in Australia.
Mitra shares insights about the numerous challenges and barriers women face when they find themselves displaced from their country of origin. She shares insights into participatory protection that is a feature of some of Host International's place-based initiatives across South East Asia.
Mitra is generous in sharing her leadership reflections, sharing insights into her own lifelong learning journey to leadership, leaving us with much to reflect on as we move forward in our own journeys.
I ask each of my guests in season two of what leaders know this question. How has leadership changed you?
- Thank you for having me here, Penny. It's really a privilege to be here with you. Talking about leadership may just start by acknowledging my place on this land as a migrant, this land, or recognise my contribution to the continuing colonisation and the benefit that I have on this land.
- So I like to start by acknowledging traditional owners of land and pay my respect to elders past and present. And recommit to my journey in ensuring true reconciliation and committing to playing my part in that journey.
- As we talk about leadership journeys, I find it really interesting to call myself a leader. I find it challenging. I find it confronting. I find it inspiring as well, inspiring to be a better leader as I go through my journey and being inspired by amazing leaders like yourself. Maybe I just think about what has shaped my leadership. Think about the influence factors. I start by amazing strong women in my lineage ancestry. My mother is one of the strongest women that I know, someone that has been really influential with her ability to forgive, with her ability to love and with her ability to participate and break the barriers.
- There's another pathway for me when that access to refugee visa is so limited for many, many people. So I had that access to look at other pathways and other opportunities. So I applied for residency here through my family and as you said, it took a long, long time. And finally I have offered that privilege to live in this country permanently, and I see my responsibility to continue to contribute and have impact where I can
There's such richness in your response and I want to unpack that further. How has your lived experience shaped and informed your leadership in the multicultural refugee and displaced people space.
- I wasn't ever recognised as a refugee, So I applied for a visa - what was then known as a special needs relative visa. And if you had a family that really needed you, that was a type of visa, which for me, really was a window to the compassion way of managing and providing opportunities to people. I really find that unique.
- I think maybe I'm one of the few people that have ever accessed that visa, and I find that such an amazing way. As I said, I didn't need to go through a refugee status because that option was available to me, but that waiting, and not having access to opportunities, I was still very young. Being able to study was, I think, really important to me, and I wasn't able to do that, I didn't have the resources to pay international student fees then not knowing what happens next, that uncertainty.
- It's really challenging and as we know, it's the experience of many people living their journey of finding safety and security that not knowing what's next and being able to just walk on that journey and know that there are many ways of support and many resources in community and in the shape of great leaders amongst people you engage has been really comforting. And I think when you go through that journey, sometimes it's very difficult to see that. But when you look back, you can just see all those influencers in your journey. And for me, it has been about how do I bring it to my practice? And as you mentioned,
- I have the privilege of working in this space, have almost always work in this space across diversity, settlement, multiculturalism and all of that has been shaping my leadership and my passion for ensuring that everyone has the same access to opportunities
You waited six long years for your Australian residency status. I imagine that was a setback to your career. How has this experience informed your understanding of the challenges faced by communities who were resettled in Australia?
- As I reflect back, I think, like, you know, maybe as I was going through that journey, for me, it was only an experience of uncertainty.
- Not knowing what happens, can I make a plan not being able to study.
- I mean, like, you know, when you're waiting, it's having to pay for their study as international students, not having the resources to be able to do that It seemed like it was going forever.
- However, as I look back, I just think about the privileges I had in that time, having the safety and security of my family that have provided me that protection, that safety, which I recognise a lot of people don't have in Australia, but are seeking safety and protection.
- So I think height has shaped me, has given me an ability to recognise my privilege. That's a very key element of my leadership.
- While I recognise the challenges as a young person, then not having a lot of English learning about the culture, the environment, the opportunity having the insecurity of like, you know what's next.
- But now when I look back and just think about actually how much privileges I had that opportunity to learn, not to have to worry about something else, but being able to just embrace the number of things that I could access without having to put a lot of resources in Children around me that have helped me to learn the language opportunities that have led me to what career path I took.
- And maybe that was a driver for me choosing the sector because it made complete sense to be able to give back and to share, but also learned through that journey that has been really significant for me.
Do you think that you chose the sector or do you think the sector chose you?
- I think a bit of both.
- Wanting to be part of something and being really inspired by amazing leaders, leaders that have put their name in front of a vision and pushed that through.
- I remember my very first professional job working in a community project, but some really amazing people finding more about my own community and the challenges they have faced settling embracement, which they lead to the next step of my career.
- And all along the way, I had many amazing leaders who have helped me to just step into the next opportunity or have recognized something in me and have helped me.
- One thing that I always reflect and still today really impacts on me is the reflection of other people.
- There are many amazing migrant women I know I have come across and then they tell me that I inspire them because of my career or my leadership journey.
- It really challenges me because I know many of them are smarter than me.
- But the life experiences and life journeys are different.
- I was a single person, not having responsibility of Children. Having the protection of my family has given me a lot more opportunities than a lot of other people in our community are able to access. So that has been a driver for me to just constantly recognize the position of privilege and recognizing that privilege shapes who I am and being able to tap to that could be granted.
Mitra, in your response, I hear that humility that is so much a part of who you are. And I'm really keen at the end of this conversation to talk more about how you mentor young women who are in that space and how they're looking to you for community in that journey to leadership. And now I want to take you to 2013 when you rewarded a Churchill Fellowship and your focus in doing that fellowship. Vulnerable refugee women who were at risk of unemployment and lack of economic independence.
Can you talk about your findings and how this influenced your work with refugee communities?
- I was very lucky to have the opportunity to be part of their Churchill Fellowship and a community of the fellows that have really inspired me and have stayed as a constant connection.
So that has been truly a gift, a gift in my leadership gift in my journey and a gift in developing my understanding of the issues faced by women.
And I think in this case I have focused on refugee women, refugee women with multiple vulnerability.
That was, it was a great journey to be able to look at things inside out:
- to have the opportunity to learn about practices and frameworks and approaches happening in other places,
- looking at the ways the different communities respond to that and listening to the journeys of the women.
- I started my journey in 2014 and went to eight countries and then had a look at the settlement approaches in different places and how that rehabilitation to allows people to fulfil their aspiration in life, providing opportunities for women to really regain economic independence.
- And that has always been a driver in my practice. Part of that is because of my personal journey part of that because of my experience and understanding of my mother's journey. My Mum always told me, “when women have access to money, they can make decisions, they can make life better for their Children”
- As we know there are 80 million people in this place, half of that population are women, about 60% of our young people. There is a significant attention that needs to go into providing equal access for women and girls to have opportunities to really, really reclaim their strengths. Being able to fully participate and have access to resources that enables them to have better pathways in their lives is an opportunity.
- I think about my practice, which is about facilitating participation allowing people to be part of the decision making, having the voice into intervention strategies that we put in place.
- sharing power and participatory model of power sharing that allows everyone around that table to be included into the processes that's about their lives rather than having the expert syndrome of thinking - ‘I've got all the solutions’
- By nature I'm not a patient person, and this is one of the P’s of my leadership pillars, and part of that has been learning that I need to be patient and reflective.
- Allowing myself time to reflect and to learn and to listen and to bring that learning and listening into my practice.
- Trusting the process is, is the fourth P in my Leadership Pillars. Trusting the processes. Processes that enable participation processes that allow voice.
- When we started to talk about leadership, I said, it's very challenging for me to think of myself as a leader, and you referred to mentoring. I really think part of that is that participatory model. I think I'm being as much mentored by young people that are in my life as I maybe just provide that support to them. It's that reciprocity that's really important, and that ability to be able to really be equal around the process and on the decision making. Enabling engagement.
Often people who are still early in their leadership journey approach leadership, learning as something separate to themselves almost like a process. When I engage with you an experienced leader with the depth of lived experience, it's clear that your leadership journey is lifelong. What would you say to other women who have settled in Australia who are starting out on their own leadership journeys?
- Earlier on, we referred to the challenges of leadership, and I think for me on my journey, it has been about recognizing that it's a process and a learning journey.
- I would say I'm not a born leader. I have learned a lot of skills. I have learned to be challenged, and I think for me in particular, has been about recognizing my own response to some of those challenges.
- As a person with English as my second language as someone that has learned English after settling in Australia, I have noticed that sometimes I let that become a barrier for me, not because of how I feel about that, but sometimes because I think about how other people see me or how other people view me.
- And it took a bit of a journey to step away from that and to recognize that, the only thing that I have control over is my own commitment, my commitment to leadership and developing better leadership quality that allows other people participation.
- And as I said earlier, I have been very privileged through different career, have worked with amazing leaders. But also having been given opportunity to play in that leadership role and either in my past roles for my current role have the opportunity to bring that to a cultural context. And to give myself time to understand the context and be able to work with the key people in that space to transition those approaches to what's really appropriate and what's work and be open to be challenged, be open to learning.
- And I think that's one of the key learnings for me in the sense of a leadership journey that's a constant learning process and constant awareness and developing the stories that really shapes you.
You were an executive with an established multicultural organisation for many years, and you made a significant leadership career pivot that now sees you in the role of deputy CEO of Host International for listeners on their own leadership journeys. Can you share your drivers for this pivot?
- I left a very respected, very loved organisation about three years ago without having a clear plan. I think, like, you know, as I went through that journey, I reflected that I've done what I have done and now what’s next?
- I was offered this opportunity to work with Host International. It's a startup that has agility that brings innovation, and I think looking from outside it looks really great. I remember the very first conversation I had with some of the leaders in this space. It was about some of the work they do in the space of, you know, child protection, providing opportunities for women and children to live in a safer environment, out of immigration, detention and connecting to the communities.
- And when I looked at it, I thought, actually, that speaks and it speaks about that commitment to hope, dignity and inclusion, and actually I didn't need any more convincing. It was just like right. I have been really inspired by the work that we do in different places.
- So our work is about creating community based protection, engaging the local community, engaging people on the journey of safety and protection, and building the bridges between the communities to come together, recognising the strength and skills in the community and building on that. And we do that differently in different places.
- But some of the work that I really cherish is about work that we do with women and Children on the ground. Tapping to the opportunity that exists within their sphere of influence, building trust with the community to offer them land to garden in, to build that trust.
- You know trust is a building block of a good community and a good neighbourhood that really cherishes every member and really doesn't matter where we do this work, it's about how do you engage with the community in that inclusive way to build those connections and relationships.
You had stepped into a new leadership role in an organisation that works on the ground with displaced communities.
How is this experience further influencing the way you lead?
- As as I mentioned about my journey starting in this work and goes back to the points that I made about leadership earlier, being patient and having the time to reflect and recognizing the privilege.
- The very first thing I learned was actually rather than trying to step into the solution, trying to step back and listen. The solution does exist in the community and to allow the community and those people that know the community to really shape that solution and be part of the solution and frame it in the way that actually will work for them.
- And I have to say that at times, you know, I had to stop myself and realised actually, it's not my place to make that comment or make that judgment or thinking I can do it better because there is a lot of, you know, experience, a lot of skills, a lot of resources. When I started in my role, there was a lot of good foundation in place.
- There was the framework that was about engaging with the local community, the framework of the sharing knowledge and resources, the framework of acknowledging people that have done this work and bringing them along and participating so to some extent it was easy to build those relationships and I would describe my leadership style as a relational leadership.
- I really enjoy stepping into a new context and making their context and getting to learn about people. However, I had to step back at times and think:
- I don't have all the answers and really recognise my place of privilege as someone that has worked in a different context, had a lot more opportunities and resources and been able to step away from that and think about it.
- There is a lot of strength and a lot of resources and skills in the community we are engaged with and allowing that to come to the forefront and shaping our work and shaping our approach.
- That has been an amazing learning.
Can you share an example of place based support mechanisms that are changing outcomes for displaced women and Children?
- One that currently we are involved with which has been a great privilege is some child protection work in Southeast Asia.
- I think part of that has been about recognising the skill, the cultural knowledge, the tradition and principles between the communities we work with and really tap to that and then adding to that elements that are important in creating a better world for Children, including challenging child marriage, including preventing Children from living in poverty, preventing Children of forced labor. But that happens when we cannot create those changes and really building on the strengths of the community and starting in a place based approach, working with the resources that exist and sharing.
- I talked about participatory protection, sharing that responsibility and sharing the decision making with the communities we work.
Mitra you are such a strong advocate for other women and girls who are resettling in Australia as a result of displacement from their lands of origin. It's one of your driving passions, and informally you support many young women on their journeys. You have a bigger vision for their futures, and I understand it's still taking shape. Can you share this narrative with our listeners? I'm sure you will touch the hearts and minds of many and find new supporters.
- There is a Chinese proverb that says that women hold up half the sky. So in my view, women play a key role in shaping the society. This is still a concept - we have started some conversation around that, and engaging with like minded people. And the driver behind that was
- We live at the time when bite size information is really important. The platform to have a voice or platform to share in your voice is very important.
You're such a strong advocate for other women. Have there been times in your own leadership journey where you found it hard to find a voice at the table? I
- I've been confronted with the fact that while. I have worked in senior leadership roles, where it has been a bit challenging.
- So reflecting on that and again recognising my place of privilege, the question was raised for me:
- What about women and girls that don't have that access who are still at their start of their journey? That may not have access to mentorship or support that I have. How do we, as women of influence, come together and help those?
- There's a lot of amazing initiatives, amazing initiatives in business that support women in leadership.
But I like us to take a step back from that and think about how do we shape those connections. And as I said, that's still in the very early conceptual framework and there are amazing support from that framework. How do we come together and collectively find solutions to our questions? How to create the connection, for that was also a part of my professional journey, my personal journey.
- I remember walking in a Sunday market in my neighbourhood and was, harassed by a young woman with her child calling me names and asking me to go back where I come from. And I'm looking at myself, and I think I don't look that different. I've got a bit of colour. I haven't opened my mouth yet to speak with an accent to give her that sort of sense, but she's still treated me as I don't belong.
- While it was very confronting, the question for me was “
- What's my role to make sure that child has better opportunities, learning about the diversity of people but also learning about that?
- Actually we are all human and we can do better together, and how do we reach out to women and girls that don't have the same access as us as me the privileges I have and support I have.
- How do I share those opportunities?
I can hear your vision for a support network to help women on these journeys is guided by your insights for participatory leadership and community based support.
- This is still all conceptual, a long way to go. There are amazing women that have said they want to be part of that.
- And hopefully we will be able to build our network network of coming together and helping each other and through that creating a better inclusive community that doesn't shut the door on people because of how they look because of where they live or because of the language they speak.
I know you will have touched the hearts and minds of many of our listeners. Mitra. I'll put your contact details in the show notes so people follow up with you by email before we move to wrap up today's conversation. However, I wonder if you can give us another glimpse into one of the initiatives Host International is currently engaged in.
- Host International is a relatively young organisation, starting in December 20 16 as a result of responding to some of the Australian offshore policy and working with the communities in a place-based approach to find ways to thrive in the situation that they were living in.
- I think that agility and innovation is the driver behind all the all the work that we do and being a part of the journey has been really significant.
- There are some key elements in the work we do is about relying on the local experts, sharing knowledge.
- We have some really interesting programs established - I cannot claim them, but they have shaped the work:
- Candle Lighters, which is about gifting and sharing our experts with other organisations in different places, which actually provides the opportunity to build cultural sharing and learning and
- Little Things which has been about funding refugee led initiatives in the communities with resources that might be little for us but could really enable them to do amazing work that they do.
- And some of the framework that we work within is about:
- Recognising their leadership, their skills and passion and commitment of the individual despite the challenges, and finding opportunity to make the life better for others.
- And I think it really gives us a privilege to be in those spaces and walk on that journey alongside people and be able to dream and create vision and be part of shaping that, and sharing those commitments to better in life of others.
Mitra Khakbaz LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/mitra-khakbaz-448477a0
Host International: www.hostinternational.org.au
Host International: firstname.lastname@example.org