Maria was born in Finland in 1953, speaking Swedish in the home. She migrated with her family to Australia as a small child, staying in migrant hostels before moving into their first home in Adelaide. When Maria was 10, the family moved to Western Australia, living in Geraldton for a short time before settling in Carnarvon. When Maria was 15 she was sent to Perth for the final years of high school.
Lutheranism was the state religion of Finland, but although her parents were involved in church activities in Australia, it was primarily as a way of keeping in contact with fellow Scandinavians. Maria’s mother eventually turned her back on her faith, and Maria was brought up to be deeply skeptical about religion.
Maria’s mother had been a school teacher in Finland, but her qualification was not recognized in Australia. Maria describes her as very passionate, feisty, a worrier, easily disappointed in life, but very supportive of her children.
In her early working life, Maria used her Bachelor of Psychology in “a varied bunch of jobs” in the north of Western Australia.
I was a tutor at the prison and I ran a program aimed at transitioning prisoners back into the community. I wrote a few articles and sold photos to magazines … I worked a lot with Aboriginal people, for the Kimberley Land Council, the National Aboriginal Conference and with the Department for Community Welfare. At one time I was doing a whole lot of different work all at once to support myself and my son.
And then, that part of Maria’s working life finished.
It didn’t feel right for me anymore. I felt I needed to step out of working with Aboriginal people. In any case, I didn’t feel like I was needed and I disagreed with some of the things that were being said. The environmental movement was a good fit.
Maria describes herself as someone who follows her passions, and her introduction to environmental campaigning was a passionate experience. “I was searching for a way of being part of something bigger than me, of doing something rewarding. And [environmental campaigning] just called to me, it felt like a really worthwhile thing to do.”
“I was living in Broome and there was a proposal to dam the Fitroy River and develop large scale cotton farms in the west Kimberley. I felt a sense of outrage, and after talking to Pat Lowe and a couple of others about forming a group, I decided I’d like to become involved.” Pat Lowe became a very important person in Maria’s life – “I’ve learned so much from her”.
The environment organisation Environs Kimberley was set up in 1996, and incorporated in 1997. Maria was the first Secretary.
I thought I had the skills, I can organise, I can take notes, I can keep tabs on things, I can write letters, I can do the things that I imagined the Secretary might do. I didn’t go for President, maybe because I didn’t have enough confidence, and I didn’t know enough about the issues and what belonging to a committee or board was all about.
Maria worked on funding applications, and started to get to know how the environment movement worked. Bob Brown visited Broome around that time, and the fledgling environmentalist asked him a lot of logistical questions about campaigning. A bit of money started to come in to allow Maria to start to get paid for her work, and then to move from part time to full time work over the next couple of years.
Initially Environs Kimberley focused on just protecting the Fitzroy River from being dammed, and making sure the cotton industry proposal did not get up. This involved working closely with the Kimberley Land Council and other local groups who were opposed to the proposal. Environs Kimberley started to get known regionally, and then took up other local campaigns. Maria says “Within a couple of years I was working full time and I was working way over time. It sucked me in good and proper and I loved it, I felt very excited by it, and I was stimulated by it.”
Click below to listen to Maria describing her role at Environs Kimberley, her relationship with the Board, and her struggles with the role of media spokesperson.
Maria’s son was about 7 when she became involved with Environs Kimberley and she faced all the problems of a single mother without a lot of money, no family support and a demanding job. Maria says that she was very reliant on friends to pick her son up from school, and to take her son when she was away for work, although they had some difficult experiences with this. Maria also says she feels that her enthusiasm and commitment to her job did impact on her family life, and that this is a regret for her.
Maria has done leadership training through the Mittagong Forum, organised by Peter Garrett when he was the President of ACF. Maria was invited to be one of the first regional representatives to the Forum, (an initiative which she’d successfully lobbied for), and took part in their leadership training program. Around the same time Maria was also a Councillor for ACF and she liked being part of this bigger grouping of environmentalists.
Click below to listen to Maria talk about her leadership training and why she found it so useful.
In 2008, Maria made the decision to leave Environs Kimberley and a year later she moved to Perth. She now works as the Electorate Officer for a Greens MP, managing the office, corresponding with constituents, providing advice about the Kimberley anddoing research. Maria describes herself as taking a break from leadership at the moment, influencing from behind, and not having to “do the media”. She is having an impact, however, through advising her Member of Parliament, and through other opportunities to influence what people are thinking and doing in the Kimberley.
In her profile, Maria talks about how the role of media spokesperson did not come easily to her. In my experience, many women find the idea of “doing media” quite confronting, and therefore do not take on leadership positions that involve that sort of upfront role. I’d be interested in any comments on this issue, or any others raised in the profile.