Millicent Chalmers was born in Sydney in 1934, and for the last 20 years has been an active member of the Millers Point/Dawes Point/The Rocks Resident Action Group (RAG for short), which she currently chairs.
Although Millicent’s parents had limited secondary education themselves, they were very supportive of the education of their three daughters. Millicent’s 2 sisters went on to successful careers, and Millicent became a lawyer. In 1952 when she started law she was one of only 5 women out of 150 students at Sydney University.
Millicent was brought up Anglican, but now describes herself as a Deist. She believes strongly in God, regrets the divisions in organised religion, and says she is on good terms with the local Anglican rector.
Millicent told me about being a lawyer in the 1950s and the “beer flattening” impact this had on most potential suitors (her husband being the exception).
Millicent worked as a general practitioner lawyer following graduation. When her children were born, Millicent realised she couldn’t continue on the “partnership track”, and went into legal publishing. Unusually for her time, Millicent returned to work very shortly after the birth of her two children, with the help of a live in housekeeper, and the support of her husband, an industrial chemist and then insurance executive.
Millicent worked full time until 6 months ago, and is now working part time and aiming to retire at the end of the year (she is also a writer, and is aiming for publication).
After a very amicable divorce from her husband, Millicent moved from the North Shore of Sydney to Millers Point, into a beautiful historic terrace, which she and her children renovated. She almost immediately became involved in the Millers Point RAG, initially to source information and possibly support in managing her heritage house. I asked her about her first impressions of the RAG.
At that first meeting, Millicent observed the powerful personality of Shirley Ball, who was a pivotal figure in the RAG, and in Millicent’s growth within the organisation. When Shirley became Chair after a fairly short absence, she asked Millicent to take on being the Secretary. This role started off just being taking the minutes, taking attendance and so on. But the role expanded as the RAG became involved in the various developments that were of concern to the residents – the Walsh Bay development, high rise development in Kent Street for example. Millicent began writing submission drafts – which Shirley would (in Millicent’s words) “tweak” before they were finalised. The extract below starts with Millicent describing how Shirley could work a meeting, and goes on to describe their very effective working relationship
Millicent also started going to meetings on behalf of residents, and addressed the Sydney City Council. Millicent says
one of the things that Shirley and I emphasised is that we were not just whinging NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) and this is still the way we work, we try to not just complain, but to expose the problem and offer solutions.
Millicent gave the example of how the RAG worked out a compromise solution for the retention of a small park near Pottinger Street. One of the local residents who was an architect, designed an alternative opportunity for the developers which allowed the park space to be replaced by housing. Millicent said the RAG tends to suggest adjustments or propose alternatives rather than just complaining.
It’s very hard to knock back a request from a group that is trying to accommodate everybody’s needs. It’s only fair. Also, we know the area here. Developers come in and make a proposal, but they don’t understand how the traffic works and how the noise works, and we can suggest ways they can go forward.
Millicent has now been chairing the RAG for 5 years. She says that life has become busier for her and for the RAG. To her surprise, people from the high rises in Kent Street abutting the historic area, have come into the RAG, participating much more than Millicent expected. A recent submission about the Barangaroo Development was written in part by residents in the high rises and a new resident from Millers Point.
Millicent has also been part of a local group that set up the Darling House local aged care hostel for“some of our most treasured personalities who are in their 80s and 90s.” The locals got funds to do up a dilapidated house to provide a living space for 8-9 residents, including a respite facility.
Millicent is, like other women I’ve interviewed, reluctant to identify herself as a leader – “I’m really the nursemaid – people say – Millicent will fix it. Millicent will do something”. However, in January 2010 she was included on the Australian Day Honours List for her service to the community and to aged persons.
Millicent says her main mentor in life was her mother, who she describes as “a strong lady with little formal education, but with great courage”. Her mother sat in the office of the Minister for Education until they gave her an appointment to protest at Millicent’s sister not being given a place at an academically selective school in favour of less able boys. Millicent’s grandmother was also a strong woman, and Millicent says her daughter “is a little bit bossy”.
Millicent finds it hard to pick her most admired leaders, but Barack Obama gets a special mention. Winston Churchill and Ghandi also attract her admiration although she says that very strong leaders like them are likely to have been very difficult to live or work with.
Millicent herself is committed to negotiation processes in leadership whenever possible.
Unless you want to really want to do something that is going to make an all out impact, it is so important to try and keep the balance so that one group of people’s interest is not satisfied at the expense of another group.
This is the approach that the RAG takes. The only time I could support not doing this is if there was absolutely overwhelming local support for stopping talks and negotiations. But unless it was an organic movement, through the community, I would be very wary of it.
Millicent’s life demonstrates many extraordinary achievements. Millicent’s approach to leadership through negotiation, discussion and compromise may be a legacy of her long legal career, but her commitment to the “organic” evolution of views within her group is also very interesting.