Vicki-Jo Russell

I interviewed Vicki-Jo, in what she describes as “her natural habitat” – her emerging permaculture garden in the suburbs of Adelaide – and you’ll be able to hear wonderful bird noises in the background in the audio extracts.

Vicki-Jo is Adelaide born (1970) and bred and grew up in an atheist family.  Her father, himself raised in a harsh Catholic home, was unwilling to allow his children to grow up with religion and she and her younger sister were not allowed to attend church until they were 15, and able to make informed decisions for themselves.   Vicki-Jo then “explored a few religions and denominations”, but is not now part of a religious community.  She describes herself as a Pantheist – worshipping God through nature and natural rituals, and showing her love for God and the universe by trying to protect it, and “putting back” into it – “a two way relationship with earth in a spiritual sense”.

Both of Vicki-Jo’s parents were originally teachers, but her father became a financial planner and developer in midlife.  Her mother worked through her childhood.  Neither of her parents were involved in politics or social change but were community-minded.

Vicki-Jo had a range of schooling as a young child, including a couple of years of home schooling as her family traveled the world.  Vicki-Jo’s mother says she’s been interested in the environment, and especially animals, from a young age.  She set up the first Environment Club at her High School. – which is still going 15 years later (Vicki-Jo was recently invited back to talk to the Club).

My mother reminds me that at first I was moved by the plight of species and the injustice of society’s decision making in relation to them and to traditional cultures but soon enough I realised that their plight was linked to our own. I was always interested in the well-being of both people and the environment, it soon occurred to me that the best way to achieve both was to become a conservationist – and the evidence continues to roll in validating that decision.

Vicki-Jo has a bachelors degree in psychology and biology.  She almost embarked on a career in neuro-physiology, but not being sure that it was the right fit for her, she undertook a second degree in natural resource management – one of the first to do this more specialised course.

After Uni, Vicki-Jo traveled around Australia with her partner David, doing volunteer work in national parks and other places, and had some fantastic experiences for a year.  They married when Vicki-Jo was 23.

In the extract below, Vicki-Jo describes her first year-long job at the Conservation Council of SA and her subsequent position as SA Threatened Species Network Coordinator, a position she held (with a change of title after a few years to South East Australia Regional Coordinator, Threatened Species Network) from 1995 to 2009.

The Threatened Species Network (TSN) was a partnership between the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Australian government to support and develop networks of community groups and other conservation partners to help stop the declining numbers of our native plants and animals, particularly those listed by Australia’s state and federal governments as threatened.

Because her TSN position was part time, Vicki-Jo also had a number of other part time jobs during those years.  Among these, she was Dragon Search Coordinator and Manager for WWF in South Australia. In 2003 and 2007 she took unpaid maternity after the birth of her two children. The family had no income for those two years, but they had managed their finances to allow them to do this.

Vicki-Jo was 32 when she had her first child, with her partner David.  The couple met at University and have now been together for 19 years.  Vicki-Jo’s husband has been based from home for all of their relationship, but, says Vicki-Jo, “husbands are not like wives.”

Dave’s responsible for the family logistics between 9 and 5 and he is skilled at many aspects of house maintenance – plumbing, car fixing, etc.  But I’m responsible for family coordination and for the social aspects of our lives – the extra-curricula activities.

One of their children has learning difficulties and requires a range of intensive therapies.  Vicki-Jo says that “pushing” is an absolutely critical part of parenting such a child– pushing for a diagnosis, pushing for school support, pushing to find the right therapies –  and that this is primarily her job.  Both Vicki-Jo and her husband share the day to day work of implementing the necessary therapy for her son.

Vicki-Jo thought she might have been intellectually bored during her two years at home, but instead she found herself engaged and interested – “exploring” her children, and developing community networks with other mothers.

In 2009, when the Commonwealth Government withdrew funding of TSN, Vicki-Jo needed to find another job.   In the extract below she explains why she stayed in Adelaide, and how she managed to pull together some paid organisational positions – particularly a Program Manager at the Conservation Council and some significant Board positions into a close to full time income. She has bolstered this with her own part-time consultancy since 2010.

After leaving the Conservation Council, the Adelaide Zoo approached her to take up her current position.  The Adelaide Zoo, run by the Royal Zoological Society of SA, is the only non-government owned and operated zoo in an Australian capital city.  The Zoo is interested in developing its conservation activities and Vicki-Jo’s job is to provide advice to the CEO on matters of national and international conservation policy and conservation partnership development.  She is also responsible for Special Projects, including drafting and consulting on a Strategic Plan for the Zoo.

I asked Vicki-Jo how her role as a leader has changed over the years.  In the extract below she explains that her advice is now being actively sought – whereas at the beginning of her career she had to work very hard to get a seat at the table.  She also outlines some of the skills that she is valued for – including her ability to do integrated conceptual thinking – and her sense of humour.

Vicki-Jo also points out in the extract that it’s quite hard for her to list out her skills so boldly (a level of modesty that I have found is consistent in most of the women I’ve interviewed).

After the interview, Vicki-Jo sent me some additional thoughts including the following:

When you asked me ‘why do you think people want you at the table?’ it really took me by surprise as I have obviously given it too little thought. So over the last week I asked a couple of colleagues and they said the following

* you can say the hardest things in the nicest ways – in a way that people are prepared to listen to (government colleague)

* you are less about tactics and more about solutions and you are always genuine; empathy is one of your greatest strengths (Board colleague)

* you are just brilliant, half the time people sit there in awe of what you have just said and wonder where on earth it came from (ngo colleague)

I asked Vicki-Jo about her mentors

I have never had one mentor per se nor one person to specifically emulate. Instead I have admired and learned little bits from lots of amazing people, but in doing so it was most important to apply that in a way that is true to my own style.

Some of those people who have granted me both time and encouragement are: Dennis Mutton a leader in SA NRM, Helen Fulcher former CEO of SA EPA, Michelle Grady former CEO of CCSA, Dr Jamie Pittock former Program Manager WWF-Australia and Lyn Goldsworthy Director Campaign Essentials.

Vicki-Jo has generally sought out her own leadership training and says that the environment movement invests too little in this area. She was part of a Queens Trust Young Leaders forum for 100 people under 35 (1998),  and the Australian Future Directions forum for leaders under the age of 40 (2006). She also applied for and received a Queens Trust for Young Australia scholarship – allowing her to travel overseas and find out how environmentalists in the US and Canada operate.

I asked Vicki-Jo how she would describe the process whereby she became a leader

I really feel I had little choice about it if I am entirely honest with myself.  I have spent most of my adult life working through strategies to cope and express who I am and my ideas rather than ever deciding who I want to be, I feel very proud to be so innately driven to lead because there are so many inspiring people to support through leadership.

I also need to say that I don’t make decisions about my career per se. I have never been a goal setter – instead I make decisions based on priorities, ethics and intuition at the time.   I have confidence this will lead me in the right direction, often well beyond what I could imagined.

Vicki-Jo says her family are very supportive of her, although they don’t always understand exactly what she’s doing.  In particular, they sometimes see that she could have enjoyed more financial security if she worked in another field.

If I applied my skills to an industry or government job, and worked as hard as I do,  I am confident that I’d be making more – but I’ve chosen to stay in the non-government environmental sector.  But I do think about retirement and how we’ll manage it.

I asked why women would not take on leadership roles in the environment movement

I see a lot of female leaders operating like me – being relationship brokers, who try to think differently – they’ll pull out a circuit breaker so everyone can move forward.  There are women of course who do not work like this, but generally I find female decision makers more gracious than their male counterparts. And they are definitely more inclusive in process in my experience.

But it’s a lot of responsibility.  Not everybody wants to take that on. It is very demanding, and because you have so few resources at your disposal, it’s demanding intellectually.  You have to be very strategic, to do more with less.  And it’s very demanding on your personal life and your physical health.

It’s also intimidating at times – I’m put in intimidating situations on a weekly basis, and I’ve seen very good colleagues get depressed, because they have to fight so hard and there’s so few wins.  … You’ve got to keep going even when you experience a lot of loss.  You’ve somehow got to be able to keep doing what you do, and give to others who look to you to be hopeful, strong, focused and constructive.

You have to think about leadership.  What does it mean, how to do it well, there aren’t many opportunities to do that.  People don’t want to talk about being a leader – it’s not a natural conversation for women in my experience.  Helping women to see themselves as leaders, to explore, to continue to develop, to have the mental and emotional space to develop it, there’s a pretty big shortage of that.

Vicki-Jo received the Young Australian of the Year award for the environment in 1998 and in 2003, she was a Recipient – Member of the General Division of the Order of Australia (AM).  She has a number of other significant recognitions of her achievements.

The following extract from Vicki-Jo’s CV describes her well I think.

I aspire to be a leader and a significant contributor to achieving greater ecological resilience in Australia. Community commitment, resilience principles, justice and empathy, sound science and robust policy and processes will need to be at the heart of what I do if my contribution will stand the test of time.


About Jane Elix

I don't have enough bandwidth to deal with this
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