But there is only so much flexibility a project can, or should, incorporate, she adds. “There is a fine line between catering for differences and catering to the dysfunction. It is important to understand and appreciate that infrastructure simply isn’t there. Fresh food can be scarce during the wet season. Things simply take longer.”
Communication is no different. The most effective way to connect with locals and help them to understand the program has been to build relationships with community members who then become advocates. “Empowering them with the knowledge enables them to be a key role in the process such as hosting talks with parent groups,” explains Toon. “We took the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Aurukun on a five-day study tour to the US to observe schools of ‘No Excuses’, high expectation schools for disadvantaged children and direct instruction. It was a pivotal moment to see the penny drop for [Deputy Mayor] Phyllis Yunkaporta, to witness what her community children could be achieving.”
The rewards don’t end there Toon says. “I care about what we’re doing, I believe it will help people. Watching people step up to take leadership is most gratifying, [as is] seeing things work that people said couldn’t, like increasing school attendance. Witnessing a renewal of self-belief is priceless. Watching children love the program structure and feel confident about their learning is just stunning.”
Toon also has praise for Pearson, who she says was inspirational. “He has such a clear vision, he sees a different world, past the government structures. I feel privileged to see the very special way he explains complicated issues to communities in a way they will understand. I’ve grown enormously from working alongside some very innovative individuals, such as Don Anderson, the head of Western Cape College who is still passionate despite his 30-odd years in education and government bureaucracy.”
Politics and people
At just 29 years of age, Toon has risen to some seriously nail-biting challenges, such as pitching the ECIS Business Case to Westpac CEO Gail Kelly, and to Malcolm Turnbull, the then Opposition leader.
She has worked alongside current Opposition leader Tony Abbott during a stint working as an attendance case manager in Aurukun, and chalked up some enviable brushes with fame brought about by some high-profile support the program has attracted, including a kiss on the cheek by actor Hugh Jackman. While she quips that the kiss should guarantee the attention of every female project manager reading this article, she reminds herself that it has been hard work getting to this space.
Despite any setbacks or complications, Toon’s determination has not wavered. “I grew up in Cairns and had Indigenous friends. I saw what happened to kids that made it and those that didn’t. I believe in public education and the people of Cape York,” she says. “Working with Indigenous communities is challenging, but offers great opportunities for personal growth and can be highly rewarding when actions start making a difference.”
She says the personal connections made in the process of working and learning together, the fun and laughter that come with it, and even the sharing of sad stories and tears, are well worth the effort. “People and communities are much more than the sum of their problems. Imagine a time when all Cape communities have all Indigenous principals, trainers and teachers—I can.”
In the past 10 years, Indigenous Enterprise Partnerships (IEP) has facilitated in excess of 500 corporate secondees to work alongside Indigenous communities and organisations. With the success of advocates like Danielle Toon, IEP is now operating in four sites across Australia: Cape York in Queensland, Shepparton in Victoria, Redfern in New South Wales, and Kununurra in Western Australia.
Cape York Partnerships is based in Cairns and has many exciting opportunities for talented individuals who are prepared for a challenging but rewarding experience.