Having grown up in Melbourne’s west, it has been interesting to look on as the suburbs’ demographics and facades have changed and developed. As the housing market skyrocketed, people finally woke up to what was once a local secret; the west’s
close proximity to the CBD. So much so, they even found it within themselves to look past its industrial aesthetic, resulting in greater demand and even greater amenities (i.e. good coffee – thank god). One area in particular that has come far is Brimbank.
Identified as a Priority Precinct by the Victorian Government, there are planned developments and investment on the horizon, with projects like the Sunshine Super Hub and the Melbourne Airport Rail Link, meaning more jobs and services.
Leading the way are two Greek Australian women at the helm, Helen Morrissey, elected CEO in 2017, and Mayor Georgina Papafotiou, who was voted in by her peers in November 2019.
Sitting down with the two leaders, their dynamic is professional, but with a sense of familiarity, like two good friends. They both agree that they can’t deny their shared cultural background helps, giving greater depth to their understanding of one another, which reflects in their work.
“It’s a values alignment based on the fact that we inherently understand our journeys,” explains Ms Morrissey. “The journeys of our parents, their aspirations and how that translates to the aspirations of many in this community, and so just having that naturally is a recipe for success.”
Their emphasis on the significance on culture is fitting, given Brimbank is one of Australia’s most culturally diverse councils, representing over 160 different nationalities. Among some 210,000 residents, there are an estimated 20,000 who identify as having some form of Greek or Cypriot background, some of whom played a key part in helping Cr Papafotiou to get to where she is today.
PERSONAL ADVERSITY TO HELPING OTHERS
With a background in education, Cr Papafotiou is quick to highlight that it was “only by accident” that she got into Council, one she has fully embraced from day one. But it wasn’t without hardship.
Cr Papafotiou was struck with a personal health challenge while pursuing her vocation at the Department of Education. After using up all her leave for doctors appointments and hospital stays, she was left with no option but to part ways with a 28-year career she loved.
It was during a stay in hospital that a seed was planted by a member of the local Greek community, who, being aware of Papafotiou’s father’s philanthropic work within the Greek community, suggested she would be a good candidate to run for Council.
“I said ‘How am I going to do it? There’s less than two months!’ I think it was August, and the elections were in October. And they said ‘We’ll do it for you’,” she recalls.
From there she registered, attended workshops and the rest – the running around, the leaflet dropping – was all done by the community.
“They obviously believed in me,” Cr Papafotiou says. “They recognised what my dad did for the community in the past and obviously wanted me to take those steps on. And being the oldest of five girls I had to follow my dad’s footsteps,” she says smiling. Now three years on, and Papafotiou is Mayor.
An active representative, she has made a name for herself raising awareness and assisting victims of violence, as well as championing greater opportunity for women in sport, resulting in her selection as President of the newly established Olympiacos club in Melbourne.
Cr Papafotiou’s rapid success is in part due to her openness, and willingness to be vulnerable with her life story, and the empathy she in turn exhibits for others – something that is often lacking among political representatives.
Cr Papafotiou was a victim of crime herself. Amidst her health struggles in 2015, somebody started stalking her via social media. Faced with threats directed not only at herself, but her children, when she found little help from the legal system she was determined to seek justice elsewhere.
“I wrote to members of parliament, ministers, the police commissioner and eventually I was able to meet the late Fiona Richardson who was back then the Minister for Women and Prevention of Family Violence. She listened to my story and she actually teared [about] what I was going through and the lack of support I was receiving as a victim of crime,” Cr Papafotiou recalls. “Once I got a lot of support from her it encouraged me to help out others, and not just other women, because it happens to men and children as well.”
Speaking of her experience, she is still visibly shaken by the memory, but firmly believes it has made her a better leader, set on giving other victims a voice.
MIGRANT HISTORY A CONSTANT REMINDER & INSPIRATION
Ms Morrissey’s career in Council has spanned over two decades, coming up to 10 years at Brimbank alone. But she admits her ambition was never to be a CEO.
“My goal has always been to have a humane organisation and I make no apologies for that,” she says, revealing that she had “the same self doubt thing that plagues a lot of people, women in particular”. This however hasn’t stopped her from getting ahead, perhaps because all the inspiration she needs is found within her migrant roots.
A child of Greek migrants, she recalls the challenges they endured, as well as their tenacity in leaving everything they knew behind for the promise of a better future for themselves, and in particular their children.
“As a new migrant with limited English skills, my father always viewed himself as ‘the bottom of the road’. He worked in a factory. He was a smart and sensitive man, but that was the only job that he could get, and he worked really, really, really hard – as all of them did. I remember him saying to me once, ‘We had none of this when we came; we had no help’. Imagine if they’d been given a whole lot of support what they could have achieved,” Ms Morrissey ponders.
When it comes to migrant communities she works with and represents today, there are clear similarities with experiences of the 50s and 60s; many have faced poverty, hunger, the trauma of war – on varying scales, and the trauma of leaving home and loved ones behind.
While she acknowledges and empathises with the challenges that exist for migrants today, the assistance and services available are much greater than they were for the first wave of migrants.
“That’s why people like me worked to make sure that there was help for the next wave of migration, because we saw how hard it was,” she says.
“If you want to make a difference in people’s life, remove the barriers, and facilitate and help; make sure they have a voice to get on with their lives.”
PAVING THE WAY FOR THE NEXT WAVE
Having two Greek women at the helm of Council is noteworthy, not only for fellow Greeks who are proud of the achievements of their compatriots, but as a symbol of what can be achieved through migration and opportunity – particularly significant at a council like Brimbank.
As a migrant community that has achieved so much, embedding itself across all sectors and aspects of Australian life, it seems only fitting that two Greek women would represent and lead council that is home to many newly arrived. The concept of multiculturalism is often debated – does the ideology really work, or just in theory? Morrisey and Papafotiou are among those demonstrating that it can work, even if it does take generations of understanding, genuine empathy, and a commitment to unpacking what true leadership looks like, something Australians are crying out for today.