The groundbreaking career of educator, academic and now non-executive director Dr Jessa Rogers GAICD has been driven by her passion to ensure First Nations voices are always heard.
Although it may be unfamiliar territory for some board directors, advocating First Nations voices has been a constant thread in the interweaving strands of the career of Dr Jessa Rogers GAICD. The 38-year- old Wiradjuri (central NSW) woman has spent much of her career championing change for First Nations students in boarding schools.
Her work as a pioneering school educator, academic and Australia’s youngest Indigenous principal has attracted national and international recognition, earning her a Fulbright Scholarship at Harvard University, a Churchill Fellowship and an abundance of accolades including NAIDOC Young Person of the Year, ANU Postgraduate Student of the Year and QUT Young Alumnus of the Year.
While her research and other education commitments show no signs of slowing, she also recently added two new board memberships — Wesley Mission Queensland and St Philip’s College Alice Springs — to her growing portfolio, which began with her 2018 appointment to the national Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia.
“I’ve always been led by my heart, but more importantly, by the needs that I see,” says Rogers, describing her transition from academic pursuits into the boardroom as a natural progression of her quest to serve people going through challenging times. It’s a vocation, she says, born from one of the toughest periods in her early life.
As a 16-year-old, Rogers was excelling as she headed into her final year at her Sunshine Coast high school — ambitious A-grade student, athletics state champion, musically gifted — when she became pregnant. Her school community, a Christian college, could have ostracised her, as her family initially did. Instead, despite objections from some corners of the community, she was embraced by her teachers, and graduated with her 10-day-old son in her arms.
The care shown by her school at such a vulnerable time was the guiding light for many of Rogers’ career choices, beginning with studying an education degree, which — baby son in tow — she passed with first class honours.
A year into primary school teaching and eager to do more to support students experiencing difficulties, she accepted a role as the Indigenous support officer at a girls’ school in Brisbane, caring for boarders from communities as far away as Cape York. During this stint, her shift towards academia began. She’d been keen to improve the way the boarders in her care were supported, but struggled to find any existing data or research to help her benchmark performance.
“I was connecting with a lot of other boarding schools with Aboriginal student cohorts and started asking questions around what modelling there was and what it showed,” she says. “Which communities do all these kids come from? Why do they come to boarding schools? How does it help, or hinder? What are the percentages that graduate? There was just nothing — no thesis, no research. And I thought, ‘How is it possible that there’s all this money being invested in this approach to Indigenous education, but no-one’s actually done any research on it, no measurement of outcomes?’”
This fired up Rogers’ ambition to fill the void, undertaking a PhD through the Australian National University examining Aboriginal girls’ experiences in Australian urban boarding schools.
Given the dearth of data, Rogers found herself creating a new research method she dubbed “photoyarn”. It allows student voices to come to the fore, rather than the interpretation of the researcher — a novel technique since adopted by other academic investigators. “It’s a student- led method, where they would take photos that were contextually meaningful to them, then yarn about the photos and conduct their own thematic analysis of the data they gathered and share those findings with their community,” she says. “It’s an organic, evidence-based approach, where I offered skills to a community that I knew desperately needed some focus and whose voices were sorely lacking in research and policy.”
Her findings, which she’s set to expand in another three-year research project funded by the Australian Research Council this year, highlighted issues in the boarding school system. She found a greater focus was needed on the cultural wellbeing of Indigenous boarders, along with a deeper understanding of the true cost on students and their communities of a system that receives tens of millions of dollars in government investment. “Because I truly don’t believe you can just keep going down a path without knowing that it actually works,” she says.
Midway through her PhD, in 2016, Rogers took on another groundbreaking opportunity, becoming the inaugural principal — and Australia’s youngest First Nations principal — of the country’s first boarding school for young First Nations mothers and their babies. Located north of Cairns at Wangetti Beach, the Cape York Girl Academy houses up to 20 girls aged 12–17, around half of them mothers. While the young women attend classes with a culturally centred curriculum and tailored support, their babies are cared for in the school’s early learning centre.
“It was amazing to be leading an educational option for young women and to combine so many aspects of my own experience — from being a young mum myself, my background in education and having worked with Indigenous girls in boarding schools,” says Rogers, who still watches with pride the students’ ongoing strong graduation rates. “Most importantly, it was a school born from the community’s wish for an option for those girls to finish their schooling and gain work skills. They needed an option so they wouldn’t have to make the choice to leave their child behind or to just drop out.”
As her first executive leadership role, she says it was the hardest she’s had, given the intensity of launching what was essentially a startup, with limited budget, in unfamiliar and challenging territory. But it was also pivotal for her career, opening her mind to the value she could add by joining boards. “I was very lucky to have an amazing board, in particular the Aboriginal women on that board,” she says. “It was a powerful example of Indigenous governance in action. It helped me to see that I’m suited to strategic decisions. I love setting culture and I’m passionate about cultural competence from the top.”
Rogers has since put that passion into practice in a variety of governance roles, notably her work influencing the cultural competency of Australian schoolteachers through an advisory group of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, and work with the Australia Health Practitioners Regulation Agency that has seen cultural safety embedded into health governance in Australia. “These are big steps for Australian healthcare, so I’ve been proud to be part of that, and part of a culturally safe group of board directors who were ready to have those really hard conversations,” she says.
Listen to the Voice
There’s one question Rogers doesn’t think is being asked enough around many of Australia’s board tables. If there was a treaty that informed the way we engage with local Aboriginal people, what changes might we need to make in our organisations?
It’s a governance practicality the researcher, educator and board member believes directors ought to be grappling with as the nation heads towards a referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament and conversations occur across the country around First Nations agreement-making processes — or treaty — and truth-telling.
“If there’s no Indigenous voice at the top levels of an organisation, it’s time for boards to start thinking about how they’re going to engage with Indigenous voices, and how what they learn might flow into their policies, into their practices, how it informs the culture of their organisation,” says Rogers. “Because it’s no use just having a voice — a voice needs to be heard.”
Keen to grow her board portfolio, Rogers hasn’t ruled out joining a listed company board, but views not-for-profits as more likely to fit with her personality, governance style, skillset and her “really big heart for disadvantaged and marginalised people”.
“There’s so much untapped potential in Australia that is restricted by structural barriers and racism,” she says. “So I will always look for opportunities to address that.”
She believes her work with First Nations communities — which often involved “finding the threads between many competing viewpoints and being mindful of your own impact” — along with her natural proclivity towards data, inquiry and lifelong learning — stood her in good stead for the boardroom.
At the same time, Rogers has been fascinated by “watching and learning” how governance can play out when there are different perspectives in the room. “Making strides as a board really boils down to the people, their governance skills and the perspectives they bring,” she says. “In Australia, we’re starting to understand what it means to have diversity, the beauty of having diverse representation and culturally informed governance. It brings with it things that exist outside of the boardroom and that’s all part of the journey.”
This article first appeared under the headline 'Adding Value' in the May 2023 issue of Company Director magazine.
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