Victorian Landcare Magazine - Summer 2019, Issue 74

Learning to lead by listening

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Above: Fern Hames on a women’s Homeward Bound leadership expedition at Antarctica in 2016.

By Fern Hames

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One evening, in a tiny country hall by a meandering river, I realised that the best thing I could do was to keep my mouth shut. In that moment I recognised the power of people learning and growing their advocacy together.

It was a regular monthly meeting with people who lived along the river including Landcare group members, anglers, the CMA, local council, and me from the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research (ARI). We’d spent many months talking about the river – what we loved about it, issues we wanted to address and actions to take.

On this night, a new member came along to advocate for more willows along the river. I went to give my opinion, but then I realised I should just keep quiet. I didn’t need to say a thing. The people who lived along the river knew the story. We’d explored this many times, and shared all the research and our experiences in discussions, at field days and on walks along the river. The river had plenty of advocates that night and I had achieved what I’d intended all along – I’d made myself redundant.

From algae to community
That evening was another turning point in a meandering career journey, in which I’ve progressively moved my attention from the wild things in the world to the people who interact with them. I began my career studying Antarctic algae. I adored absorbing everything I could about Antarctica, and imagining these tiny, resilient plants nestled in sheltered spaces on that distant southern continent.

My work then shifted to studying freshwater fish – in aquaculture, and then ecology. It became clear that I needed to connect with the people who were managing aquaculture systems. It was people who were driving the impacts on our rivers. It is people who have the tools and influence to shape what happens in those systems. And it is people who live in, and also care about, those places.

So over the years I’ve become increasingly interested in connecting people with each other, science and nature. I’ve worked as a researcher, remote expeditioner and lecturer. I’ve developed aquaculture policy, helped farmers improve water efficiency, and volunteered in Tanzania with the Jane Goodall Institute. 

My work coordinating native fish research through the Murray-Darling Basin Authority from 2007 to 2013 was when I first truly realised the power of a widely collaborative approach to research, of sharing science stories, and supporting linked action. We worked with Traditional Owners, Landcare groups, farmers, irrigators, paddlers, recreational fishers, birdwatchers, students, teachers, artists and musicians. We learnt together about our rivers and their fish and worked together to support them. I still see the legacy of that work in ongoing advocacy and strong custodianship. 

Antarctica is awesome, but just as awesome is the network of extraordinary women all around the world working towards changing the way we lead, and the way we treat our planet.

Growing the voice of women in science
In my current role at ARI I’m committed to doing all I can do to connect people to science and nature. I’ve also circled back to Antarctica. In 2016 I joined the inaugural Homeward Bound leadership program, designed to grow the voice of women in science.

This experience has helped to clarify some of the key qualities I have found useful as a woman working in science. These include a deep commitment to authenticity, having the courage for fierce conversations, finding allies, building networks, being bold, speaking up, developing a sense of humour and a commitment to kindness, and always maintaining good communication. 

Fern Hames and Taungurong Elder Uncle Roy Patterson at a Native Fish Awareness Week event in Marysville in 2010.

Above: Fern Hames and Taungurong Elder Uncle Roy Patterson at a Native Fish Awareness Week event in Marysville in 2010.

In January 2019 I will be back on the ice, leading science communication with the next Homeward Bound team. Antarctica is awesome, but just as awesome is the network of extraordinary women all around the world working towards changing the way we lead, and the way we treat our planet. I learn something from them every day. They give me a powerful sense of optimism, and reinforce my knowledge that we are, indeed, stronger together.  

Fern Hames is Science Manager, Communication and Collaboration at ARI.

For more information email Fern at fern.hames@delwp.vic.gov.au