Woman Messimeri-Kianidis, Voula (c. 1950 - )
- c. 1950
- Community worker, Ethnic leader and Feminist
- Alternative Names
- Messimeri, Voula
Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne, with the National Film and Sound Archive
Voula Messimeri-Kianidis is the current (2013) Executive Director of the Australian Greek Welfare Society (AGWS) and the immediate past Chair, now Honorary President, of the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia (FECCA). She was the first woman to hold either position and has been a role model for women aspiring to take leadership roles in ethnic community organisations. An important contributor on a variety of boards and committees in the community sector, along with numerous state and federal government advisory councils in the areas of health, ageing, income support, and media until 2011, she was a member on the Australian Multicultural Advisory Council. She is a staunch advocate for the elimination of violence against women and is the Patron of the InTouch Multicultural Centre against Family Violence. In 2007 she was inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women and in 2008 became a Member of the Order of Australia for service to the community through executive roles with a range of multicultural organisations, and advocacy roles on behalf of migrants, refugees and women.
Messimeri-Kianidis was born in Thessalia, Greece, in the mid-1950s and grew up in a society that was still feeling the sharp impact of the ravages of war. Most of the adult male members of her immediate and extended families became economic refugees and, although their stories of migration are by and large stories of success, the untold backstory to any narrative of migration is one of fragmentation, dislocation, separation and loss. Her uncle moved to Australia, and she watched her grandmother's pain as, one by one, her sons were forced to leave the village to find work. Her father and mother, like many young Greek men and women, became migrant workers in the post-war period, helping in the reconstruction of a Germany which would not permit family migration. From the age of five until she was almost eleven, Messimeri-Kianidis was brought up by her grandmother. Her parents would periodically come back to the village to visit their children, but it was her grandmother's influence and example that 'brought her up with a sense of entitlement as a woman.' A strong female presence, she says, 'has always been central to my upbringing' (Interview).
Both of Messimeri-Kianidis' brothers were born while her father was a migrant worker in Germany. It was the birth of her second brother who was born in Germany that forced their decision to migrate to Australia. The unification of the family was the motivating force, and since that could never happen in Germany, her parents decided to take her uncle's advice and move to Australia. The pain of leaving her grandmother was profound but so was their need to become a family. The family left Greece for Australia, arriving in Melbourne in 1969. Connecting with her uncle once they had arrived was complicated - her parents had accidentally thrown his address out when they were packing to go - and they had to spend a short time in Bonegilla before he was tracked down through Greek community networks. 'Those ten days at Bonegilla might well have been ten weeks', she said, hating everything about the experience, from the food to the lack of empathy from some staff. When her uncle brought them to live in his house in Hawthorn, she remembers, 'It was a crowded but welcoming environment but possibly a bit difficult for the women who were trying to look after their families' (Interview). After two years of hard work, her parents bought their first house in Hawthorn.
When Messimeri-Kianidis started at Richmond High School, she had a lot of catching up to do. A year at home looking after her brother while her parents worked delayed her learning English, forced to rely on osmosis and the help of an English speaking friend and some supportive teachers. Upon presenting to enrol at the school she was given the English name, Betty, by the school principal. Even though 70% of the children had a Greek background, most had been born in Australia. She felt she had more in common with a couple of outsiders like herself, a Polish girl and the boy who taught her English. Not that her 'outsider status' at school was a source of unhappiness; on the contrary, she enjoyed school, it was the place where she learned to love to read English and found a place to deal with the nostalgia for Greece and her extended family that she experienced 'like a physical ache' (Interview). As she grew more confident, she took on leadership roles through school sport and the Student Representative Council. She wasn't a brilliant student, but she was a good and conscientious one. She did well enough in the Higher School Certificate exams to enrol in a psychology degree at La Trobe University.
Of the numerous points of difference between Greek and Australian society that she observed, the lack of political awareness in Australian young people was one she found particularly striking. Political discussion was part and parcel of Greek family life and argument within the contexts of the extended family was the place where she cut her political teeth. There's no doubt in her mind that this background contributed to her ability to negotiate ethnic community politics in years to come. It taught her to understand that disagreement is part of public political discourse and that it isn't necessarily something to be feared, but to be worked through. It frustrated her that young Australian people appeared to be so relatively apathetic, especially when she knew that back in Greece it was her generation who were 'spearheading the rebuilding of the social and intellectual fabric of Greece'. With the election of Gough Whitlam in 1972, she felt a little more connected to public political discourse. 'I felt part of the 'It's Time' generation and was relieved that there was more political energy and engagement' (Interview).
Messimeri-Kianidis completed two years of clinical psychology but switched to Social Work after a short break from study because she preferred doing policy based work over case work in the welfare sector. Her first posting after graduation was in Seymour in 1982 working as a family counselor and community development officer. She was the first social worker to be sent to the area and found the extent of family violence and child abuse in the Puckapunyal and surrounding Seymour community confronting. 'I felt an undercurrent of concern about activities that were exposed nearly two decades later', she says 'but I was overwhelmed by the issues and needed to get out of direct counselling' (Interview).
After moving back to Melbourne Messimeri-Kianidis began working in the community welfare sector in the inner city, conscious of the importance of the feminist and migrant perspective she brought to places like the Richmond Workers Centre. She began to get involved in migrant and multicultural politics and organisations in a voluntary capacity and was equally concerned that a feminist perspective was essential to the work she did there. Becoming the inaugural chair of Women's Health in the North was a significant point in her involvement in non-paid positions because it brought her to the attention of key figures in ethnic politics in Victoria. Walter Lippmann 'was probably my most important mentor', she says (Interview). He helped to move her understanding of feminism into the broader space of multiculturalism and encouraged her to get out of her comfort zone. But her feminism also brought her in touch with important Victorian women. Joan Kirner was 'a model for what women could achieve.' She encouraged other talented women to develop collective models of governance 'so that groups of women were helping each other; sharing knowledge and leveraging contacts and the political process' (Interview). The lessons of that collective approach served her well when she became involved in the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria (ECCV) and the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia (FECCA). Effective networking skills and the capacity to relate with grassroots membership that she developed in community advocacy were vital to her style of leadership and her success.
In 1989 Messimeri-Kianidis was appointed the Executive Director of the Australian Greek Welfare Society (AGWS). The job requires that she manage a range of programs in the Greek community in the areas of aged and disability care, childcare, training, counselling, community education and policy. It is a role that brings her in touch with service users, volunteers, paid staff and board members and the formal political structures of ethnic politics in Victoria, thus requiring her to draw upon a wide range of communication and negotiating skills as she serves and represents the users of the service. As the first woman to be elected to the preeminent role of leader, representing multicultural communities in Australia, she received enormous support and encouragement. She also experienced some hostility. 'The contrast between my caring response to the community users and my steely resolve at a board level did not sit well with some of the male members who did not expect to see that determination in a woman' (Interview).
While the challenges of taking leadership roles in the ethnic community sector are substantial, and the road can be lonely and sometimes painful in an environment dominated by men, the benefits of involvement have also been substantial, personally and for the communities she represents. Messimeri-Kianidis was not only the first woman to preside over FECCA but when she was elected in 2005, she was a young woman, and she is proud of the way her 'difference' enabled a change in the nature of the conversation about immigration and refugees that was taking place at a national level. She is proud of the way FECCA, under her leadership, leveraged debates about the form of citizenship testing that were proposed at the time, to shine a light on the needs of Africans and other newly arrived communities that weren't being addressed. Importantly she actively sought to position the benefits of multiculturalism in the national discourse during a period in the Australian political landscape hostile to this debate.
While her disappointment with the commentary of national political leadership during her period of leadership at FECCA was (and remains) profound, she is proud that in the state of Victoria, where she has lived and worked since her family arrived in Australia as so-called 'economic refugees', there is bipartisan, legislated support for multiculturalism. If real leadership is, as she says, less about the position and more about the capacity to influence and add value, then in her immediate sphere of influence, she has left a legacy. 'Leadership isn't about making boxes', she says, 'it's about putting something in them' (Interview).
National Library of Australia Oral History Collection
- O'Connell, Brigid, 'When Coburg's Voula Messimeri-Kianidis arrived in Australia as a 12-year-old from Greece, she never dreamt she would one day be included on the Queen's Birthday Honours List', Moreland Leader, 9 June 2008, p. 8. Details
- 'Messimeri, Voula', The Australian Women's Register, National Foundation for Australian Women, http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE2117b.htm. Details
- 'EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - Ms Voula Messimeri-Kianidis AM', in Australian Greek Welfare Society: Responding with Innovation, Services and Advocacy, 18 December 2013, http://www.agws.com.au/Management-NewW.htm. Details