A passionate advocate for human rights, Tanya Jackson-Vaughan has dedicated her career to helping migrants, refugees and people seeking asylum. Whether working as a university ESL teacher, as political advisor to Anthony Albanese MP, as the transformative Executive Director of Refugee Advice & Casework Service (RACS) for almost a decade, and now as CEO of Dress for Success Sydney (DfSS), Tanya is a courageous advocate for a world where progressive ideas and social justice promote dignity and respect for all. The Office Space’s Naomi Tosic spoke with Tanya about her life’s work and how the generosity of the business world can help those less fortunate to find employment and improve their quality of life.
NT: Tanya, you have recently undertaken the role of DfSS CEO after 8 years as Executive Director of Refugee Advice & Casework Service (RACS). It feels like a natural and positive progression – from supporting people seeking asylum in our country to supporting women seeking greater independence through employment.
What did your time at RACS reveal about the resilience of human nature under adversity?
TJV: My time at RACS introduced me to some of the bravest people I have ever met. The human rights lawyers who went into battle for their clients were compassionate, dedicated human rights defenders. Some of the most ethical people I have ever met. The people who came to RACS for assistance, people like you and I but with the misfortune to be born in a country where climate change, war and injustice have made life dangerous and unbearable, were some of the bravest and dignified people you could hope to meet. They had risked everything to escape persecution and certain death in the hope of finding a safe future for themselves and their families. Regardless of the insurmountable challenges that they had to face, the people who came to RACS, from countries like Syria, Iraq, Burma, Iran and Sri Lanka, were thoughtful, humble and kind. The average wait for a 3 or 5 year visa has been around 6 years. Imagine waiting that long to know whether you are going to be able to stay in safety. Their patience is extraordinary but I fear the extensive delays have caused significant mental health issues for people already traumatised. The work at DFSS provides women from diverse backgrounds hope of a better future. The transformational change of women who come through our service is inspirational. Many of the women we assist come from significant disadvantage – domestic violence, refugees, long term unemployed – but thanks to our programs they build up their resilience to survive knock backs and ultimately many are successful in finding a job.
NT: DfSS is a wonderful resource for many women across Sydney.
What has surprised you about the need for these services?
TJV: I have been excited to see how diverse the women are that come to DFSS. We have women of indigenous backgrounds, refugees and migrants, survivors of domestic violence, young school leavers, women over 50, women with criminal records and trans women. DFSS has responded to this diversity by developing tailored programs to meet the needs of specific groups. Feedback from clients indicates that these bespoke programs are having the desired impact. We are continuously tweaking the programs to better respond to the needs of our clients. For example, we have a dedicated trans women program and an outreach for women going through the probation system.
NT: What else are women seeking beyond clothing and styling?
TJV: The combination of confidence boosting styling sessions and professionally developed and delivered career support programs provides women with the courage to go out and look for work. The value add of the programs is the opportunity for women to get together weekly with other women in a similar situation and know that they are not alone, that there are other people like them – lonely in a new country, unconfident, worried or just needing a bit of a confidence boost after yet another job rejection. The peer support aspect of the programs is invaluable. We have had women from migrant backgrounds explain how they arrived in Australia knowing no one, not understanding how to apply for a job, write a resume, let alone survive an Australian job interview. But after attending Dress for Success Sydney they no longer felt alone, grew in confidence and could navigate the job market.
NT: Sydney Women’s Fund’s Portrait III research (2018) revealed that 38% of Sydney’s adult women speak a language other than English at home and 48% earn less than $34,000 per year. As a woman who has lived here and abroad, and worked with university students, Asylum Seekers, and even politicians.
What do you believe is the true picture of Sydney that we might not see beyond the CBD circle?
TJV: I was born in the UK to Australian parents and have spent half my life in Sydney. Being a person who was Australian in the UK and has an English accent in Australia, I have a small insight into being an “other”. This is perhaps why I have been drawn to helping people from diverse backgrounds. Sydney is a culturally rich and diverse city. Through my previous work teaching English as a second language at University and in the community, assisting migrants and refugees in a Federal MP’s office and as Director of a refugee legal centre, I have experienced a very different reality to many who live monocultural suburbs. Sydney is bursting with cultural diversity. I live in a suburb where most of my neighbours speak Greek or Chinese as their first language, my daughters’ school had 52 languages spoken by the students, my previous work had people of Tamil, Ukrainian, Iraqi, Iranian, Arabic, South African, Lebanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Sierra Leonean backgrounds. Everyone has a family they love, everyone worries about job security, everyone has hopes and fears. But for people of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, particularly women, the challenge of finding decent, permanent work is an ongoing challenge. We need to reduce the recruitment bias against people who have a “different” type of name, who don’t have Australian work experience. Give these women a chance and you will be rewarded by dedication, loyalty and hard work.
NT: How critical is corporate and social support to DfSS?
TJV: Dress for Success is a not-for-profit organisation that relies almost completely on fundraising. Many know us for our styling service and we receive generous levels of donated clothes. These clothes help us to ensure that our clients are provided with high quality smart and fashionable clothes for their interviews. However, we cannot survive on clothes alone. In order to provide our transformational programs and maintain an effective, well operated organisation we need funds. We need corporate Australia to get behind our mission to transform women’s lives through getting work. We seek corporate partners who are willing to make long term financial commitments to partner with Dress for Success Sydney so that we can continue to help women into work. We also welcome organisations willing to offer our women life changing job opportunities. Individual donations and philanthropic grants allow us to develop innovative programs and strengthen our capacity to operate effectively. And none of our work would be possible without our army of volunteers. Our board is committed to growing a strong, impactful organisation. Our sales volunteers run highly successful sales events and our stylists ensure each client has one hour of styling advice and clothes that look “just right”. Corporate volunteers from HR and recruitment agencies deliver our workshops, whilst others help sort the large amounts of clothes we receive from generous community members.
NT: During the course of your career you have worked in political office, in institutions, in private sector, and now NFP. And you have felt the flux of funding and in policy that changes in government create.
Where do you believe the distribution of social justice, advocacy and responsibility should sit as we move into a new decade?
TJV: Whilst I am a strong believer in government funding for social justice and community programs, and would like to see an increase in this support for life changing/saving work, there is most certainly a place for philanthropy and corporates in the social change movement. Having worked at an organisation that was fully government funded and then had an 85% funding cut, I understand the importance of diversified funding streams. Whilst government funding can provide stability, it is never a given, and the other concern is that this funding can come with restrictions on an organisation’s advocacy. Prescriptive performance requirements linked to this funding can limit an organisation’s ability to respond flexibly and to innovate. Philanthropic and corporate funding may be less constrictive. It is vital that not for profits working with the most disadvantaged in society are able to speak out about the challenges their clients face. Corporates play a critical leadership role in our society, often leading the way in areas of social justice, helping to push the politicians in the right direction – think marriage equality, the Uluru Statement of the Heart and the anti-slavery movement. In order to be effective in working towards social change, we need to look for our allies in government, business as well as our own social sector. For Dress for Success Sydney, I have a vision of business and the community joining us along our transformational journey, empowering women by sponsoring our life-changing programs, volunteering, and providing job opportunities to our Dress for Success alumni, women who have the skills and experience but just needed to be given that ‘foot in the door’. Together we can change the lives of women and the lives of their families.