I’m sitting at the helm of the pumping dancefloor at my recent birthday party, and a friend says, ‘thank you for bringing us all together these past twenty years, to dance, connect and celebrate.’ Leadership isn’t necessarily a formal role, it’s stepping up to follow our dreams, explore our talents, meet a need, persevering despite the challenges and being a role model. There are many unsung leaders amongst us, who are quietly making a difference. I’m one of them, and I’ve learnt some valuable lessons.
When I was on a trip to the East Coast in 1993, lying on a trampoline on a hillside outside Mullumbimby, I was asking ‘What next for my career? What brings together my gifts, abilities and skills in a way that will make my heart sing and make a difference, while being physically possible?’ I was stepping away from my environmental science work, but what next? With my gift of the gab and left-brain capabilities – combined with an eight-year spiritual journey by then – came the vision of a conscious living radio program. Within a couple of months, I was on a steep learning curve on an existing radio show on public radio RTRFM 92.1, and a year later I was running it solo, for two hours on a Sunday afternoon. I called it Full Circle, and for fifteen years I explored consciousness, spirituality, and wellbeing.
How did I get there?
An Early Leader
Leadership is not something I’ve sought, it’s been a by-product of stepping up repeatedly, paving new ground as I’ve followed my bliss and inspiration, using my talents and skills.
In year 12 I was voted school arts captain, while also being captain of the school debating team and representing the school in public speaking competitions. Ahead of its time, my school promoted not only sport but the arts as well, and this non-sporty person made the most of the opportunities to develop my abilities and ideas.
As arts captain I was co-chairperson of a committee of teachers and students which organised the large arts festival and other activities for the school year. I learnt valuable lessons about how to conduct a meeting to get results, how to listen, how to make a good argument, to work as a team and deal with differing views, to thoroughly plan and think ahead of possible outcomes, and delegating using the strengths of each person.
Pioneering Good Environmental Practice
In 1982, in my first job after graduating from university with a double major in biology and environmental science, leadership was required. I was the first environmental officer employed by local government in WA, and I started from scratch pioneering good environmental practice that continues today.
But it was challenging. It was physically demanding, and I often nearly killed myself doing too much, trying to appear able. I had to learn to be confident (or fake it well), to hold my own in the world of big powerful men and stand tall despite my short stature. What gave a huge boost to my confidence, strength and clarity was that I started diving into group therapy, meditation, and spirituality. I became a better communicator and stood more firmly in my own being. To change entrenched views (i.e., the environment is an afterthought) needed a combination of firmness backed by science, with sensitivity to find effective ways of getting around established egos.
Knowing, Owning and Working on our Shit
This is when I learnt my most valuable lesson. An effective leader knows, owns, and works on their own shit. We all have our issues, our wounds, our conditioning, and beliefs that don’t serve us, and unless we know and work on them, they leak out to those around us, they sabotage us, they rob us of self-worth and confidence. I became more aware and healed my wounds. I tasted my inner vastness. My journey to love and accept myself and my body had begun. The course of my life changed forever.
When I got my dream job of working in national parks it also involved leadership, coordinating a team developing management plans for national parks. We were from different backgrounds, forestry, national park rangers, middle managers, with me the only woman. We had some disagreements, but we managed to work together for the best of the national parks. I learnt to hold the vision, to drive the process, to listen to all stakeholders, how to be professional and to keep a sense of humour with the team.
When traipsing around the wilds of WA became too physically demanding, my spirit was yearning for more. It took eighteen months, mainly spent travelling through Southeast Asia and living at an ashram in India, until the vision of my radio show emerged, on that trampoline.
I believe we are all born with our own unique set of abilities and talents, and part of our life purpose is to use and develop these, while hopefully contributing to our community.
Full Circle was a perfect fit for me, I felt like I’d come home. I loved having stimulating soul conversations with spiritual and meditation teachers, leading edge therapists and authors, and bringing their wisdom and insights to my community. Without my personal transformation journey, I wouldn’t have had the confidence or audacity to leap into this new territory.
This was me following my bliss and heart, and then persevering through the challenges. Carrying a bag of large reel tapes and CDs up two flights of stairs several times a week felt like mountain climbing. For seven years, driving all over Perth to record interviews, to places not always easily accessible, until I could record at home. Operating a studio designed for bigger people with longer arms.
Lessons I learnt:
- prepare and research thoroughly;
- nervousness will fade, confidence will grow;
- come from the heart;
- I can only do my best in the circumstances; any failures are an opportunity to learn and grow;
- trust our intuition;
- be authentic;
- don’t say ‘shit’ while making a mistake on air; and
- the rewards from following our bliss and contributing to our community are enormous.
There was one ongoing problem. I wasn’t paid for my radio work; we were all volunteers. I was struggling to cover the costs of the show and living. That’s when my vision of a community dance club returned. I’d been fascinated with DJing for a few years and had been doing an occasional event around Fremantle. A full, joyous dance floor and I was hooked. I was consistently evoking huge energy on the dancefloors, and a vision emerged. A regular monthly dance which built a momentum by word of mouth (this was pre-internet) and gave those who loved to dance somewhere safe and friendly, unlike anything else available.
Now was the time to make the leap; needs must. How to make it a reality? I wasn’t confident launching out on my own, I had no experience putting on gigs. Two friends had tried and not succeeded, so I approached them to form a partnership. We started with a bang, inviting all our friends, offering cheap entry, and Zorbas Dance Club was born. After five years I branched out on my own – I was ready to do it my way. It was challenging for this disabled woman to be out working till 2am, but twenty years of creating the space for dancing, gathering, joy and love with my community, and the cheapest therapy in town, were immensely rewarding.
Lessons I learnt:
- trust the persistent inspirations;
- be bold, and take the jump with a capable, compatible team who are easy to work with and who can handle a crisis;
- meetings with coffee, cake or a meal are more enjoyable;
- the show must go on and the ability to rise above personal circumstances and get on with it, helps;
- listen and respond to the crowd/market/team;
- when issues arise with team members communicating clearly without any personal baggage really helps;
- if we stuff up, apologise, make amends, and learn from it; and
- leave our ego at the door and be of service to our community.
I had to give up both my loves, when I lost my voice and overcoming my personal circumstances became too difficult. It took another year or so to find my new direction, but out of asking myself “What next?” and bringing together my skills and capacities following my father’s death, reinvention came with my business Celebrate a Life on DVD and becoming a writer.
Each career, I’ve added to my skillset and built on the lessons of the preceding ones. Working on my personal and spiritual growth, developing, and using my unique abilities, and taking leaps have kept me learning, growing and adaptable; still happily unsung.
Suchita Vanessa Smith has the degenerative condition Pseudoachondroplasia, a bone dysplasia resulting in arthritis-like effects in all joints and short stature. She has been an Environmental Scientist, founder, dance DJ and manager of Zorbas Dance Club in Fremantle for 20 years, producer of her own radio show Full Circle on RTRFM 92.1 for 15 years, and now has become a writer, working on a book (see https://littlebodyhugelife.wordpress.com, https://www.facebook.com/LittleBodyHugeLife, @littlebodyhugelife) and running her own business Celebrate A Life on DVD.
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The blog posts do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA), and blog posts are contributions made by women, girls or non-binary persons with disability about what leadership means to them. All possible care has been taken in the preparation of the information contained in this document. WWDA disclaims any liability for the accuracy and sufficiency of the information and under no circumstances shall be liable in negligence or otherwise in or arising out of the preparation or supply of any of the information aforesaid.