IT’S been suggested that everyone at the DPI’s office in Orange has a Sonia Muir Story. The word “whirlwind” often features.
Having been with the Department for 25 years, anyone with a stake in regional NSW has probably witnessed her in action, or at least had her fly past en route to getting something done.
But the head of DPI’s social and resilience programs - the daughter of a Romanian refugee-turned banana farmer, the former art teacher and Pacific Islands volunteer who was only meant to be in the Central West for a year - won’t be around much longer.
She’s just sold her house, her car, and all of her possessions (”it’s just stuff”). By July, she and husband Gordon will again be volunteering, somewhere in South-East Asia (“we haven’t decided where”) and her time with the Rural Women’s Network will be done.
If you saw her colleagues’ unscripted tribute to her at the Rural Women’s Award night in April (“I was a blubbering mess”) you get some idea of how crucial Sonia has been in building up younger women, older women, aboriginal women, and women from non-english speaking backgrounds in rural NSW.
As such, her parting words shouldn’t be misconstrued as apathetic or malicious, rather a hope that one day, things will be better for those who tend to miss out.
“I honestly would have thought after 25 years you wouldn’t need something like a Rural Women’s Network,” she said.
Sonia’s arrival at the DPI came after a nine-year stint as an art teacher. She said you could see this in her approach to life and work.
“You can’t teach someone to paint, or print, or make a pot,” she said. “You have to give them the space to pursue their talent… it’s not ‘this is the way you have to do it’, but ‘how can I help you make the most of your strengths’.
She said this translated quite easily over to the role of the Rural Women’s Network, which she joined in 1993 to help set up the newsletter.
“A common thing you see with the network is that women often lose confidence. Women may have had brilliant careers or had lots of experience, but then may have stepped sideways, had babies, moved out to the country.
“I saw my role very much as giving confidence and take risks and step back in. It’s never been about me”.
So after initially coming to Orange ‘just for a year’ more than two decades go, she’s a just a few weeks off leaving.
That said, she feels there’s still a lot to be done in the space she’s been working in.
“I think I read somewhere that if you do a google image search of Australian farmer 90 per cent of the images that come up are blokes,” she said. “If there is a woman on a board, often it’s just one woman.
“There are isolated examples - Fiona Simson with the NFF - but then there is just one woman on Orange City Council.”
“It’s about sharing resources, and the unique thinking women bring to the table. Research shows if you have three or more women, the culture of a board, or senior leadership team, changes for the positive.
Sh says she’s confident the future of rural NSW – and her various DPI projects – are in good hands.
“You just have to look at (2018 Rural Women’s Award inner) Jillian Kilby, who was an engineer and is now back in a rural area. We’re seeing more young women stand up in regional areas. Hopefully it means rural committees and boards are going to look less grey.”