Role built on life lessons

WHEN Michelle Dracoulis goes to work each day, as a mother, a student, artist and business owner – and Derwent Valley’s mayor – she takes with her a deep understanding of how the world works, and where it doesn’t. She draws from some four decades of hard-won, personal experiences of life, including an unhappy childhood and being homeless and on the street at 16.

“What I do as mayor and a mum now is the product of those years,” she says. “They are part of my own world, as well as that of many people in the Derwent Valley and what they live with day to day.” Mrs Dracoulis is talking candidly about the future, and the past, just days after October’s council elections, where her primary vote came close to 60 per cent. While a significant number, she doesn’t dwell on it. There isn’t time for that, other than the realisation those who voted for her are requiring a real commitment. “Being mayor is not just a role,” she says, “but the voice of the community, on call 24/7.”

The immediate question is how council deals with a series of existing and emerging issues. “Right up front, we’ve got an affordable housing issue,” she notes, “and along with that, emerging homelessness. “We’ve got immediate stormwater and infrastructure needs, and the council needs to be preparing for climate change. “Then there’s the long-term systemic need to create opportunities for young people.” She is purposefully equipping herself to take on the questions, to ensure she’s equal to the task. And her past shapes her thinking about the future.

At 16, she stood up one last time to her abusive, alcoholic stepfather. “I pushed him,” she says quietly. “I could have done much, much more.” At that point, her mother told her to get out. Years of fear, of protecting two younger sisters, of staying in refuges, becoming homeless, living on the streets without means to eat or sleep safely. “But I worked my way through the bad times, learned from them,” she now says.

“Most important, I was able to break the cycle of intergenerational violence and alcohol abuse, the first in my family – on male and female sides – to do so. “That has made me protective of women and children,” she says, “but has also given me a close understanding of what many of us go through. When people here talk about this issue or that, often I have first-hand understanding.” And frankly, she adds that we have to help men and boys. “Yes, we focus on women and what is so often emergency situations, but I would raise the question: how can we stop the violence before it happens?”

And her list of life experience – of good, bad and worse – gets longer by the day. Today, she’s immersed in a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, and another course for the Australian Institute of Company Directors. An artist, largely photographic, in her own right – and a curator of the work of others – she has a strong grasp of small business. And Mrs Dracoulis has four children, two still at home. Although not very socially adept kid, she was smart. “I’ve got a good memory, which is useful, and I’m very literal.”

Her artistic side is enriched, she suspects, by some mixed brain wiring. “I was in my 30s when I was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, what they call neurodivergent. “I’m affected by some sounds, even see colours when I hear particular sounds. It’s called synthesia, and strangely, it sometimes helps with my art work.” To the broader agenda at Derwent Valley Council, finding land for affordable housing is high on the priority list, along with thinking about smarter ways to use the municipality’s limited funds.

On another front, there’s some good news about health services. At the Derwent Valley Medical Centre, some 15 doctors are now on the roster – up from three a little while ago. Being able to deliver medical services in the Derwent Valley is important to Mrs Dracoulis, who lives steps away from the doctors on Burnett Street, but can only get appointments down in Brighton.

“It so often comes down to the personal, doesn’t it?” she smiles.