On the Cusp of Change — Interview with Elissa Howieson


Leadership opportunities and being on the cusp of change were not what young mother Elissa Howieson was seeking when she visited her local community centre in 1992. With two small children and another on the way, Elissa sought social interaction for both herself and her boys. Attending a local playgroup was the answer – it was there that she found “a lovely place of camaraderie and friendship”. A decade later, with volunteer roles of Zone Co-ordinator, Vice-President and President of the Playgroup Association of Queensland and Vice-President of The Playgroup Council of Australia, Elissa had not only found the social interaction she craved, she had discovered lifelong friends, developed new skills and knowledge and, with her fellow Board Members, had left a valued legacy of professionalism, progressiveness and equity on what was then branded Playgroup Queensland.

In her two terms as President (1997-98, 2000-01), Elissa encouraged friends from professions including law, medicine and accountancy to also take on leadership roles. At the conclusion of Elissa’s presidency in 2001, the Executive Committee voted to transition to a Board of Management with all positions to be drawn from a professional background, bringing people with specific skills to continue to guide the business into its next phase of development. As Elissa explains ... 

"We talk about the different phases the Association has gone through … mum’s meeting around a kitchen table to their first rented accommodation at Auchenflower, then to their own premises at Enoggera. We were at that cusp of the change from Auchenflower to Enoggera, where the Association grew up … where it was considered to be a professional organisation, which it always had been, but not considered by its peers in early childhood in the same way … we had to be seen as a professional organisation that could manage a budget, manage services and service delivery across the state as any other early childhood organisation does … the importance of early childhood cannot be dismissed, we fill a section"

Elissa was driven by the principle that all children had the right to the same quality of service and the same regularity, the same opportunity to laugh and grow and she believes the most significant achievement in her years of leadership was to insert the premise of equity into the funding model.

Representing Queensland at the national level at the Playgroup Council of Australia, Elissa, Denise McMurtrie and then new CEO, Mark Brooke, took the principle of equitable access to the parent body.

"We became very active at the Australian Council level, we were a driving force looking at our funding model and how we were going to better support our playgroups across the state and Australia, it wasn’t just about in Queensland. We had a strong focus on access and equity for all playgroup children [regardless of location] - they had the same rights to have quality playgroup experiences. There was the realisation that it costs a different amount of money to service one family’s needs in a metropolitan area as compared to rural and remote locations."

1998 Playgroup turned 25 some past presidentsPlaygroup turns 25 and celebrates with some past Presidents, 1998. Photo courtesy of Alison Huth.

With growing concerns regarding inequitable national funding models, along with resistance to change in some sectors of the national body, Playgroup Queensland withdrew from the Playgroup Council of Australia in 2001. Elissa reflects that the Queensland executive group always had the needs of contemporary children and their parents at the forefront of the decision.

With the continued strong leadership of the Board and Management, Playgroup Queensland went from strength to strength. Strategic planning was undertaken with the objective of making the association more self-governing and proactive in protecting and providing quality services, including increasing and streamlining the delivery of those services. The result was more effective tailoring of programs to meet the specific needs of families across Queensland.

"The fundamental principle for my time on the Playgroup Board was building in that access and equity and to search seriously about the services we could provide … keeping the needs of our membership at the forefront. If we weren’t meeting the needs of our membership, we weren’t there for the right reasons."

The preferred funding model was secured, and with increased government recognition and support for the needs of First Nations communities and disadvantaged children, quality services were expanded, enabling an increase in permanent staff and early childhood education trained staff members to work from regional hubs to support young families across the state. Being a woman of colour, Elissa’s perspective and her desire to counter disadvantage in all its forms became a positive and driving force, resulting in increased levels of participation at playgroups, especially within First Nations communities.

1998a Playgroup pres Elissa Howsen cuts the cakeElissa Howieson cuts cake at Playgroup's 25th celebration, 1998. 

Elissa’s time with Playgroup Queensland also brought about personal change. Her experiences honed leadership and professional skills, including a knowledge of the principles of funding which, following her Playgroup Queensland volunteer years, ignited the confidence to build her own business in adult education, which later led to international work with registered training organisations. Today, as a Team Leader with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Elissa manages staff at 33 sites across Queensland. She credits her service with Playgroup Queensland as providing great fulfillment,

"... on so many different levels, on one level as a mother, it provided the confidence and the enjoyment of mothering, seeing my children grow and play and making new friends, and for me to make new and lifelong friends. On another level, the volunteering was very valuable. It enhanced skills lying dormant that were not being utilised to their fullest in the community. I was able to help other people … Honing professional skills that I was able to take back into a career to do meaningful work … I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for my experiences with playgroup."

As a parent, she believes her time on the Board and the experience of attending executive meetings with the children playing under the boardroom table (and sometimes also the parents)

"…taught us to be flexible, to be patient and to put our children’s needs first. It wasn’t to the exclusion of everything we were doing, it was an inclusive process."

Screenshot 2023-12-06 105204Debra Wardle (right) with Elissa Howieson (left) and their children.

Elissa also reflects that the playgroup experiences of her four sons not only provided social interaction, but encouraged strong communication skills, maturity and responsibility, qualities that are still evident today. With three now fathers, her sons value play and parenting, and espouse the benefits of attending playgroup with their own partners.

"Playgroups will always matter, it is the crux of our family dynamic, to see our children play and to get meaningful time with their play experiences and
share those play experiences with other children.."

And into the future, Elissa’s progressive perspective is to always be looking forward, leaning into that cusp of change.

"… Playgroup has had to grow up, to change, to adapt and that has always been the premise. It needs to adapt to the needs of the parent … A premise
of the articles of incorporation was that it was a requirement of being
on the Board to have playgroup age children. It had to be relevant to you as a member, so the decisions you were considering and making and the direction you were hoping to guide the organisation were always based on your needs as a parent and the needs of your children, not your parents’ needs or the needs of your grandparents. That is what keeps the energy alive and really freshens the organisation and allows it to keep going … to be part of that evolution of the Association is something I’m very proud of."

This interview was conducted and compiled by Allison Paterson

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