Voices for Indi does politics differently

Looking back to where it started. The three protagonists in this story would never call themselves heroes. They are both humble and heart-warming, inspirational and inimitable – and they are all long-time graduates of the ARLP. Cathy McGowan AO, Alana Johnson AM and Susan Benedyka didn’t do the program together. And their experiences on the program are certainly unique. Yet, in the decades since they completed their courses, they have all been very active in sharing what they learned and empowering others to step up to leadership roles.

Cathy honed her vision

Cathy completed the program in 1996 as a self described “feminist farmer”. One of only six women on the course, she initially found the masculine environment challenging. But she soon discovered it was an invaluable learning opportunity.

“I became an observer of effective behaviour. I watched those who rose to the top of the group and paid attention to when and how they spoke. Some people took up a lot of oxygen with little effect; others would ask one question and have more presence,” she said.

“Early in the course, I met with some of the group in Melbourne. They told me, in a matter-of-fact yet kind way, that I was being a pain in the butt; and that my antagonistic style was working to my disadvantage. Their honesty was invaluable and really helped me define my leadership style.”

Every ARLP cohort is tasked with developing a vision for their group. Cathy said, “It was incredibly hard to come up with this vision. Some in the group, like me, have a strong social agenda. Others are focused on productivity and growth. We finally agreed on a vision that I still refer back to every day: ‘To work for a prosperous, caring, rural Australia, alive with opportunities for all’.”

A great example of this vision in action was when Cathy mentored a group of young environmentalists in her local area. She helped them set up Indigo Power, a community-based energy company committed to powering local communities with clean energy. “Indigo Power really embodies the fact that regional Australia is alive with opportunities. You just need to bring people together to enable it,” she said.

The recently appointed AgriFuture’s chair adds the ARLP was a turning point for her. 

“The ARLP really was a turning point for me. I went on to set up other leadership courses like the Alpine Valley Community Leadership Program. I knew where and how I could hone my leadership skills. And I gained the confidence to stand for election as president of Australian Women in Agriculture, which put me in good stead for what followed,” said Cathy.

Susan found her tribe

Susan first heard about the ARLP on the radio. She recalls sitting on her front verandah with friends, when an ARLP spokesperson started speaking about a new leadership program for regional Australians. From that moment, she knew it was something she wanted to do.
She had her chance in 1997. “It was extraordinary. I knew it would be tough, but I didn’t realise how profound the shift would be,” she said.

“The experience in the Kimberley with the local Aboriginal community was mind-blowing. Our Indigenous guide had such a remarkable connection to the land and demonstrated such subtle yet powerful leadership skills, particularly his ability to stand back and listen. He showed us what deep listening looked like, and how effective it can be.”

Midway through the course, Susan decided to set up her own consulting business to support others with environmental, community-based and economic objectives. Beyond that, she has been on the National Women’s Advisory Group; she has played a very active role in the Alpine Valley Community Leadership Program; she was involved in the Rural Agricultural Adjustment Scheme; and much more.

In all of these roles, Susan has found the alumni network to be a great asset. She regularly calls on other graduates and maintains strong relationships with other participants in the program. “The ARLP offers up so many different connections – whether it’s based on your geography, industry, the course you did or the friendships you make. Maintaining these connections has proven invaluable in my professional and personal life.”

“The ARLP gave me the opportunity to meet some extraordinary people. I wanted to find my tribe, learn new skills, and become a more effective leader. It delivered all this and more,” said Susan.

Alana broadened her perspective 

Alana came to the ARLP in 2007 with an impressive  background. She had been a board member of the  Victorian Women’s Trust, an inaugural member  of the Australian Rural Women’s Network and  a founding member of Australian Women in  Agriculture. The list went on.  

“Until 2007, my world had revolved around  agriculture, rural communities and the women’s  movement. I wanted to understand the wider  world. I wanted to broaden my perspective and  work with people outside my circle,” she said. And  so she applied for the ARLP. 

“To start with, the experience in the Kimberley  was transformative. It was far more challenging  than I anticipated, and it was a huge disruptor in  my life. The unexpected depth of self-reflection  – particularly the recognition and shame I felt in  terms of how little I knew about Aboriginal and  Torres Strait Islander culture and history – was  huge,” Alana said. 

“The course gave me a deep appreciation of  Indigenous culture. I’ve carried this with me ever  since and remain committed to reconciliation  in my community. In everything I do, I am very  vocal about partnering with Indigenous clans and  recognising cultural values.” 

The course also gave Alana the skills to be a  changemaker in a broader context. And she has  certainly stepped up, having been appointed Chair  

of the Victorian Catchment Management Council,  Voices for Indi and the Victorian Women’s Trust.  She was also a national runner-up in the 2010  Rural Women’s Award. 

“I had been travelling along on a particular  trajectory for so long. The ARLP helped me  change my course, and it continues to support my  endeavours. The ongoing collaboration with other  graduates in the local area is playing a key role in  the work we have been doing since.”  

This work, as we will explore below, is all about  sharing the leadership skills gained on the ARLP  program – from deep listening to tolerance  to appreciative enquiry – and empowering  communities to take action.

The continuation of their story 

As Cathy, Susan and Alana have shown, the ARLP  has a remarkable, lasting and wide-reaching  impact on people’s lives and the communities in which they live and work. 

“Rural and regional Australia still has a long way to go before it reaches its potential. From  infrastructure and services to representation in Federal politics, there is much work still to be  done. I see great hope for the ARLP to activate more leaders to step up and do things for regional  Australia,” said Cathy. 

“Having heard our story, we are very optimistic  that other graduates will be motivated to do similar  things in their regions. If we can convince one in  four people in our electorate to change their vote  and change the system, others can too – and we’re  here to help,” she said. 

Indeed, these three women’s collective energy  shows no signs of abating. Alana, who continues to act as a convenor for Voices for Indi, said, “We set  about designing a process to give people a voice,  leading to ongoing advocacy and empowerment  for ordinary people. The work will not stop. We’ll  continue to push for participatory democracy  where communities come together around the  critical issues in their region.” 

Susan sums it up beautifully. “The things we did  on the ARLP course took us to where we are today  and will continue to guide us well into the future.”

Change in action:  Voices for Indi  

Alana, Cathy and Susan’s stories come together  with Voices for Indi, a grassroots movement that  began in 2012 when a group set out to build a new  model of participatory democracy for the region.  “There was a great despondency about democracy  in the area and a distinct lack of local voices being  heard,” explained Alana. 

Voices for Indi set about changing this. Alongside  local ARLP alumni and other community members,  Susan, Alana and Cathy drew upon the lessons  they learned during their ARLP experience to build  a new, community-focused model of leadership.  

Susan’s initial role was consultative, helping  the fledgling Voices for Indi group to develop  their vision and values. “Our sights were set on  twenty-first century democracy and doing politics  differently. Core to our values was the notion that  everyone brings unique talent, time and skills to  the table – we wanted to help everyone find their  own place,” she said. 

A series of Kitchen Table Conversations helped  people find their place. As Alana explained, “We  wanted to model the positive opposite of what  was happening in the electorate and in Australian  politics in general. Instead of exclusion and a  combative environment, we created a welcoming  space – literally around people’s kitchen tables –  where everyone’s ideas, regardless of their political  leanings, were respected and valued.” 

A key theme emerging from these community  gatherings was that a large number of Indi  constituents wanted an opportunity to choose  an independent politician as their representative  in parliament. And so, having given community  members a voice – and, more importantly,  practicing deep listening to ensure those  voices got heard – the Voices for Indi team then  showed community members how to become  changemakers. 

Together, they mobilised a grassroots campaign  in the lead-up to the 2013 election. This is where  Cathy stepped into the picture, as the independent  candidate for Indi. Having already participated in  many leadership activities in the local community,  Cathy was the perfect fit.  

“This was not about the community giving me  the power. I was one of many equals – we all had  jobs to do, we all held each other to account. It  was an interactive experience, where we set up a  framework to enable and empower citizens,” she  said.  

“I reflected on my experience during the ARLP and  really took those learnings on board – living the  values I developed during the course. I held myself  truly accountable and became a leader of integrity.” 

Thousands of volunteers worked tirelessly during  the campaign. Some stitched bunting, some hung  corflute signs around town, others door-knocked  and spoke to voters. “We wanted to create a place  

for everyone. And it worked. Not only did we win  the campaign, but a survey of our volunteers  afterwards found that all of them were more likely  to take further political action in the future,” said  Susan. 

Cathy went on to be re-elected in 2016. In 2019, the  community invited another inspirational woman,  Dr Helen Haines, to stand as an independent  candidate. She won, too. From those early Kitchen  Table Conversations, the people of Indi have clearly  found their voice and, more importantly, been  empowered to take positive action.

Applications for ARLP Course 31 open on 2 June. Expressions of interest can be submitted via our website.

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