Wiradjuri elder, Aunty Cheryl Penrith OAM, has an open-armed approach to life, and a passion for embracing opportunities at every turn.
It’s a way of being that reflects the love and support of her late husband, who passed away eleven years ago aged just 48.
“It was when he’d been crook for a while that he arranged for both of us to do a program with the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre. What I soon realised was that he was preparing me for life when he wasn’t here anymore,” Cheryl explains.
“With the absolute joy I found in that experience, it set a little spark in me to pursue leadership opportunities when they came along.”
That ‘little spark’ has since become an unwavering flame. Cheryl is an alumna of the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership Program (NATSILP, 2017) and just graduated from the Leading Australian Resilient Communities (LARC) program as part of the Rivers to Plains cohort.
Cheryl is the eldest of ten children, and she first saw leadership in her own family.
“Nan told me the stories of who we are related to; where we can go … she had been taken away from her community in Brungle and went out to work in service, taking on a lot of responsibility. She became the matriarch of a big family, and her values were strong. She’d give you a couple of chances but if you broke that trust, there were no more. I made a really conscious effort to stay connected because of her.”
In a wide-ranging career, Cheryl has worked with government departments, universities, regional councils and for her own consultancy business. She believes that leadership means bringing others along with you.
“What is the good of me doing well for myself if others aren’t? It’s about what I can give to the community. That’s why I love the ARLF outlook – having an impact for the greater good,” Cheryl says.
“Through Rivers to Plains I met an amazing group of people and they’re not strangers anymore. You find out about their professional lives but also their passions, and what gets them out of bed every day. That’s very inspiring,” Cheryl says.
“In this region after disastrous floods, fires and COVID, it was really great to go deeply into my own community with people who are movers and shakers in theirs. Now we are all connected, working towards growing our people and our communities.”
Cheryl’s experience with ARLF programs has reinforced for her the importance of authenticity.
“Listening to others’ opinions, and not putting up a façade but being yourself in everything you do – these are the ways to build strong relationships,” she says.
“I think what I’ve learnt in each program is I’ve still got a lot to learn,” she laughs.
Now at sixty, Cheryl is standing in her power as a leader. At the start of 2023 she was nominated for Wagga Citizen of the Year, and in June she was recognised for her service to the Indigenous community of the Riverina with a Medal of the Order of Australia.
“It is lovely recognition. I am being inundated with requests to speak and I’m really happy to share my story; this is a gift. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing and hopefully do more, as my platform has grown.”
In her River to Plains cohort, Cheryl has found an invaluable network of support.
“By doing the ARLF courses, it gives you confidence and a network of people I don’t think you’d meet in other circumstances. I’ve connected with people from local business like Suncorp and Riverina Fresh. We have a WhatsApp group having yarns, and they’ve been telling me they are proud of me. It’s really lovely.”
Ripples from the LARC program live on in Cheryl’s work after her group focused on connection and culture as part of their community project, exploring the role of community gardens.
“My son had built a community garden at Brungle, so my eyes lit up when our group started to look into other gardens and the benefits they bring. People sometimes don’t know where their food comes from, or how to cook the vegetables they grow. A community garden brings people together and teaches us about the benefits of fresh food but it can be crucial in times when the cost of living is so high, and disasters can impact our access to food.
“Here in Wagga we built a demonstration garden and planted it up. With all this rain, it’s going gangbusters. We’re going to build one in my yard next and will do the same for interested families and keep offering chances to learn how to cook what we grow. The demo garden has a seed bank and we use what we have on hand, so you pretty much don’t have to spend anything.”
Cheryl has also poured her energies into a new youth hub – Wollundry Dreaming – that has been opened as a place of empowerment for younger generations.
“It’s about connecting young people with elders to help them build connections in the community before they hit high school. I tell them my stories and we talk about ‘Yindyamara’, which is a concept of respect and integrity.”
Cheryl can be found working with a local art gallery; on the board of a regional arts organisation; and on the Murrumbidgee Local Health District Board.
The self-described ‘fashionista’ and creative is also dipping her toe in the water as an actor and will soon be performing on stage.
“A lot of this stuff is centred on capital cities, but we have a wealth of talent out in country NSW,” she says.
“That’s why regional leadership is important: we have a seat at a table and a different perspective on where we live and the country we live in … It’s also important to know whose country we’re on – we’ve been here a long time.”
Today, Cheryl reflects fondly on the nudge her husband gave her when their time together was coming to an end.
“I’m one person, but everyone has a role to play in order for us to move forward together. He would be so proud of me; he’d be over the moon.”