Tragedy has marked Dean Sutton’s leadership journey, but failed to derail his commitment to his community, serving instead to underline the importance of its resilience.
Dean spent his early life in Traralgon, in the Gippsland region of Victoria. At 26-years-of -age he set off to London for adventure.
He describes his two years of work in the “multi-cultural, churning” city as an “eyeopener” which revealed the work/life balance Australia offered.
In 2011 he returned to Gippsland, finding “home” and community in Glengarry, near to wetlands, sea, rainforest and snow-capped mountains.
For 10 years he and his partner have lived in their renovated house, nestled within a farm owned by Dean’s parents.
But Dean’s return home has been far from fairy-tale: while his partner was on a tourist visa and unable to work, Dean fell off a horse, breaking a leg. Surgery and 12 months of recovery gave him an insight into Australia’s welfare system.
“I struggled hard to get stable employment. I worked on a dairy farm, put up circus tents, and was on Jobseeker for the first time ever,” Dean said.
Dean’s self-worth plummeted during this difficult period as he grappled with the “system”.
Work in occupational health and safety followed, and eventually he found employment which involved community. He now manages the Baw Baw Shire’s Connected Communities portfolio and is familiar with challenges faced locally.
“We still have the stats of a regional community in terms of lack of support, but with a growing non-rural population and issues like family violence and homelessness,” Dean said.
Traditionally a farming community, Baw Baw has changed. Farms have been subdivided; corporate farms and developments have changed the demographics and income disparity.
“People are moving here from the city with no connection to community or family support networks,” Dean said.
Dean was prompted to take part in the Leading Australian Resilient Communities (LARC) program by his love of learning, enjoyment of a challenge, and the knowledge that it would provide him with the chance to interact with other community leaders.
“I knew the cohort would be a pretty special melting pot of people to learn from, so I absolutely wanted to be part of it.”
Dean hoped to learn more about building resilience and was keen to share his experiences, but he was no stranger to leadership. His community focused roles included work with the Glengarry Community Association, Quantum Support Services and the Victorian State Government’s LGBQTI+ Taskforce.
While Dean says that being a member of the LGBTIQ+ community in regional Australia comes with challenges, work done by Government, supporters and allies helped counter non-inclusive voices. But there is still work to be done.
“My vision for the future is that people celebrate being different, but never feel less, that everyone is included and experiences equity, has a voice, are safe wherever they choose to authentically live, and that our communities are sustainable, strong and resilient,” Dean said.
Community inclusion and wellbeing is at the core of the project Dean helped deliver as part of the LARC program, the Be Well Gippsland project.
The project aims to analyse challenges presented within sporting groups, including behaviours such as bullying and drug taking, to understand them and progress on systemic change.
“This is a self-assessment wellbeing tool designed to enable sporting clubs to easily assess their financial, mental, physical, emotional, and social wellbeing with a list of resources attached for each section for them to explore should they wish, based on their results,” Dean said.
The wellbeing tool is being trialled in the sporting arena and has capacity to be adapted for wider use.
“Our project group worked really cohesively, we dipped in when we had the skill, or the capacity and we dipped out when we had to without guilt or shame but still having a clear goal and purpose to ensure we kept all together on the same path,” he said.
“The group learning process showed me that, as in life, in an experiential leadership course each participant plays many roles, never solely one, from the learner, the mentor, the teacher, the observer, the supporter, or the inspiration.”
Dean’s LARC story is not a simple one, with the learning experience jolted by a stark reminder of the strength of community.
Part-way through the program, Dean’s life, his family and community were upended by the death of his brother, Adam, in a tragic car accident in which his young nephew was critically injured.
As his community rallied around his brother’s partner and his family, wrapping them in a blanket of emotional, physical and financial support, he was reminded of the power of people.
The tragedy could have derailed his desire to learn and lead, but the opposite was true: the experience highlighted the importance of community solidarity.
“The strength and true kindness of community is shown in the face of tragedy. I had been part of many community responses but on this occasion, I was intimately the recipient of the community response,” Dean said.
“I often wait for things to be right and aim for perfection but shortly after the sudden death of my brother while I was doing LARC I saw a piece of street art which was a digital watch with the word “NOW” written on the screen. I now have it tattooed on my forearm to remind me that “The Time Is Now”, be bold, be brave, and lead with heart.”
The experience highlighted the importance of community and encouraged Dean to lead. It made him more determined to foster community resilience, and he gained skills from LARC that will help him with this, including a clear definition of resilience.
“Resilient communities are those with robust structures and processes in place to prevent crisis, proactively planning to identify the vision and ongoing needs of their community, ensuring nobody gets left behind or misses out,” Dean said.
Dean’s lived experience as a member of Gippsland’s LGBTIQ+ community provides him with a multi-focal lens through which to view and lead, and also gives him the incentive to work towards creating a community that is strong, flexible, safe and welcoming.
“True resilience will not be impacted by patches of prejudice and a few minority voices,” he said.”
Dean said that the LARC program enabled participants to work on leadership skills, with input from expert coaches, and consider what building resilience looked like, but it asked more questions than it gave answers.
“Answers will need to be found that will work for your own community,” Dean said.
Working with a group to deliver the Be Well Gippsland project gave Dean the chance to work on a worthwhile task, while honing effective leadership skills with input from expert coaches.
He will be able to use the LARC learnings in his role with the Baw Baw Shire, and the greater community.
“I will identify opportunities to build other resilient leaders and contribute to resilient communities by sharing my learnings.”
Dean said that the LARC program emphasised the sustainability of projects and programs and encouraged him to reassess work he was involved with in that light.
He said that positive benefits flowed through to personal relationships, as a result of self-reflection.
“We do leadership courses with the expectation it will polish us professionally, but they make us a more rounded person in all aspects of our life, how I approach my personal relationships and how I respond now has changed for the better,” Dean said.
“Programs like LARC force you to learn about yourself and other people…we talk about the value of leadership programs from a professional and community perspective, but we don’t always question if our values at home align with those we have in public, when I give the best of me away at work and in community who am I bringing home to my family?….such training gives you a different perspective of your own behaviour and that of others.”
Dean said that he valued the analysis and recognition of his own core values and saw how they may not align with behaviours in his personal life, saying it helped him understand and had a positive impact.
“Unless you see it, you can’t work on it (or make it better!),” he said.
Taking his community commitment to the next level, Dean plans to run as a candidate in the next Local Government elections in an effort to help shape and strengthen his community in a decision-making capacity.
This would be another step in his journey as a changemaker, with the goal of a resilient community, rich in diversity and strengthened by its connections, equity and inclusion.
“I will mentor other emerging leaders and encourage them to step through doors, which may be outside their comfort zone, but provide opportunities for them to lead and learn, adding to the strength and resilience of our community,” Dean said.
“I want to make a positive difference and leave the world in a better state than I found it, and I am inspired to do it where I call home and have strong roots,” he said.