Northern Rivers alumni expectations exceeded

It’s only the beginning for Northern Rivers alumni of the Leading Australian Resilient Communities program.

“If you don’t bloom where you’re planted, you can’t complain about living in a society you don’t like. You have to have courage, no excuse.” 

Wise words from Australian Rural Leadership Foundation alumna and nationally recognised leader Cathy McGowan to 20 local leaders at a dinner recently, in Rutherglen on the Victorian-New South Wales border.  

It was their first night on the second intensive of the Leading Australian Resilient Communities (LARC) program when Cathy purposely approached each, asking them their why, what is it they’re wanting to do and how do they intend to make a difference.  

Each graduated two days later, ready to bloom in their community, as a leader. Through good times and the not-so-good. Taking action already on engaging youth with life skills and mental health, and how to have digital connectivity and accessibility taken seriously. 

Second cohort Northern Rivers alumni graduate days out from flood anniversary

A week later, and some 1300 clicks up the road at Casino in the New South Wales Northern Rivers, the second cohort completed their community projects before presenting them at their graduation.  

Only days out from the one-year anniversary of the devasting floods, sharing those raw and vulnerable moments created a tight bond among the Northern Rivers alumni. Their determination to support their communities through recovery and future opportunities is strong.

This support includes giving a voice to issues impacting the wellbeing and resilience of these communities, and taking action. And working with existing community groups to share their knowledge and resources for more impact. Then there’s the network of these leaders, on standby, to step in to support their communities in collaboration – a mix of knowledge, skills, expertise and contacts sure to have an impact. It’s the very objective of the pilot LARC program, to help build and strengthen resilience across 10 regions nationally – each selected for the challenges endured.  

It’s also the reason why these local leaders applied for the program, and the desire to build upon their leadership skills to do more for their communities.  

Northern Rivers alumni look forward to lasting impact

“We have some brilliant leaders in our community and it gives me a lot of pride to say that I had the opportunity to meet, know them, and grow with them. The focus of this program is to not only develop as leaders but to work on a group project that will have a lasting impact on our communities,” says Rivers to Plains graduate Brenton Smith from Wagga Wagga.  

“The experience far exceeded my expectations. Having never been part of a program like this, I was unsure of what to expect. But this program has given all of the participants a focus in which to take back to their communities for the betterment of the region as a whole.” 

Wagga Wagga alumnus embraces diversity

Fellow graduate Andrew Hannaford from Wagga Wagga adds: “I was genuinely blown away by the local leaders I had the privilege to meet and collaborate with. The experience introduced me to many people with local government and not-for-profit experience that help to lead communities through adversity but also help to plan and create more resilient communities. The challenging and thought-provoking content mixed in with the group made for a memorable and valuable experience.” 

He reflects on some experiential learnings during the program that triggered some discomfort among participants but that also helped to enhance their leadership skills.  

“We had a powerful and challenging session on diversity and inclusion. The facilitators really challenged each of us to hold the conversation and not rush to judgement on a particular issue. We each come from a variety of backgrounds and had an infinite amount of influences to get to today that needs to be realised and respected to be able to move forward. Variety and diversity in any situation is always going to achieve a more positive outcome. From personal heritage and beliefs to hearing from the quietest in the room, without this it all stays the same when we need to be continuously evolving.” 

Shepparton alumna finds tools to understand her own and others’ behaviours

For Shepparton-based Meg Pethybridge, immersion in the place-based experience gave her the space needed to analyse the issues facing the region and how to influence change. Her Victorian hometown is also recovering from floods. She welcomes the leadership skills and resources from LARC, along with the network and support of equally passionate and driven leaders to help drive impact.  

“What I learnt was leadership is about listening, challenging and disrupting which you can do from any level of a group or business. I found the tools for understanding my own and others’ behaviours really helpful. In my community work, there’s a range of personalities with diverse perspectives. I think that these tools will help me to better communicate with members, lead the committees and develop more impactful projects,” she says.  

“With the lessons from this course, the network of peers it has provided and especially after meeting Cathy McGowan, I believe I can contribute to community discourse and projects to solve some of the big issues in our community, as well as continue to advocate to government for regulatory solutions and funding.” 

Lismore woman seeks out professional development

Further north, in the Northern Rivers, Claire Sowden – who’s been on the front line of the flood response and recovery with Resilient Lismore – was looking to further develop her leadership skills.  

“I started looking around for opportunities to get that professional development. And in particular, I think LARC stood out because it was presented in terms of the disaster that just happened. Obviously, LARC came to the region because it needs renewal and so it felt important to be getting that leadership within the context of what the wider region was going through,” she says.   

“So personally, the experience of even saying okay, I want to do a leadership program has made me probably step forward and accept more roles and responsibilities that I would have before this. But then also to talk to other powerful women in the community who are working within this network and know that they’re out there and to be there to offer my own support to them, so that all of us can actually grow and help more people.”  

Alstonville and Fingal Bay alumni appreciate diversity

For Alstonville-based Pru Blennerhassett, working with a diverse mix of leaders, particularly within the community project group, has been a highlight of the LARC experience.  

“I haven’t been in a group with such different kinds of personalities, profiles, ways of being and ways of doing things at this level of emotional maturity personally, if that makes sense. So, for me, it’s been fascinating to have this level of awareness of myself while being in this kind of petri dish. But yeah, my takeaway is that the differences in personalities and ways of doing things are only ever going to be beneficial to the long-term success of a project….So for me, even though I’ve had experiences of feeling frustration and friction and all these kinds of things, I’m super grateful and I think that we’re kind of all the stronger and that the work will be all the stronger for that.” 

Thomas Dick of Fingal Bay shares a similar sentiment: “What we’ve learned from the process is also something that we’re rolling into the actual project and that’s like a framework for individual leaders to support each other….to connect first of all, support each other and amplify leadership skills so that the leaders themselves are able to better serve their community.”  

Leaders join peers at national alumni event

Two leaders each from the Rivers to Plains and Northern Rivers will join their peers from the eight other regions in Canberra for a national alumni event later in 2023. They’ll share their program experience, the community projects they’re pursuing, along with connecting and engaging with each other. This network of regional leaders will also join the ARLF’s alumni of more than 2200 nationally, that’s committed to positive impact across rural, regional and remote Australia.  

Further, the popular webinar series continues to inspire hundreds of people across the country, and abroad, in opportunities for regional engagement and leadership capacity building. This is only just the beginning with more graduations, and outcomes, to come. 

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