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Regional collaboration and vision harnessed in WA Leadership Program

17 May 2020

The South West region of Western Australia is a complex area, encompassing stunning tourism drawcards like Margaret River, alongside industrial towns feeling their way in a post-resources-boom environment. Each regional community has different needs, different priorities and often, different ideas about future directions and how to get there. Against this backdrop, the Leadership for our Regions Program is being delivered as a joint initiative of the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation and the Regional Australia Institute over two sessions. The first session was in February on the eve of COVID-19 and the second session was due to commence this week but has been postponed.

Program participants Nakita Kitson, Jasmine Meagher and Luke Pearce reflect on their experience to date and on how collective leadership can help move a region forward.

Thinking globally, acting locally

“I’ve come back being quite reflective and seeing things through fresh eyes,” Nakita Kitson says, following the first 5-day session of the LFOR program.

The high school teacher, who lives in Augusta, says the program helped sharpen her perspective on how to drive positive change for regional communities.

“In working on ideas and projects with different people, we got into really big-picture politics and economic questions,” she says.

Nakita brings her own ‘big-picture’ perspective to regional issues, drawing on her exposure to community initiatives in Cambodia. She currently volunteers as the director of the Stellar Children’s Trust Australia and as an International Board Member of Stellar Child Care Organisation Cambodia, which provides support for underprivileged children and communities in Phnom Penh.

“Having seen the impact of community-focused initiatives combating huge social issues in Cambodia, you come back here and see a lot of opportunities,” Nakita says.

“In Australia we work in these silos of community groups and government bodies – everyone’s working separately. In Cambodia, we would have one central community development officer with detailed knowledge of local issues. This is so effective at creating community buy-in.

“The microcosm of issues can be much more hidden in Australian communities. There are people in the South West living in extreme poverty, elderly people very disconnected, and no one has an overview of who they are and who can help them.”

Working with other regional leaders on a project to directly benefit the South West, Nakita’s ideas around community-empowered leadership found fertile ground.

“Our concept is that each community applies to a grant pool, and an advocate who knows the community well – how the local clubs and schools’ function – helps allocate this funding where it’s needed most. It’s about connecting up groups that operate in isolation, and creating intergenerational links in the community as well,” she says.

“The people that LFOR has brought together into the same room is a great catalyst for this. That’s the real value of the program – we all brought different backgrounds and perspectives, and there was a real openness and honesty and willingness to engage with tough questions.”

Skin in the game

For Jasmine Meagher, a similar belief in community-driven solutions prompted her involvement in LFOR.

“I’ve always been quite community-minded, which comes from watching my mum consistently get involved,” the Augusta-local says.

“I’m very passionate about my region, and I want everyone to love it as much as I do … when I was growing up there was an older populace. Now, we have many younger people coming through, and I’ve become aware of growing challenges facing these new residents,” she says.

Jasmine’s background in business and tourism means she’s already accustomed to working with people and groups that don’t see eye-to-eye. She and her husband run their own business, Common Ground Trails, which builds scenic, sustainable trails for mountain bikers and walkers across Australia.

“The local trail industry really started as a community-driven initiative. Trail enthusiasts would build their own informal trail networks. My husband started Common Ground Trails to provide some professionalism to the industry and to proactively work with land managers and trail users.” she explains.

Common Ground Trails created a South West Master Plan looking at trails and trail services and identifying destinations for (economically lucrative) cycle tourism in the South West.

Jasmine’s newest crusade is tackling the childcare shortage preventing some women in her community from going back to work. She and another mother have met with the local shire council, primary schools, chambers of commerce, Lions clubs and commercial providers, to work towards a collective solution.

“From discussions we identified the potential of a not-for-profit community based centre, and that’s the model we’re progressing,” Jasmine says.

She’s already found support from a fellow LFOR participant who sits on the board of the Rural, Regional and Remote Women’s Network and knows access to childcare is a major hurdle affecting her members.

“It’s always about connections,” Jasmine says. “You walk away from a program like this having connected with people you would never have met in your everyday context, and you take away techniques to help you take action.”

Data an under-utilised tool

Luke Pearce was working as the business development manager for Bendigo Bank in Dunsborough when he applied for the LFOR program, and he has since taken a new leadership role as a branch manager for National Australia Bank.

He’s working every day with people impacted by the global pandemic.

“Right now, it’s about explaining the complexity of the impact on people’s money and businesses, and helping people to understand the support available from banks,” Luke explains.

“There’s also some fairly incredible opportunities for businesses that may have been ‘borderline’ coming into this,” he points out. “It gives people the chance to have a hard-stop and a really good look at the way their business is working.”

In his professional role, Luke is keeping the influence of the LFOR program front-of-mind.

“The first LFOR session modeled a team-based approach that is translating into most things … I work in the retail side of the bank, which is traditionally very separate from the business side. Right now, we’re working together, and retail are taking up administrative slack so the business side can focus on the pressing work they’re facing,” he says.

Outside of banking, Luke coaches his local footy club and is president of the South West Young Professionals Group. Like any local leader, he’s aware of the divisions weakening his region – from council rates disputes, to division over environment and sustainable development.

“For me, it’s just about constant information; trying to be informed and educated, understanding justifications and trying not to be historical or accusatory,” he says.

When the dust settles and the long-term fallout of the coronavirus becomes clearer in his region, Luke says the research data of the Regional Australia Institute coupled with the grass-roots empowerment driven by the ARLF will have a crucial role to play.

“Regional-led data will assist broadly in terms of the allocation of resources as the recovery phase begins. There’ll be a limited amount of money to spend on rural and regional areas, so the effectiveness of that spend needs to be well thought out. The work the ARLF and RAI do needs to be tapped into at a time like this, as do the local leaders on the ground.

The Leadership for our Regions program is funded by the Australian Government Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.