The Art of Vulnerable Leadership: A Q&A with Alysha Herrmann

With family roots deeply entrenched in the wool industry, Alysha Herrmann’s life began with constant movement and a deep connection to rural communities. Facing adversity in her teen years, she made the bold decision to leave her family and education at just 15. The transformative experience of motherhood at 17 propelled her to pursue further education, reshaping her future. Today, Alysha is an accomplished writer, performance artist, creative producer, community advocate, youth mentor,  and a proud graduate of the Australian Rural Leadership Program through sponsorship from Creative Australia.

In the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation’s latest podcast, “Rural Leadership Unearthed,” host and Philanthropy Manager Vivienne Johnson explores this evolution from a rebellious, arts-averse teenager to a prominent figure in the regional arts sector and the strength that comes from weaving vulnerability into leadership practice.

Vivienne Johnson: Alysha, thank you for joining me, you certainly wear a lot of hats. Earlier you mentioned that you grew up on a sheep station, so it has been quite the journey that you’ve been on to get to this point.

Alysha Herrmann: Yeah, I have been to many places. My dad grew up on a farm and wanted to raise us on the farm as well. Unfortunately, my grandfather sold it the year that I was born which is why we ended up going around sheep stations. My mum was a shearers’ cook and my dad was a Wool Classer and a Presser. I have some really, really fond memories of that time, but it’s completely different to the life that I have now.

VJ: Indeed! So, Alysha, I am really curious to know about how a self-confessed angry school dropout, with a disdain for the arts, became one of its biggest champions. Can you tell me a bit about that and the circumstances that led you from that sheep station to where you are now?

AH: I have told this story in lots of different ways. When I was in high school, I had a pretty terrible time. I was being severely bullied, the relationship that I had with my family was not so great and it broke down over time. I moved out of home when I was 15 and left school when I was 15, as well. Then fast forward a couple of years and I had my eldest child when I was 17. During that time, I didn’t like the way that I saw myself and the way that I saw my future. I thought that I was worthless, I thought that I didn’t have a future and I believed so deeply in all these negative stories I was telling myself. I wasn’t even looking for other options as I thought I didn’t deserve them. However, when my baby was born, they were placed into my arms, I had this moment of going “well, I might not deserve any better, but this little baby certainly does. My baby didn’t choose to be here so what am I going to do?”. That was the catalyst for me to decide to go back and finish high school.

At the same time, I also became involved with a local health service that was running a program called Talking Realities which was developed for teenage parents where they would train you up with some public speaking skills and send you into high schools to talk to students about the realities of being a teen parent, safe relationships and safe sex. That health service became a partner or supporter of a project that was happening in my local community through the Riverland Youth Theatre – a youth arts company – who decided that they wanted to do a theatre project with teen parents in our community at the time. The theatre had teamed up with another arts company from Adelaide and started pitching this project and the health service that I was volunteering for said to me, “Alysha, look, we’d really like you to go to this first workshop for this project as one of our representatives and make sure they’re not wasting our time or our money”. At the time I said, “it’s an arts project, of course they’re wasting your money”. I thought it sounded ridiculous, a huge waste of time and definitely not for me.

Long story short, I got convinced to go to that very first workshop and that first workshop changed everything for me, it shifted my entire life. I ended up from that very first workshop committing to the whole project, which was a year-long project, one day a week whilst I was trying to complete Year 12 as a single parent of a toddler and working nights to pay the bills. I only missed two sessions. One was for my year 12 English exam and the other was because they sent me to Sydney for a drama camp. There were five teen parents as part of that project and a team of professional artists. We co-created and performed a theatre piece as part of a festival in both Adelaide in the Riverland in 2005. From that project and that experience, I went, “I want to make things like this happen”.

VJ: What was it about the workshop that changed your life?

AH: So, the very first workshop brought the teen mothers and professional artists all together. We spent the day talking, eating food, doing some of what I thought at the time were just theatre games, but I now understand it was actually really sophisticated ways of training. What they did was make me see myself in my own story in a way that I have never seen before. It made me see how powerful and meaningful telling stories can be. Telling stories about who we are, about what matters to us, about the kind of future that we want to have. It just opened up a little crack and that little crack was something that I was able to follow on to something bigger.

VJ: So, you were doing the workshops, you’re a single mom, you’re educating yourself, you’re just having to do the day-to-day things of living. How did you how did you cope with all of that?

AH: Look, it was a massive year. I turned 19 during the project, I was recovering from domestic violence, I was rebuilding my relationship with my parents, and it was a really hard year, there’s no other way to describe it. It was incredibly hard, but that project was one day a week for a year, and it was my safe place. Throughout that experience, it was an opportunity go and be with other people who got it, who are experiencing similar things to me, and go and be in a space where the professional artists really pushed me. They pushed me to talk about things that were really difficult, they pushed me to see myself in a way that I have never seen myself before and see that I had value. It was the cornerstone of that year; it really was the foundation that got me through.

VJ: Did it make you feel comfortable in being vulnerable?

AH: We did lots of workshops with all sorts of different professional artists in creative writing, dance, movement and music and all sorts of things. A big part of the process was actually interviewing each other. We ended up with hours of footage of all of us interviewing each other about our lives and I am sure that most of it is full of us crying. It was very vulnerable. There is sometimes a fear of vulnerability and we run from it. It’s hard but it’s such a human experience and it’s really important to be able to have those conversations, talk really authentically and openly about some of the challenges we all navigate. In that context to be with this cohort of other beautiful women, imagining not just our future, but the future of our children was a really powerful thing.

VJ: Do you stay in contact with any of the people? Do they remain your friends?

AH: Yeah, I still have contact with all of the other participants of that project. It was nearly 20 years ago and a couple of them have become lifelong friends. Our kids have all grown up now, my eldest is turning 21 next week in fact. So yeah, seeing all of them grow up and have their own lives is a really special thing.

VJ: The challenges that you were presented in those workshops would have put you in good stead when you applied to do the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP). Vulnerability is a big part of that program so you would have breezed through the ARLP, would you?

AH: Without giving any spoilers in case anyone does the program, a big part of ARLP is being authentic and being vulnerable and I did come in with some strengths in that area that the rest of my cohort didn’t all have. Some of the feedback I received from my cohort at the time was that the leadership that I brought was in that ‘vulnerability’ space. I think that was a really good reminder for me.

Sometimes we have these kinds of cultural ideas where we think about leadership as positional or being at a level in a certain organisation and I have always thought about leadership as being something that has to happen at every level. Leadership is about the way we show up in our lives, the way we show up in our relationships, the way we show up in our community. My experience of ARLP really affirmed that for me in how the rest of my cohort saw me and celebrated the style of leadership I bring, which is not a stand at the front and boss people around kind of leadership, it’s much more leading from the back and leading from the sides.

VJ: So, were you the only person from the art sector in your cohort?

AH: So, there were two of us, we were the weird art people in our cohort. For anyone listening, who hasn’t done ARLP, it’s quite a mixed cohort. We had people from primary industry, from government, from health, all sorts of sectors and different parts of those sectors as well. Kathy Burns and I were the only two arts people and even Kathy’s work in the arts was quite different from mine. She’s an incredible champion and her leadership in that program really inspired and informed my leadership moving forward as well.

VJ: Were you both on scholarships as well?

 AH: We both had scholarships from Creative Australia (formerly known as The Australia Council). I just wouldn’t have been able to do the program without that support. I have been lucky enough to experience both formal and informal professional development across my career, but the ARLP program was the most significant professional development that I’ve undertaken. Not just professional development, but personal development, and the lasting impact that it had on me. I started the program in 2016 but I am still finding treasure, I am still finding lessons from the program now.

VJ: Thinking about what you learned about leadership during the program, how does that translate into your work in the sector or your work in your community?

AH: Everyone’s experience of ARLP is going to be completely different, not only because of their professions but also the personal things that they bring and the work that you have to do on yourself. A lot of leadership is about the work we have to do on ourselves and for me, one of those big ones has always been around confidence, self-belief, backing myself and walking into a room and going, “yeah, I am a high school dropout and a teen mom and I have experienced domestic and sexual violence and those things have shaped me and shaped who I am and shaped how I see the world”. It’s actually those things that are part of what make me a valuable voice to have in the room. It’s actually what informs my leadership and so I really own that story and how that story shapes the way that I show up.

I think one of the big things for me around ARLP is that it really reaffirmed how important the regions are to me. I have lived and worked in the regions nearly all of my life (other than a brief four-year stint working in Adelaide), so the regions are my home, and my heart and my future. The ARLP really affirmed that for me and made me consider what that means and what that looks like. I would say it probably made me want to be a bit more politically engaged just think carefully about my vote, and my advocacy, and the kinds of conversations that I am having at every level. I really came out of the program wanting to be a bit more active in that sense.

I also took a lot away from our lessons around communication styles and how we communicate our story. This might seem like a funny thing when my whole work is about telling stories but watching my cohort, as well as reflecting on myself, the biggest challenge all of us had in different ways, was usually about communication. How do we make sense of what’s happening around us? How do we find that shared common ground? How do we ask for what we need? How do we offer what we have to offer? I really took all of that into my work in a whole bunch of different ways and it’s informed what I do now.

VJ: So, you’ve recently moved to Mount Gambier. How do you take all that into a new community? What’s your approach there?

AH: I wish I had a magic answer! I moved to Mount Gambier last year from my home community in the Riverland. It’s been a really interesting process and anyone who’s had a significant move will know what I am talking about. In some ways it triggered a bit of an identity crisis about who I am and what I am doing because so much of my work is tied up in place and in those long-term relationships.

For anyone that doesn’t know the Riverlands or Mount Gambier, they’re both regional communities in South Australia but they’re quite different from each other. Mount Gambier is a lot bigger; it has a lot of things that the Riverland doesn’t have.  It’s been interesting to come into that space and go, “okay, what is my role here?”, “what are the ways that I might contribute?”, “how does my work interact in this community?” and “what are the opportunities for exchange and collaboration and bringing back and between in my Riverland community?” because I am still continuing to work in that community.

I don’t actually have an answer for those questions yet. I am exploring, I am discovering that right now. I was talking to a friend about my experience of moving to Mount Gambier and just how much I am enjoying being able to rock up at arts events where I don’t have to organise anything. Now I can just be the participant, whereas in the Riverland, I am often the organiser. I said to my friend, “I feel a bit guilty, that I am enjoying it too much and I am sort of being disloyal to the Riverlands”. My friend said, ”it’s a little bit like you’re in a long-term relationship with the Riverland, but the Riverland is not quite ready to commit so you are having a bit of a fling with Mount Gambier”. I thought that was a fun way to look at it.

VJ: So, tell me a bit more about what you’re actually doing in Mount Gambier. What’s your day to day there, and the interplay of leadership in the community?

AH: For the last few years, I have worked in statewide positions for a number of organisations including some peak youth arts bodies and regional arts bodies. At the moment, I am actually working a couple of days a week for Riverland Youth Theatre which is the company that started my journey. I am working for them remotely and that’s also been an interesting shift for a company of that size. The rest of the time I work for myself. I have my own business as a creative and I work mostly as a writer, a performance maker and a creative producer. I have had a bunch of projects this year including a play in Adelaide as part of a festival which excitingly has just been announced as a finalist in an award.

If you haven’t worked in the art sector, you might not be familiar with this, but you’re always working in this really long-term way. You’re always planning, long, long, long term. Coming into a new community, it’s almost like I am starting that cycle from the beginning because projects like Guthrak, (the play we had in Adelaide) started way back in 2019. These projects have a slow burn, and you’re always building things at various stages of development and that’s about funding cycles, it’s about partners, it’s about building relationships. Writer, performance maker, creative producer is what it says on the CV but that’s not necessarily what the work looks like. What I mean by that is that the work is about community building and imagining and creating the future. It’s about documenting, celebrating and making sense of the present. It’s about understanding and honoring the past. The arts is just the tool that I used to do that because that’s what I happen to have skills in, but the work is actually about community building. I am doing that work all of the time, no matter what particular label I am wearing, or what particular organisation I am attached to.

The kinds of conversations that I am starting to have in Mount Gambier are about what is happening in this community. What are the stories this community wants to tell? What are the stories that this community doesn’t want to tell, but maybe needs to talk about? What are the histories that we need to make sure aren’t forgotten? What kind of future do we want to have? I am asking all of those questions and really just listening at the moment.

I also now have a nine-year-old with my beautiful husband. My nine-year-old is incredibly creative, and frequently gives me the most amazing pep talks and so we have decided that we’re going to make a show together called Consult a Kid, which is about exploring the relationship that adults and children have and how children have so much to teach us.

VJ: Fabulous! I can just see in your face the joy that that brings you so that’s what must motivate you and see through what, let’s face it, could be challenging and difficult times working in the art sector, financially and just the frustration. So, is that what gets you through it?

AH: Yeah, I think every sector has challenges and working in the arts, one of the big challenges people talk about is often about funding. That is an issue in education, in health and in many, many industries. One of the biggest challenges is actually the way that the arts is sometimes treated from outside our sector. It’s often treated as this optional extra or this fluffy thing that’s not really important and that can be really frustrating especially when I am there working in a grassroots way with my community, seeing the lifesaving, life changing impact that it has. I am in the room, watching people discover their confidence, discover their voice. I see them begin a project, frightened or doubting themselves, and I see them exit a project ready to take on the world. I can’t even put into words how incredibly rewarding that is and that’s what keeps me coming back.

My husband is a high school teacher, and he knew in year six that he was going to be a high school teacher, he had a very clear line of sight. Obviously, I have gone around in circles trying to figure out what I am doing, and I still go “maybe I should retrain as a social worker”, “maybe I should go back to uni and become a lawyer”. I am always kind of doing this circle about “where can I have the most impact”, because that’s what I care about. As much as I keep going around in circles sometimes or going, “Oh, maybe I could do this or maybe I could do that” and I could do lots of things, but I keep coming back to the arts because I see the difference that it makes. I see the impact that it makes every day and that is so rewarding.

VJ: A recent report that came out from Regional Arts Australia (RAA) found that regional Australians overwhelmingly believe artists make an important contribution to society and that arts have a big impact on stimulating our minds. Have you got any thoughts on that?

AH: I am not surprised because even people who think they don’t engage with the arts usually are. Most of us walk around with these little computers in our pockets where we play music, we watch TV, we watch films, all of which are created by artists. Even the clothes that we wear are made by designers.

The arts is embedded into everything that we do and when I think about the arts and culture in regional communities, sometimes our access to those things isn’t quite as equitable as some of our city counterparts. We don’t necessarily have the same kind of infrastructure. As I said, I am now living in a bigger regional community, and I have access to a bunch of infrastructure that my smaller community didn’t have. Whenever I am thinking about arts or culture and the kind of access that we have in our communities, I am always thinking about “what does it look like in each individual community?” and “how do we showcase and profile the artists that are working here?”.

No matter where you live, I promise you, there is an artist among you even if you don’t know it. Many people have artistic practices on the side or may be making incredible work outside of their communities. That is the reality for a lot of artists. We live and work in the regions, but our work might actually be happening elsewhere. As I said, my play this year premiered in Adelaide, not in any of the communities I live in. What I think about for the future is a shift in our thinking that says we need artists just as much as we need plumbers and bakers and butchers. Every community deserves to have artists and artmaking happening where we live in a way that’s right for our community. You know, I don’t need a huge butcher in my tiny little community, but I definitely want access to a butcher. In the same way, I want to make sure that there’s artists and artmaking happening in my community.

For me, especially because I am a regional artist, that priority of regional stories being told by regional people is crucial. We sometimes get a lot of city-based artists touring their shows or their exhibitions to our communities and I love that. I love being an audience for other people’s work but sometimes that takes over or it gets prioritised over regional artists and regional voices. The work of organisations like Regional Arts Australia, which has been such a huge supporter of my work, is about making sure that regional stories are told by regional people because we know our communities, we know the stories that needs to be told and we understand the kind of conversation that we need to have. That’s a really important thing to me and the kind of work that I do.

VJ: In 2023 the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation entered into a partnership with Regional Art Australia to deliver a project called the Regional Creative Industries Leadership Project. There will be two components to that. The first is what we’re calling a Leadership Action Initiative where it will bring together people from diverse industries in regional Australia to talk about some of the opportunities and challenges for the creative industries. The second aspect is a leadership program specifically for people living working in regional, remote, rural Australia who are contributing to the creative industry sector. So as someone who’s done one of our programs, I have got no doubt that that would be of interest to you and other alumni like you.

AH: I think it’s really exciting. Teaming up with Regional Arts Australia, who obviously have that expertise in the arts, the artistic ecology and deep knowledge of some of the challenges that we have working in the arts, combined with ARLF’s leadership experience and the incredible program that ARLF runs, I think it’s really a match made in heaven.

One of the things that I benefited from doing, ARLP was that it wasn’t specific to my sector, and that it was made up of people from all sectors but there’s also so much value in being with other people who are facing the same challenges as you in navigating that same industry. I think it’ an exciting thing in terms of developing the leadership in the regional arts sector over the coming years.

VJ: Just on a final note, what is the piece of advice you’d want to share to those that are wanting to have a meaningful impact in their community, just as you are, Alysha.

AH: Ahhh that’s such a hard question because as soon as someone goes, “Do you have any good advice”, you just have a complete mental blank, any advice you’ve ever given anyone just flies out of your head! After reflecting on my own journey, what I would say to most people is “keep showing up”. Even if you think you’re not good enough to be in the room or that you don’t have anything to value to add, just remember that you absolutely do. The fact that you feel that way probably means that you’ve got a lot to add. It’s really, really vital that we have lots of different perspectives and experiences sitting at every decision-making table at every level. My biggest thing is to keep showing up and to remember that your voice needs to be in the conversation. Also remember to think about who else isn’t at the table and how can you invite them to the table.

Alysha’s story is one chapter of a larger narrative of ARLP change-makers and visionaries who are helping to reshape our rural, regional and remote communities. 

Find out more about her story here: www.alyshaherrmann.com 

 

Find out more about the ARLF’s partnership with Regional Arts Australia

To find out more information about the ARLP or register your interest for future programs visit our website.

To find out more about the impact Alysha is having in her community, connect with her on LinkedIn.

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