Growing a fresh bunch of leaders in SA’s regions

A government-funded leadership program has seen more than 1300 people gain the skills they need to advocate for and strengthen their regional communities.

Jun 07, 2024, updated Jun 07, 2024
Program participants Renata Hackett, Verity Hollobone, Tara Burns, Kylie Ritter and Teresa Brady

Program participants Renata Hackett, Verity Hollobone, Tara Burns, Kylie Ritter and Teresa Brady

The Regional Leadership Development Program has seen an overwhelming participation rate in its first year, eclipsing its target of 400+ to equip more than 1300 people with the skills to become leaders in their communities.

On Wednesday, Primary Industries and Regional Development Minister Clare Scriven hosted a cross section of participants in the program, which is funded by the state government and PIRSA and delivered through the Regional Development Australia (RDA) network.

The program aims to strengthen the voice of regional South Australians in setting the policies and delivering the services important to them.

It comes at a time when local government and community organisations are struggling to fill leadership positions.

The enduring challenge of civic participation was starkly demonstrated in the November 2022 local government elections.

Across the state, 93 positions were filled without an election even being held. Additionally, 16 vacancies across 10 council areas did not receive enough nominations, leading to supplementary elections to fill these roles.

Similarly, many of the people leading community groups are volunteers and the rate of volunteerism in regional SA has been in decline for years.

It has dropped from around 1 in 4 people in 2016, to around 1 in 5 in 2021.

As such, there has been a real need to upskill and nurture a new generation of leaders in the regions, and particularly to tap into underrepresented groups, such as migrants, First Nations, women and young people.

So far, more than 1300 people have taken part in the Regional Leadership Development Program, which has been running since June 2022.

One participant in the RDA Barossa, Gawler, Light and Adelaide Plains program was 25-year-old Jack Gill, an active environmentalist and community leader.

A passionate ‘Gawlerite’, Gill took part in order to help the community groups he volunteers with make a bigger impact and achieve their goals.

He is currently the chair of the Gawler Environment Centre, treasurer of the Gawler Town Band.

Last year, he finished up six years on the Gawler Youth Advisory Committee (GYAC), where he contributed to the development of the Gawler Climate Emergency Action Plan and established the annual Gawler Bike Month campaign.

The training covered areas including governance, financial accounting, strategic and project planning, managing volunteers and marketing, as well as skills to assist with wellbeing and resilience, harnessing diversity and inclusion, empowering leadership and cross-sector collaboration.

Gill said he has been “constantly referring back” to the course materials and, in particular, the module on governance filled in a large gap in his knowledge and skills.

“I came into volunteering and taking on leadership roles fairly rapidly, just due to my passion for these groups,” he said.

“Being volunteer based organisations, they don’t have standard training processes or upskilling – you do a lot of learning on the fly.

“Having dedicated time to learn about good governance procedures, how it’s managed in a not-for-profit organisation, how to build and maintain a committee, look at succession planning, it was all really valuable [in ensuring] the Environment Centre was [financially] sufficient, sustainable and quite welcoming.”

Gill’s work on the Gawler Climate Emergency Action Plan came about after he suggested it include the voices of youth, leading Council to make youth positions available.

“That really hit home to me about providing opportunities for young people to get involved in these types of discussions normally [limited to people with] years of experience in these areas – and bringing different perspectives, understanding and skill sets,” he said.

He admitted to having some self-doubt before engaging with the program, mostly because of his relative newness in his community.

“But program covered how to take the first step, and how to understand and find where you best fit within an organisation or the community,” he said.

In November 2022, the program also hosted a workshop with Chris Sands, a UK branding and placemaking consultant whose Totally Locally work is having a significant social and economic impact on small towns.

Additionally, it subsidised places at an Australian Institute of Company Directors workshop on governance for not-for-profit directors.

In total, nearly 15,000 hours of training was delivered across the state’s 7 RDA networks in 72 regional towns.

It has seen wider community support, with Eyre Peninsula resident Brooke Pugsley named the inaugural recipient of the Bendigo Community Bank Emerging Leader Award and awarded $500 to invest in her community leadership project.

Interestingly, 68 per cent of the Regional Leadership Development Program participants were women.

Among them was Yankunytjatjara, Adnyamathana, Kuyani and Dieri woman Teresa Brady, who is the chairperson of the Aroona Aboriginal Council, a representative for CHANT (Cultural Heritage and Native Title) and a director for the Aboriginal Lands Trust.

The Aroona board was established in the 1980s by community elders to advocate for cultural heritage, housing, health and other community needs.

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However, Brady said with the passing of the elders, the community was “left blindsided” and under resourced as there was no one with the knowledge of how to carry on their work.

“I’m third in my family group, so my role wasn’t to take that step, and being female was a barrier too,” Brady said.

Regardless, she and others in the community eventually resurrected the board.

“We wanted how our elders had done it before … so then, we knew we had to do more courses.”

Doing the leadership program gave Brady the confidence to take on a bigger role and push back against expected norms.

“The community became stagnant there for a while, but this course actually gave me a life raft – I could grow, I could move forward,” she said.

She also gained insight into herself and what she wanted to achieve personally and for her children and grandchildren. Brady was in prison as a 19-year-old and said that on her release she “just survived”.

Nowadays, she sees her role as guiding and supporting her family so that “alcoholism, drugs, domestic violence and the system will not be their story”.

“It wasn’t until I’d done this course that I realised how important my role in my community was,” she said.

Brady is from Copley (population 83) near Leigh Creek and undertook the program online and face to face in Port Augusta through RDA Far North.

Before this first intake, RDA Limestone Coast ran a pilot of the program and has since established an alumni network. It is likely that similar ones will form in the wake of this first intake.

After completing the program, Brady did a two-day change maker workshop, also run by RDA Far North.

“I see things differently now,” she said.

She intends to continue advocating for her community and for Indigenous peoples, but noted that she “could go anywhere now” with her newfound confidence and skills.

“I realised being a part of that table now, sitting on whatever comes along, my input is valuable,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter that I’m female [and] Indigenous, because I value myself now because of that course.”

The Regional Leadership Development Program was extended in January this year for two more years to reach another 420 participants.

Brady is a huge advocate for the program, the skills it develops and the ideas it has helped her unlock. She has been encouraging other people in her community and her family members to sign up.

“It would benefit a lot of people, even if they didn’t want to sit on boards,” she said.

“Until you’ve done courses like this, you don’t know how beneficial they might be. This has come at the right time.”

Enrolments for the next intake open soon. Contact your regional RDA.

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