The power of conversation

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Having conversations right across the Shepparton community has been instrumental in empowering people to work together to overcome poverty and disadvantage, Lisa McKenzie explains.

Like many other regional centres in Australia and around the globe, Shepparton has moved to reposition itself in recent times.

Situated in northern Victoria in a productive, irrigated valley, Shepparton, along with its Goulburn River neighbour Mooroopna, has had to come to terms with a decline in lowskilled manufacturing jobs.

For close to a century, the SPC and Ardmona canneries employed hundreds of low-paid workers to cook and can the apples, pears, peaches and plums grown on the rich soils surrounding the city. Hundreds more were employed on farms to prune trees and pick fruit.

These days the picking jobs remain but the manufacturing jobs have been slashed and a reset has occurred that has placed a far greater focus on growing fresh fruit for overseas markets.

Surprisingly there are now more fruit trees in the Goulburn Valley than ever before, but fewer associated jobs, and the roles that do exist require a more skilled workforce.

Our dairy industry is also experiencing overseas growth opportunities, and requires an increasingly skilled workforce of agronomists, IT specialists, accountants, marketers and the like.

While university deferment rates are high in country areas, many of the region’s brightest students fly the coop at 18, headed to study or work in Melbourne and elsewhere, with many never to return.

In the past five years, business and community leaders have increasingly realised that if the region is to capitalise on the many economic opportunities at its doorstep, it must come to terms with issues of disadvantage and social inclusion.

Sir Andrew Fairley, a businessman and community leader in the first half of last century, was both the managing director of SPC and Mayor of Shepparton.

A trust established on his death to support the people of Greater Shepparton is overseen by his nephew and namesake, Melbourne lawyer, Andrew Fairley.

In recent years, Fairley and his board of trustees have decided that the trust funds should increasingly be used for high impact or catalytic funding.

In 2011 he brought together leaders from Shepparton’s business, community and education sectors as well as a swag of big name Melbourne-based philanthropists.

A report outlining poor school retention and outcomes; relatively high unemployment and youth unemployment; and the high prevalence of parents who were unemployed, single or on a disability payment was presented and came as a shock to some in the room, especially among the business community.

They heard that in Shepparton’s Aboriginal community, the largest in rural Victoria, unemployment rates were around 70 per cent, a figure they were told could be attributed to generational disadvantage and racism.

They heard an influx of new arrivals from Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congo and Sudan was stretching local services and schools and the social fabric of the community.

What emerged was a commitment to adopt a wholeof- community approach to improving the wellbeing and outcomes of young people from conception to career using a ‘collective impact’ framework.

At that stage, this new way of working had not long been documented at Stanford University, in the U.S. It was based on the premise that ‘wicked’ problems could be addressed most effectively when individuals, groups, organisations, and communities used their combined skills and resources to systematically tackle the issue, in a framework focused heavily on evidence-based decision-making, using shared measurement, to shift agreed indicators.

The challenges begin well before birth. Smoking rates among pregnant women in our region are well over double the state average1 and breastfeeding rates for babies at six months are about half the state average2.

There are almost 5,000 young people under 16, or some 33 per cent of young people in the Shepparton community at any one time, growing up in a low-income or welfare-dependent family.3

Our children are more than twice as likely to have witnessed domestic violence compared to the state average.4 And we know that on the current available figures, 26.5 per cent of children are vulnerable in key areas such as physical, social and emotional readiness, compared to a state average of 19.9 per cent and a national average of 22 per cent.

We know that the first years of childhood are critical in determining life outcomes, including mental and physical health and importantly, our capacity to cope with stress later in life. The work that much loved local paediatrician, Peter Eastaugh, is doing in our community, along with many others, tells us of the effect poverty and trauma can have on the healthy development of children, and their capacity to learn.

With the facts now on the table, we have made a move to respond.

In a first step, our initiative, the Greater Shepparton Lighthouse Project, partnered with local Best Start and Communities for Children initiatives to produce the State of Greater Shepparton’s Children Report 2014. The report captured, and for the first time made widely available, data on how our young people and their families are faring. Using red and green traffic light indicators, it is a simple and powerful tool for the uninitiated. You don’t need to be an expert to know the document features far too many stoplights when it comes to our young people.

As the saying goes, knowledge is power, and airing and exposing the data was an important first step in developing shared understanding and a whole-of-community response.

The next step was our One Thousand Conversations initiative. This large-scale community consultation was developed to allow us all to listen carefully and learn firsthand from people from every part of our diverse community—parents, the young and the old, sporting coaches, the homeless and the wealthy, business owners and retirees, farmers and factory workers and everyone in between.

The approach sparked some resistance. “Why do you want to do that?’’ a local social worker asked. “We’re the experts, we know what needs to happen.’’

While I have heard variations on this theme many times since our collective impact initiative began, the One Thousand Conversations process and outcomes have reinforced that the fundamental changes needed for our young people will only occur when we value ideas, skills, expertise and input from across the community, from a diverse group of individuals, organisations and sectors, including young people. This is a key element of collective impact being borne out by our experience.

Using funds from the Fairley Foundation, we engaged three women with strong facilitation and consultation skills and a deep understanding and connection with our community to undertake the One Thousand Conversations project.

We drafted four simple questions:
• What does a happy, healthy childhood look like?
• How are our kids faring in Greater Shepparton?
• What’s working and not working?
• What else can be done and how can you contribute?

We began with each of the women approaching someone known to them to host a one-hour discussion in the home, workplace, or a community setting such as a club.

The response was enthusiastic and heartening. We found our community cared very much about the wellbeing and future of our young people. And they came out of the woodwork to have their say.

From the original three discussions the conversations and suggestions snowballed.

“Come down to the football club and talk to the thirds.”
“My playgroup mums would love this.”
“You should talk to my work team.”

Over the long, cold 2015 winter, our facilitators criss-crossed the local area, at all hours, often in fog and rain, to capture the views of our community. From toasty kitchens, to pubs, clubs, schools and draughty halls, they documented firsthand the insights and wisdom of our community on raising happy healthy kids.

Our intrepid facilitators met with 1,012 people in 85 groups across Shepparton, Mooroopna and outlying towns. The youngest participants were in their early teens and the oldest were in their 80s. There were 361 people under the age of 25 involved. All up, about half were parents, 165 identified as Aboriginal and 107 had arrived in Australia in the past 10 years. Close to 100 said they were not in reliable housing and more than 100 said they did not have internet access.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews participated, along with our most vulnerable citizens, and they were all given an equal voice. The vulnerable cohort were often astounded to be engaged:

“Why are you talking to us? Noone ever asks what we think, they just do things to us.’’

We worried we would open a can of worms, a complexity of issues with too few common themes and too many disparate ideas that might cause us to be gripped by indecision. The opposite was true. What we heard was remarkably similar across the board. It seems our community understands very well the issues affecting our kids and the protective factors that help them navigate childhood.

We were told that structure, consistency, boundaries and routines were essential in early childhood. We were told that to thrive, children needed to have caring adults within their immediate family and in a network of extended family, neighbours, friends and community.

We also heard that many families were isolated and unable to provide this network of support.

We were told of the importance of extra-curricular activities such as sport, music and art. People understood the value of clubs where children could learn discipline, communication and teamwork, meet role models and form friendships.

But people also said far too many of our young people were denied access to activities and clubs because the costs were prohibitive. Kids needed the right gear and families needed to be able to get them there, but this was beyond the reach of many.

They said work experience, apprenticeships and jobs were found through clubs and other networks, but again families had trouble developing the necessary connections.

“We don’t know what jobs are out there and how to help our kids get work experience,’’ they said.

A large number talked of a disconnect between schools and local industry careers. Another big theme was the need to begin hands-on learning such as VET and VCAL before the non-academic kids started to disengage in mid-secondary school.

While services were raised, and their good work often acknowledged, very few people said we needed more services, and quite a few spoke of the disempowerment that could come with being a client.

The overwhelming theme to emerge was around equity and access. People understood what was needed to raise happy, healthy children, but conceded many in the community did not have the networks, knowledge and resources to provide those protective factors, such as healthy lifestyle and role models. Put simply, in a town where many families thrive, at the same time poverty and social exclusion are also preventing many children from realising their potential.

In recent years, this poverty has become more apparent and concentrated as middle-class families have bypassed inner-city primary schools, for schools on the urban perimeter which are distinctly less diverse.

This ‘white flight’ has seen a concentration of disadvantage in the inner-city schools, including children from a diverse range of Aboriginal, refugee and lower socioeconomic white families. Until very recently our community didn’t talk about these things. Valiant school principals and their dedicated staff have plugged away, often in virtual isolation.

The same trend continues in our secondary schools, with some bursting at the seams while others struggle to meet the needs of a more disadvantaged cohort.

The One Thousand Conversations project has provided a much needed forum to air and consider the impact of poverty in our community.

More than 100 participants put their hand up to support Lighthouse with their skills and expertise, networks and knowledge and we identified 18 priority areas for action.

One is our volunteer program, which now involves more than 200 people, mainly from local organisations and business, going into our more disadvantaged schools to help with breakfast and homework programs, reading, maths and craft. Our most vulnerable kids are getting help with reading from engineers, lawyers, and scientists, who in turn are embracing the experience. The benefits are multiple, perhaps most importantly, the program is helping to bridge the social divide.

A suite of other initiatives will attempt to do the same, that is, where necessary, reinstate the social fabric needed for young people to thrive, using local and latent resources wherever possible.

Earlier this year, 20 retired women, including nine former teachers, a GP, and a psychiatrist began ‘Conversations with Kids’, with local pre-school and prep kids identified as lagging in vocabulary and communication. Some of the women who are only rostered to visit the school monthly are already asking if they can come more often.

These measures alone may not change the trajectory for children who may have already experienced years of poverty and in some cases, trauma. We intend putting in place or supporting a suite of such measures, including mentor programs, sporting and university scholarships, improved work experience, links between curriculum and local industry, a youth hub and tutor programs.

Ranging from conception to career and running at the scale required and alongside necessary services and other interventions, we aim to provide families with the social connectedness, resources and access they say they need for their children to thrive.

Over time, our aim is to build an integrated and cohesive framework in which each child can thrive, with clear community-set measures for success.

Access to the opportunities and resources currently unavailable to many of our families will be paramount, along with a shared understanding of the factors that drive up to a quarter of our young people out of work or study.

With backpackers and overseas workers picking our fruit, while many young people are idle, it is easy to point the finger. The old narrative: “Kids can’t work, kids have poor literacy and numeracy, kids have poor people skills’’; is a bit like blaming the product instead of the factory that produced it.

A Lighthouse study now underway, One Hundred Conversations, has put a call out to speak to young people not in work or study. It is finding many of our disengaged youth have experienced horrific childhood trauma overlaid with major bullying issues, which are forcing them out of schooling in early secondary school.

These kids need a concerted whole-of-community effort and wrap-around support if we are to break the poverty cycle and solve issues of access and equity in our community. We are giving ourselves 20 years to do it. Lisa McKenzie is Executive Officer at the Greater Shepparton Lighthouse Project.

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