Resilience in rural Australia is becoming a core competency
This article first appeared online in ProBono in March 2017
It may sound like a cliché, but it’s never been more true: we are living in turbulent times.
And it doesn’t matter where you live – city or country – people are having to do things and respond to things that they perhaps never imagined. Natural disasters seem to be increasingly prevalent; droughts somehow seem worse and last longer; commodity prices go up and down almost overnight; technology evolves so quickly and businesses seem to be opening and closing at a rapid rate. Each of these things – and plenty more – present challenges for communities and local leaders.
This means we need to develop a different skillset that promotes greater collaboration, adaptation and capacity building – and we need to be resilient. Fortunately, for many rural, regional and remote communities, these skills are already prevalent.
So what is resilience and how do you cultivate it? Resilience is the ability to absorb a shock or setback and flourish in spite of change – or maybe even because of it. There are lots of definitions but I describe a resilient community as one that remains creative and adapts to the dynamic conditions, retains its identity and social connectedness, even if it’s hit by an industry crisis or natural disaster.
The need for rural, regional, remote communities to become self-sufficient is increasing and more than ever, communities need to be able to gather resources, respond, be adaptive and flexible. The question is how?
Innovation and collaboration with a local lens
A whole range of ingredients go into making a community resilient. There is “no one size fits all” and at FRRR, we firmly locals know the best local solution for their local problems. Sometimes it’s a case of coming together to lay out the problem, explore the options and listen to the ideas people have to solve the challenges.
That’s what happened in Felton, in Queensland, when they were confronted in 2008 with the prospect of an open cut coalmine and petrochemical plant being built on their land. The odds weren’t in their favour – no community had ever stopped a coalmine proceeding in Queensland but four and half years later, the Friends of Felton community group secured their future.
As a community, they wanted to showcase their local agriculture and encourage visitors to the area. The Felton Food Festival was formed and the town of 250 people now hosts more than 7,000 visitors to the town each year to taste local produce directly from the farmers. The festival coordinator believes their most remarkable achievement is that Felton is now on the map, with people from across Australia attending the Festival. That’s a great example of rural resilience.
Work together to divide and conquer
Staying resilient requires a strong local leadership base that’s prepared to work together. This may mean local leaders need to shake off old competitive ways of working and harness their skills for the greater good of the community.
But as things change, you need new skills. And as new people come into the community, they bring different skills, which means the community can do different things. At FRRR, we encourage community groups to do a skills audit. Find out who’s good at public speaking, grant writing, project plan development, or who’s better at cooking and good old muscle power. By doing this, you have a skill bank you can draw on, but can also identify the areas where there are gaps. It also lets you identify who is open to advanced training in areas such as community leadership or social enterprise development.
Following the closure of several local businesses around 1997, the Cummins and District Enterprise Committee (CDEC), in rural South Australia, was formed with a remit to help stabilise the community and prevent losing further services and employment opportunities, and if possible, to develop new reasons for people to come to town. The group organised community events to revitalise Cummins, such as the Kalamazoo Races which were highly successful, but once they weren’t as effective, led to the creation of an air show and more recently a monster, community-wide garage sale that attracts hundreds of visitors and creates opportunities for local businesses and for fundraising by community groups.
The CDEC has also been involved in improving child care services and the caravan park for the town. Taking care of the “big stuff” allowed local groups and business owners to facilitate their own fundraising and business ideas. The town is justifiably proud of its achievements and continues to work together.
Community resilience is linked to economic, social, personal and environmental factors
In my role, I see time and again that a social, supportive and well-resourced town is a happy town. If people socialise locally and support local businesses, the town usually has strong morale and will be more resilient when faced with tough times.
My own home-town of Maldon in Victoria is one such community. A review of the Essential Economics report from 2011, commissioned by the local council, showed that the number of vacant retail outlets in Maldon was increasing and the level of visitor and local spending was decreasing. The Maldon Neighbourhood Centre is a progressive team and on hearing the findings, they wanted to take action to reverse this trend.
They identified two significant gaps in Maldon’s retail offering – fresh fruit and vegetables and “‘speciality” shops. So the idea of a monthly market, utilising the local talent, was developed to fill this gap.
The initial aim was to attract 500 people a month to the market. Now an average of 1,200 people turn up each month. The benefits of the market have been widespread – for business owners and residents of all ages – and community morale has never been stronger.
There are lessons from all these communities for all of us. These inspiring local leaders are wonderful role models, and all happy to share their stories with anyone who wants to know more about how they did it.
Philanthropy has a key role in building resilience
Rural communities need to develop a different skillset that promotes greater collaboration, adaptation and capacity building. I encourage all rural and regional communities to think creatively, use different skillsets, invest in future generations and work together to develop ideas for the long-term gain.
Philanthropy has an important role to play in supporting local leaders to implement these creative solutions. It will come as no surprise that the reason I know about these stories is because each of these communities has been supported by a grant through FRRR, thanks to funding from our donor partners.
Vehicles like community philanthropy provide an opportunity for local people to lead projects and bring resources from within the community, and outside, dedicated to a long-term view. You can also work with the local government to deliver strategic items to generate economic stimulus, through events and developing local leadership capacity.
While resilience may seem to be a bit of a buzz-word, it is an essential ingredient for sustainable rural communities. It may also seem complex or intangible, but the examples shared here show that if you love where you live and are prepared to work to improve things, anything is possible.