If you really want to create social change – do something

This time, a year ago I was preparing to hand over my regional leadership role, a role I’d held for seven years and could have easily continued for seven more. But I knew the time had come for change and, approaching my 50th birthday I also knew it was time to dig deeper into the social change I’m really called to create. Otherwise, it’s all talk, right?

For a long time, in fact most of my career I’d wrestled with an ongoing question:

What can I do to ensure regional people have more equitable access to services?

I’d tried to address this in a variety of roles from consultancy of key regional issues to strategic planning, community service management, community engagement activities, vocational education and now the leadership role. It appeared I only had two choices left – give in to being a grumpy ageing lady OR, go into politics. I flirted with both discovering neither was a good fit.

And yet, every day I see the people in my regional community experiencing problems that a robust support system wouldn’t let fall through the cracks.

I wrestled for a long time about how to create this kind of change because it’s big, it’s entrenched and I’m just one person.

A lightning bolt

In September 2022 I attended the Social Enterprise World Forum in Brisbane. At the forum I remembered how important it is to be surrounded by a likeminded tribe, and to feel part of a community. My career has been like a dance between community and economic development and while it’s true, social impact isn’t quite the thing in between, it’s as close as it gets.

I took this pic on the way out as an idea came to mind – I need to host an event to enable people who are creating change in regional communities to come together. If you know me well that look on my face is actually one of terror, because in this instant I knew I’d be doing this.

Determined for the event to go ahead I committed to produce, and underwrite the event – meaning that if it failed a bill of $100K was coming my way, and, I probably wouldn’t get paid, at least not in the first year.

Now there’s a way to check in on your commitment to something !

Before I knew I was surrounded by an incredible advisory team consisting of Jo-Anne Kelly, Jo Taylor, Deb Samuels, Angela Martin, Jesse Taylor and Sue Currie.

And the rest, they may say is history.

Social Impact in the Regions 2023 kicked all the goals I’d hoped it would both in the pragmatic sense:


And, most importantly in the way it brought community together

It’s important to note that Social Impact in the Regions (SIITR) 2023 did break even and it did so without waiting around for a grant, in fact, there was no government funding for the inaugural event which was funded via the generosity of our not for profit and philanthropic partners, and our community via ticket sales.

As a very low budget event we leaned in heavily on the goodwill of volunteers, including the fabulous Tegan Swan who also became part of our SIITR family. And while there were certainly glitches throughout the days we certainly pulled together an event to be remembered.

Fast forward to 2024, still operating on a shoe-string budget, and still with the support of a dedicated advisory team we are moving towards our next, and somewhat more creative event destination, Kempsey NSW.

This year’s SIITR will be held between 4-6 September in Kempsey. The only glitch is Kempsey doesn’t have a venue large enough to hold the estimated audience of 300. So, we are inventing not only a venue but the required accommodation, transport and catering.

Whew! It’s fair to say I enjoy a challenge.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the main street lately, trying to undo these knots and slowly, but surely making sense of what we are going to do. Just this week I was lucky enough to bump into a Kempsey creative industries legend and we sat at the end of an outdoor mall for an hour discussing different ways to give the main street life. Chris reminded me that operating on a shoestring is great in that it forces you to create. I know he’s right.

The other exciting thing about this year’s event is that it’s not just an event. When the idea for the conference initially came to me I knew I didn’t want it to be just about an event because that’s exactly what I’m trying not to do (fly in – fly out).

In December I met Chad Renando who was looking for an event to embed a community building concept into. We joined forces to create a business called Ready Communities – our pilot, Ready Macleay has kicked off already with an impressive amount of local engagement (more here).

The lead in program builds readiness within the community to host the event, skills that will have lasting impacts well beyond the three days in September.

Some examples of how the local community is integrated into SIITR this year, and in subsequent years in other communities via the lead-in Ready Communities include:

  • The whole activity is embedded in a pre-existing backbone organisation who takes carriage of the connections leading into SIITR, and outwards
  • Wherever possible we engage local people to provide services. Where it’s not possible we ensure the visiting service leaves capability behind in the local community
  • Skill development is embedded throughout the entire program and there are always opportunities presented for capacity and capability development (for example, we are currently delivering community facilitation skills with the Learning the Macleay team (backbone organisation) – and learning a lot about the community as we go.
  • Capability development is delivered in local context and there is always in-place connection prior to moving to online delivery mode
  • The community has looked at its strengths, and identified a series of initiatives to really bring these to light during SIITR. Some examples aligned to the Ready Macleay themes include:
  • Agricultural Communities: Our fabulous local hospitality partners, Mangiato (Georgia and Anita) are sourcing a range of local caterers and venues to ensure there’s enough food for all, and the budget is spread around. They are also working with local farmers to make sure our food is, wherever possible locally sourced.
  • Youth Futures: We are working with the wonderful Taz and Em of Futures Isle who will assist young people to help us solve conference problems (such as venues and accommodation) and in the process learn a lot about social impact, leadership and making change happen. Even though Taz and Em aren’t locally based they will leave lasting skills in community and, their extensive national youth network is also something local young people, and people who work with young people will have the ability to draw from.
  • Housing: Already we are making some exciting inroads to our housing of conference delegate challenge with a local billeting program and some other unique ideas which require the abovementioned youth involvement. Let’s say, this is going to be a unique conferencing experience.
  • Creative industries: In my mind no event is an event without creative industries and already a wealth of ideas are coming forward which will both showcase local creative people and also give the conference a dynamic boost of excitement.
  • CBD Activation: with (currently) 33 empty shops in the CBD alone we are working with local real estate agents and retailers to make the CBD exciting and vibrant. I’m not going to share too much about this because it will give away the surprises however, as a hint let’s say as a conference delegate you’ll be getting a lot of behind the scenes insights to the local community and it’s CBD.

And, local people will also be involved throughout the event as living books, guides, hosts and of course conference delegates.

Back to the beginning… Of course, I realise everyone’s version of doing something isn’t inventing a national event however the point remains – there are so many challenges in our communities right now and we waste a whole lot of time talking about them.

You can learn more about Social Impact in the Regions here

And Ready Communities here

Hope to see you at the SIITR this year.

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