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Tales from the Trenches with Anne Leadbeater

Tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is Anne Leadbeater and I live in Kinglake, Victoria, with my husband, John. I have two gorgeous grown-up children, Kate (29) and Michael (27). My background is in community development with ten years in the neighbourhood house sector, and 16 years in local and state government. In 2007, I enrolled in university for the first time and completed a master’s degree in social science (policy and human services) with RMIT. Apart from my family and work, my other great passion is breeding Suffolk sheep – I’m a very ‘hands on’ shepherd with my little flock and spend many of the wee, small hours roaming the paddocks during lambing.

Tell us a bit about your organisation.

In 2013, I started my own consultancy specialising in disaster recovery and community resilience, Leadbeater Group Pty Ltd [which] has been be a great adventure and I have been fortunate to have a wide range of clients and projects around Australia and in New Zealand. While my first love is local government, I have also revelled in the opportunity to work with NGOs and community organisations, government departments, community housing, tertiary education providers, the national insurance industry and state and federal emergency management agencies.

What does your role involve?

Depending on the client and the project, my role can be anything from facilitating a strategic planning session for a community organisation to researching and developing a national emergency management policy. As an example, in 2015 I worked with an emergency management and volunteering reference group to write the National Spontaneous Volunteer Strategy for the Australian and New Zealand Emergency Management Committee (ANZEMC). More recently, I have been involved in designing and piloting two units of study on communities and disaster recovery as part of the Advanced Diploma of Public Safety for TAFE NSW.

What would be a typical day in your working life?

A typical day will often see me writing – either working on a project or wading through the butcher’s paper and sticky notes (so many sticky notes!!!). My sister, Fiona, who is also a Leadbeater, works with me too – Fiona knows me so well that I think she knows what I’m thinking before I do, which makes for a fun and very productive working relationship. In between time spent in the office, I am generally heading north from Kinglake to work with clients in regional Victoria, or south to Melbourne’s CBD for meetings with agency and department staff. I also do quite a bit of public speaking and this involves regular travel to QLD, WA, SA, Tasmania, NSW and NZ.

Can you share some of the good and bad experiences you have encountered over your career and how they have helped you grow as an engagement professional and person?

In 2009, our community was impacted by the Victorian ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires. At the time I was working as a community facilitator with our local council, and because of the location of the fires and the level of impact for our shire, I ended up coordinating recovery for the Kinglake Ranges on behalf of Council.

The days and weeks after the fires were an incredibly challenging time for everyone, but what stands out most in my memory of that time was the remarkable courage, wisdom and resilience of the community. In the face of the most profoundly sad and distressing circumstances and with a great deal of uncertainty about the future, people were still able to come together to support each other and to try to advocate for recovery outcomes that would work for our community. My experiences from that time have set me on a bit of a quest these last eight years to advocate for the role of social capital and resilience in disasters and for the rights of the community to have their local knowledge recognised and to be active contributors in driving their own recovery.

What do you find is the most rewarding aspect of working in this field?

The thing I love most and that I never tire of is what I learn from other people while working to understand their point of view. I am a big fan of the concept of collective wisdom – the idea that we are smarter together than we are apart – and working in community engagement proves that theory time and time again. When a committed group of people come together to share their knowledge, experiences and ideas about a particular issue or challenge through a well-facilitated process – even when they don’t agree (or perhaps, especially when they don’t agree?) the potential for everyone to come away with a deeper understanding of the issue and of themselves is almost limitless.

As an example of this idea, a couple of years ago I was asked by IAP2 Australasia to deliver a series of masterclasses on community engagement and disaster recovery in various cities in Australia and in Christchurch. The audience was predominantly community engagement and emergency management practitioners and we had the luxury of three hours to spend together. As part of each workshop, attendees participated in a World Café to explore three ‘big questions’ about working with communities in recovery: Why is this work hard to do? What could help? And, what is success?

While the activity was planned to be an end, in itself, the content generated through these conversations from around the country resulted in a remarkably rich and unique national ‘snapshot’ of the issues and challenges being faced by recovering communities and by the people working to support them. At the conclusion of masterclass series, IAP2 Australasia resolved to form a working group to further analyse and refine the content and this led to the production of a new IAP2 resource for practitioners, ‘Guide to Engaging in Disaster Recovery’.

What do you see as the most challenging part of your role or working in engagement in general?

I think the perennial challenge is helping people to understand that time and resources spent in effective, inclusive engagement are a front-end investment in quality outcomes – both for the organisation and the community. People who are feeling the pressure of deadlines and/or political imperatives can feel that the time it takes to do engagement well will slow down or complicate a project. In reality, it is much costlier to defend a project and manage the outrage resulting from poor (or no) community engagement, from both a resourcing and a reputational perspective.

To not engage is really to say ‘there is not a single thing about this issue that we don’t already know – there is nothing at all we can learn from anyone’. That always seems like a remarkably big call to me.

What prompted you to enter engagement professionally?

In 2005 I was given the job of developing a framework for community consultation for our Council. We were pretty terrible at consultation and engagement and there were lots of war stories about how hard it was to work with the community. It was at that time I first learnt about IAP2 and discovered the Spectrum of Public Participation, which was a significant revelation for me.

After many discussions with Council staff and community members, my ‘great discovery’ was that everyone – both the community and staff – had much more in common than not, and all were wanting the best possible outcomes, but there was a lot of uncertainty, mistrust and systemic issues that were getting in the way. Recommendations about the importance of planning for and adequately resourcing consultation, improving the quality and accessibility of information going to the community, having more realistic project timelines that allowed for community feedback, increased levels of accountability, facilitating two-way communication and upskilling staff resulted in substantial improvements in community satisfaction as well as staff morale. After that, I was hooked.

What are the three biggest professional or personal lessons that you have learnt from working on this field?

  1. The value of an asset or strength-based approach – working with the half-full part of the glass.
  2. Being comfortable with uncertainty and not needing to have the answers – being able to trust in the inherent wisdom of the community and knowing that my job is just to create an environment where the answers can emerge.
  3. Being alert to ‘the magic of unlikely conversations’ – which, to my mind is what happens when people whose paths might not normally cross are brought together to explore a particular issue. For example, when the local fire captain, kinder teacher and Landcare representative end up on the same table talking about how to define community resilience – suddenly resilience can’t be seen from a single perspective any more – it now has to encompass emergency management, early years’ education and the environment, at the very least … and that’s when the magic happens.

What advice would you give newbies entering engagement?

  • If you don’t want a fight, don’t be defensive – listen, understand, empathise and learn.
  • That there is no such thing as an apathetic person – everyone cares about something, although it may not be the thing we want them to care about…
  • Don’t be so busy trying to convert the ‘staunchly opposed’ that you miss engaging with those who are interested and amendable to change – look for and work with the ‘champions’.
  • If you can only be one thing, be honest – the truth will set you free 🙂