'Allandale', Rand, NSW 2642
When we look at the program and issues for this Conference, we see marketing, production, planning, management, economics, finances, and the environment. Obviously, these are what many see as impacting most heavily on rural communities and individuals. While I do not deny the importance of these factors, I question whether these strategies can work if, at the grass roots, the communities and some individuals are fragmenting.
It is difficult to have rational decision making, planning and working if an individual feels isolated, stressed by work or family commitments, or out of control of their work or destiny because of external factors. It is difficult for that individual if the local community appears to be disappearing due to either general depopulation of the countryside or simply the feeling that:
• 'it is not like the old days
• people are moving more often
• there are more outsiders and I don't know most of them
• there's no one I feel comfortable with.'
The social context in which we live changes constantly everywhere, but for rural communities the changes have been at "Future Shock" pace, i.e. faster than most rural people have previously been asked to cope with. Social issues must, of necessity, become more recognised as influencing the ability of farmers to deal rationally with the economic, productive and political challenges facing them.
So I am pleased to be asked to balance the program, not only in terms of gender, but also in recording the unique ways in which various communities and individuals have been trying to resume some sense of control for their community and for individuals within their community.
I live at Rand, which is approximately 110 km south west of Wagga Wagga. Two years ago we had the deaths of two 2 year old children and an older person. The community generally was grieving, but many, including myself, did not know how we might best help those who were bereaved. People who were at the point of losing their farms or had lost them were also going through the grieving process. The feeling of helplessness as to HOW to support these people was expressed many times over.
At the same time, there was concern about facilities, contact with, and isolation of, the elderly and youth of the area. Other issues such as people's general feelings of isolation and loneliness, both individual and communal, and the levels of stress within the community because of many of these factors, were also discussed.
Whilst all this was in the melting pot, I was asked (out of the blue) by the Department of Agriculture representative in Albury, Ted Scarlett, to join others to discuss the social issues affecting rural communities during the general rural crisis. The first meeting was illuminating and invigorating in that the people attending were energetically pursuing like-minded goals. They saw a need within their own communities, and some were already addressing these needs in their own way within their community.
These meetings continued with Ted and the other participants, and were particularly energising in that they made it possible to believe that something within our own community could be done.
I talked informally to others in the Rand community and found many particularly interested persons with specific issues of concern - a local agripolitician and farmer concerned about community cohesion; an untiring worker for the aged; a nurse with interests in the plight of the youth in the area and the need for outlets and aid to those enduring stresses of all kinds; the local headmaster of the primary school who could see a need for cohesion and direction; and myself, who was concerned about the lack of avenues for social counselling in rural areas, particularly for grief and loss, for stress management, and life skills training.
We discussed these issues and decided there were needs to be addressed. We needed to discover whether the community agreed. How could we achieve this goal? We sought advice from the School of Agriculture and two rural sociologists from Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, and Lindsay Beer, Department of Agriculture, Wagga Wagga. To ascertain community opinion we called a meeting which, after an opening address, divided into groups to discuss issues/needs and solutions led by an experienced leader/facilitator. Each group then prioritised the issues and presented these to the main gathering.
By this time, back at Rand, we had already organised one public meeting to inform the community of services already available. Speakers represented the Department of Agriculture, Community Services, Rural Financial Counsellors, and TAFE. Approximately 30 people attended - we felt this was a supportive number.
The next public meeting was initiated to see if people thought there was a need for an elected committee to pursue the community's perceived needs. Forty people attended and endorsed a committee to act on their behalf. This endorsement is an important issue - if few people are interested in issues to do with the community but the community itself is not supportive, obviously it will not work. Had few appeared at this meeting it would still have been a positive result in terms of knowing that there was little interest and that we would not need to waste energy pursuing issues on a collective basis.
The Rand Neighbourhood Network was born. Its aim is to provide a positive and supportive Rand Neighbourhood Network to assist all community members. Its purpose is threefold:
(i) to develop a network of support to help our local community;
(ii) (ii) to promote awareness and use of community and government resources and agencies;
(iii) (iii) to work with the various clubs and groups in the district.
The first initiative was to develop a package of information. This consisted of a flier stating the group's name, aims, purposes and possible activities and programs for the community. The latter were cited as possible options as we wished for community involvement in evolving ideas. The funding for this flier came, generously, from the Urana Shire Council.
The second item included was a 'fridge' list of important local and external telephone numbers: for example ambulance, community emergencies, community health, clergy, Department of Community Services, emergency accommodation, fire brigade, financial counselling, telephone counselling and many more. On our fliers, leaflets, etc, we clearly advertise the 008 rural lifeline number. We were aided extensively with this by Lindsay Beer of the Department of Agriculture who provided the funds.
Lastly, we included a pre-published pamphlet on 'Coping with stress in our country communities', developed by the Victorian Mallee Group of 'Women in Agriculture', a highly recommended publication, both for its clarity and conciseness.
This package was sent to all families in the Rand postal area and to others considered part of the Rand community.
Using this information, the Rand Neighbourhood Network introduced itself to the community, who then could see that we were achieving constructive goals, and then could also think ahead about issues and concerns they might wish to express at the next meeting.
In October 1992, a public gathering was held to define what were seen to be the issues within the Rand community and to develop local solutions to some of these issues.
Having gone through the process of small group discussion led by a facilitator and then reassembling as one, the main issues were seen as:
• . youth concerns - inadequate meeting places, lack of activities apart from sport, and the need to revitalise the youth club;
• isolation and loneliness - from people - need for community support, caring and encouragement, social outlets;
• from education - lack of awareness of what is available, lack of continuing education for women and men;
• within community - need for a flow of information about employment, local skills and activities;
• general concerns expressed about loss/grief - personal tragedies, loss of expected farming lifestyle and loss of farms and financial security;
• financial debt and need for restraint;
• feelings of guilt and trying to work 'harder' rather than 'smarter';
• feelings of pressure and stress.
These major issues and concerns are being or have been dealt with by the Rand Neighbourhood Network in a variety of 'group' suggested ways.
By December 1992 the monthly newsletter of RNN had its first airing and has been well received. We have been told that it has indeed helped people to be more informed and to feel a part of the community. All people are encouraged to contribute and, increasingly, this is occurring. We have two hardworking editors and were fortunate to have the newsletter sponsored by Doug McEachern Agribusiness in Albury. We also have a small amount of paid advertising.
To aid the flow of information and help others to organise social events, including averting clashes, a community notice board is being organised and will be sponsored by Brian Unthank of Albury. This notice board will show a calendar of events and will have a 'work wanted' or 'available' section.
In December 1992 the young people of the community were asked for their needs and concerns. Their major focus was to improve their meeting place and swimming hole by the Billabong Creek, in terms of seating, garbage bins, tree planting and general beautification. In trying to help them we have been outstandingly unsuccessful. The Urana Shire Council will have nothing to do with these improvements due to the possibiltiy of litigation in case of an accident. Private persons fear the same result, so no action has as yet occurred. We must now return and ask what else we might be able to do for the young people of the area.
The issue of education for isolated areas was investigated and we chose to work initially through TAFE and its Outreach service. Although we wanted courses for both men and women, the main option which suited our needs was a 'Work Opportunities for Women' (WOW) course. In early 1993 there appeared to be no short courses for men or men and women. The committee had seen a WOW course in action and the enthusiasm, energy and revitalising aspects of the course appealed enormously.
Our major reasons for choosing this course were:
- it was free
- - TAFE agreed to pay for childcare
- - the group determined what to study according to their needs, and the duration of the course
- - lastly, the simple act of being a social group across a range of ages and interest we thought might aid in more cohesion and the revitalising of our sense of community.
Reaction from Rand women to the idea of the course was so good that we needed to divide the group in two. The first group began their self-determined course in May 1993 for 8 weeks. Rather than study one subject, the group wished initially to have a 'taste' of a number of subjects so they would then better know what they wished to do in full. (Interestingly, since we have done this, it is now a directive from TAFE Outreach in Sydney to begin WOW courses in just such a way).
These women 'tasted':
• self defence
• manual farm bookkeeping with basic mathematics formula for computer spreadsheets
• letter writing for business and job applications
• home maintenance/handywomen's course
• meat preparation and home butchering
• farm chemicals and safety
• communications - as in skills recognition, conflict resolution and assertiveness training
• basic car maintenance
• home safety and first aid
• stress management
For those women who disliked school and/or left early for whatever reason, it was a way to recapture enthusiasm for learning and in this it was most successful. This course DID initiate a hunger for more and DID illuminate for individuals what they were more interested in continuing to learn.
The group dynamics of the first WOW course were so positive that all women decided to continue meeting monthly to practice what they had learnt during the course. There were new friendships formed across the ages and interests, and the sharing, trust and concern for each other has extended past the course and has been taken by the women into the community.
The second WOW course began in August 1993 and I suspect the same cohesion will result. There are many benefits to Outreach courses, both educational and social, for rural communities. In both groups, as the course was free, the women opted to pay $3 each per day so as to build an education fund to continue community study. Though it seems a small amount, ultimately we will have approximately $500 annually to help develop our independent educational needs.
Also being organised through TAFE by the RNN is a two day, 6-hour 'chemical users training course' to be held at Rand for farmers.
From the WOW course we are aiming to develop more awareness by people of their own and others' skills. We wish to develop a skills register of the Rand community. It is a 'diamonds in your own back yard' concept which means - 'look at what you have in your own community in terms of talents and skills and it is amazing what is found'.
The main reasons for developing this register are:
• to have people recognise their own expertise and to be proud of it;
• - to make more efficient the organising of various community events in terms of knowing who can do what;
• - to develop a barter system based on these skills and talents.
The obstacles to the development of this register have been, firstly, that most people do not wish to appear to be boasting (the tall poppy syndrome) and, secondly, many people are unaware of their skills and talents and that they may be more expert in an area than most other people. We are working through the WOW course on both these obstacles.
Being organised for November 1993 is a Community Market Day. There are two aspects to this day. One is to develop a community awareness of all the resources, clubs and services offered in Rand, and the second is to allow locals to set up a stall to sell goods in order to make a little money for themselves. It will be a family day and with advertising we hope to bring in money from outside the Rand community.
We are presently discussing the idea of instituting a system of welcoming newcomers into the community, whether through a BBQ or some other means. The issue of 'outsiders' and 'locals' is one which can determine how a community interacts and how individuals feel. Being recognised by the community in an informal way could perhaps alleviate the possibility that 'if a person is treated like an 'outsider' then he or she will act like one'. The fact that an 'outsider' may possibly not know or understand the 'rules' of rural culture and attitude, and vice-versa, can make for many misunderstandings and alienation on both sides.
At present we have not addressed the issues for the aged, although we do encourage their participation in the education programs. For those older women who have attended, this has been enlightening and rejuvenating and has helped to decrease their sense of isolation as well as making them feel accepted by the younger women.
There is a very positive atmosphere in Rand. I believe the RNN has helped to a degree to develop this. If nothing else, it has shown people that SOME control over the quality of our lives IS possible.
Other positive actions stimulated wtihin the community have been:
• the formation of a Town Improvement Committee which has Urana Shire on side and has a plan for the beautification of Rand;
• the mothers of young children are talking of initiating a babysitting club and a permanent 'occasional child care' facility;
• the local school has an invigorating headmaster whose enthusiasm and positivity has engendered parental involvement in P&C, school council, craft, aerobics, sports training, with a buddy reading scheme for poor readers, storytelling, school camps and extra kindergarten tuition by parents;
• a rural action group has been formed to aid those farmers who are being pursued vigorously by the banks;
• local farm management groups have been formed to become better informed as well as helping each other in different ways.
The RNN believes it is possible to take control of some local issues and find local solutions for them. It must be stressed that our solutions may or may not necessarily work in another community. Each community has its own make-up, it is unique, and must work together to decide on needs and to develop its own solutions. There is no ONE right way.
What I have related today is a story about a whole community trying to help itself. It is not trying to recreate the past, but to reinterpret in modern idiom, taking into account the changing face of rural communities, a way of maintaining and reasserting community cohesion, concern and caring which in turn affects each individual.
I know of many other groups in rural communities, such as in Tumbarumba, Coleambally and Savernake, who are trying to achieve similar goals. These communities are using their own unique methods of self-help. Briefly:
- in Tumbarumba, there was a group of people, initially interested in social counselling, who were subsequently trained by Lifeline, Albury, in active listening skills. Since fully qualified, professionally trained social counsellors were unavailable to be accessed, the next best thing was thought to be semi-trained caring and interested locals. This group is now the core of a Neighbourhood Centre which has a volunteer professionally trained coordinator experienced as a youth worker and counsellor. This group, motivated by Jack Hiatt, also initiated the 008 Rural Lifeline number which is now available to us all;
- in Coleambally, the issue of the private stresses of individuals (particularly men) has been broached by holding private, anonymous meetings where people may discuss their needs, particularly emotional needs, and gain support and understanding from others in the same situation;
- in Savernake, the Savernake Rural Women's Group started to meet monthly, organising an interesting guest speaker, workshop or field day. Their goal was mental stimulation through education and social interaction. Their aims include learning and developing skills, having fun and sharing ideas while maintaining a positive outlook to life on the farm.
More broadly based groups/organisations striving to create a broader sense of the agricultural community are:
- the Creative Arts Cooperative
- to enable rural people with talents to earn extra income;
- Women in Agriculture - an apolitical pressure group;
- the Rural Women's Network
- organising large rural women's meetings and satellite link-ups
- networking/giving information.
To network with all these groups is to gain information, ideas, support, friends and the feeling of being part of a wider group of people, all involved in taking control of that which is possible to control.
All communities, whether urban or rural, need to develop their listening skills and assert their honesty, concern and caring and, when that happens, the energy and will to develop strategies to cope with change and to take control are more likely to appear.