Building systemic highways to Social and Economic Empowerment of at-risk young people in Australia

Building systemic highways to Social and Economic Empowerment of at-risk young people in Australia

31st May 2022

Author: Nicole

Following is Bernadette Black’s KeyNote address for the Inaugural Social Economic Empowerment (SEE) Advisory Symposium.

Today we are here to build a systemic highway.

A systemic highway to social and economic empowerment of at-risk young people in Australia, that leads to the policy and funding choices that will see young people thrive.

This will be held up by policy pillars of lived experience, primary prevention, collaboration, and mentorship.

I have a dream to see policy that is designed for our young people – to support them before disadvantage takes hold.

Pioneering and founding Brave across the last 15 years has been a little like the 15-year overnight success story, beginning 29 years ago when I was a 16-year-old mum. It feels like yesterday, when I sat down with the book How to Start a Not for Profit for Dummies, then signing a constitution. More than success, the last 15 years have told the story of tenacity, listening, learning and persistence, to see, what was deemed impossible by many, the possibilities for young parents in Australia. Before Brave, there was not a national organisation devoted to young parents specifically.

What I know is that if I could start Brave, find the right people and together, map a 1000-day timeline which showed each service provider and government agency that could intersect on that timeline, creating one pathway to happy, healthy, and skilled families, that this same philosophy and process will ensure we have everything we need, right here – to challenge and change at a systemic level.

The journey of Brave has been a lot like my reflections on parenting, the most rewarding and challenging role all in one. Since I wrote my story of teen parenthood, Brave Little Bear in 2006, Brave has grown to over 20 staff nationally, serving hundreds of young families every year, now led by Jill Roche, as Brave’s CEO.

Brave’s journey has been the proving ground of why we need systemic change.

Brave’s first funding cliff was in 2017, where we were so near to winding up. I rang my chairman, Former Premier David Bartlett, we met for coffee, shared some tears, and knew it was the best thing for us to do. The following day, we were given a lifeline and seconded by the Federal Government to write the E&PT strategy for Australia, after sending an earlier expression of interest into the Try, Test and Learn fund. We were then funded to deliver the program nationally, going for two to 16 staff overnight.

What we didn’t expect then was we would encounter another two separate funding cliffs, each become more urgent and severe over time.

Despite a successful evaluation of the Brave SEPT program, by the Peter Underwood Centre University of Tasmania, where we served almost 500 young people; and demonstrated that instead of the usual statistic of 79% of young parents entering long-term welfare dependency, almost 70% of Braves program participants were able to meet their goals towards dreams, and aspirations. I naively thought this would be enough to keep Brave funded.

Along the way I met many other vital organisations who also employed intermediaries, we can call them linkers/navigators or mentors as Brave does. We all found that intermediaries that are vitally necessary, yet so underfunded. Those other organisations too thought their successful evaluations would be enough.

All while we had young parents increasingly pounding on our door. Young people who – when we were able to open the door – created social and economic empowerment for themselves and their families, benefiting our nation as a whole.

In the face of ongoing funding crises, we made a deliberate decision to vigorously pursue ongoing funding – leaving no stone unturned – to make sure this would never happen again. It was demanding, with many governmental doors closed, yet we persisted. In late 2020 Brave again faced into the reality that we may have to close the doors for good. We were determined to finish well, come what may, where on two occasions all employees, including me, would be without a job.

Every pebble or stone that had a values alignment to Brave was turned: philanthropists, sponsors, state governments, federal governments, social impact, we turned over every relevant stone we could identify! This paid off, and by the end of 2021, Brave’s mighty team had brought through the door a mix of Federal, State, philanthropic and private funding.

This was a watershed moment for Brave and for me, after three years of earnestly planning my CEO succession, this was the time. Jill was appointed as Brave’s CEO in December 2021 and I stepped into my inaugural Social Economic Empowerment Ambassador (SEEA) role, advocating to make sure the funding cliffs Brave encountered systemically (like so many other successful charities), don’t happen into the future.

In my own experience of advocacy and in founding Brave, I think we’ve encountered every systemic obstacle that prevents our nation’s most at-risk from getting the help they need. I grew tired of playing government tennis, having started at both federal and state levels in 2009, being slammed from one department to another, to state and federal and back again repeatedly.

One lingering thought has been that poverty itself is changing shape in Australia, and I am not convinced the current model of responding to those in need responds to what is needed in the 21st century. We absolutely need our social services department to care for citizens when they are in absolute need. This is fundamental and I applaud our governments for these services, our welfare state provides necessary food, shelter, and warmth for so many of our citizens, most of us will need these at some time in our life.

Now I realise, that not one single department or agency is wholly responsible for the complex needs of those most at-risk. ALL are responsible in some capacity. That’s why I believe we need to help government mobilise in ways that see all of us working together, when it matters, helping to create a policy and funding highway away from disadvantage as quickly as possible.

I also understand that the systems and structures of governments are themselves often obstacles to the best plans and intentions of public service leaders and operators.

The reason: engagement with an at-risk young person or family is often undertaken through a series of isolated or disconnected transactions, where often the young person is not seen as a ‘whole’ but rather through the lens of the government department or departments.

Some of us wonder if we need to bring these interconnecting government departments together with sectors, to focus on those young people that we know will be Australia’s largest future long term welfare recipients, if a systemic highway isn’t created for them. Let us provide a guiding light for reclaiming their at-risk peers before it’s too late, so they can fully develop and use their gifts to take care of themselves, contribute to society, and enjoy their human rights.

I have been thinking about this dilemma for a number of years, alongside many other champions in our field, and in the spirit of being modest, many of you here today. In an attempt to find some answers to these funding cliff dilemma’s, in 2019 I sat in a classroom abroad, asking why does this continue to happen? I was thinking over some other international examples that I’d learned of, that connected lived experience to the design of policy and funding approaches.

I wondered, is it possible to complement and strengthen the services and timing of services provided by the federal and state systems, available to our young people?

Can we create social and economic empowerment for young families most at risk, before disadvantage takes hold? I wrote down the words, Social Economic Empowerment Ambassador. My last three years of study have explored this very role and why we are here today.

Prevention is almost always cheaper, almost always more effective, and always more humane than repairing.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said, “There comes a point where we need to stop pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.”

If we can move together toward achieving these objectives, we may be able to help solve problems before they happen.

Imagine valuing your knowledge, experience and impact systemically together, imagine if we could look back on the trajectories of lives today, those young people who experienced long-term disadvantage and those who found a pathway away from it. Imagine if we could leverage this window of opportunity politically, by creating a systemic highway to advocate policy and funding instruments that meet the need. Imagine thinking about the types and levels of collaboration needed to assist in these crucial moments, imagine the lived experience we need to consider, the success of this emerging intermediary or ‘linkers’ sector, which Brave is one of.

To attain this aspiration, we need a strong governmental and civic environment that is committed to think holistically.

As SEEA, I have a bold exploratory five-year end game, to establish a central primary prevention mechanism, that advises governments and each other, in the creation of policy and funding architecture that meets the need when it matters most.

How could this look? I would love your suggestions! To stimulate thinking I have suggested an intersection department/pre social services office or perhaps a task force of sorts. As we consider, what I do know is that we need to think deeply and carefully together as we don’t want to create something that perpetuates the status quo.

As Hillary Cottam says we are in the business of “revolutionising the welfare state,” not just one department or community organisation, but representatives of all that intersect with our most at risk young people.

Today is SEED’s ground zero, across the next five years we need fresh and cross-disciplinary thinking, which all assembled today provide in abundance.

We need a primary preventive mechanism to make that happen, with the authorising environment supporting this.

So, what is next on our five-year trajectory?

At SEED, whatever role you may play, my commitment to you is that we will value your time really well, as we shape the work we will get done.

Today is our launch, that kick starts our thinking about what we will need across the next five years. This may or may not be for you. We sincerely value your contribution regardless.

Next fortnight I will be briefing Department Secretary of Treasury and Office for Women on this symposium and our next steps, briefings will occur across the five years, following meetings of the future Advisory Council.

Presently, I am recruiting for a Policy and Advocacy Advisor, if you would consider and share within your networks.

A formalised SEE Advisory Council, which will be considered by us today, will commence later this year. We will also be considering strategic thought partners. We would like you each to help us identify who is needed in the room across the five years, including your consideration of a possible ongoing commitment.

To help you think about this, here are some of our intentions:

  • the SEE Advisory Council will meet twice a year, with one face to face meeting at the beginning of each year and one zoom session towards the end of the year.
  • the first official SEE Advisory Council meeting will request feedback on a terms of reference as well as qualitative evaluation information, which Professor Sharon Bessell will give us a brief on today. Policy papers or submissions will come to the Advisory Council before advocating.
  • there will be two working groups that fall outside of the Advisory Council, a Policy Working Group and a Funding Architecture working group. These will likely meet once in between the two council meetings, and as needed.
  • thought partner meetings will also be arranged at partners capacity and all prospective members will be considered by the Brave board.

As I draw to a close, let me simplify our conversation into a neat little comic strip. Our aim is to see socially and economically empowered families over the long term, self-sustaining for future generations.

My year 10 teacher once said to me, ‘the journey might be different now, but the destination can stay the same’. Mr Sheil gave me certainty, in a very daunting time. My destination then was finishing secondary school with a baby, while others were literally screaming about my situation on the main road – this was an intersecting moment of my life. I believe we are at the precipice of another intersecting moment, where Mr Sheils words ring true.

Systemically, the journey might be different now, so that young destinies can flourish. Let’s revolutionise how we meet the need together, seeing future generations thrive, as well as the sector that serves them, resulting in social and economic empowerment for all.

One day we will look back on 2022 and wonder, what did we do and as the clock ticked across the year, how many at risk young people were not offered certainty? Imagine saying we came together and did something, where Australia leads the world in Social Economic Empowerment for young people at risk, with today a watershed catalyst.

SEED acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands on which we work and live. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.


SEED, as a department of Brave Foundation, is supported as a child safe organisation by ChildSafe™.

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