The Casuarina Project: Community Leadership 10 years on


September 8th, 2011

It’s 10 years this month since the first group of local Surf Coast Shire residents finished the inaugural Casuarina Project. The final session was on September 15th, 2001 and I remember it vividly. We’d booked out a local restaurant for us to gather to reminisce on the journey we’d shared over the previous seven months. Our conversation, of course, was not as planned (whenever is it?): we sat together and shared our shock and bewilderment at the week’s events in the US and the implications for us here on the other side of the world. And we shared some laughs, and some tears, some food and some wine. And excitedly left to develop our community projects.

The brief for the Casuarina Project was to design and facilitate a community leadership program to bring together people from across the Surf Coast Shire – those in the coastal towns, where surfing and tourism reigns, with those from the hinterland where agriculture is king. It was targeted at people already active in community groups, but not yet in leadership roles. We decided not to call it a leadership program to avoid the inevitable problem of only attracting those who already saw themselves as community leaders. It was a bold and exciting approach. We wanted it to focus on developing people, their understanding of themselves and each other, and their potential in the community. We didn’t want it to be a simple skills training, duplicating what was already available.

Year one was devoted to the face-to-face sessions. We moved around to various community halls and venues – a great way for me (as a newcomer to the area) to get to know my new home. We explored such topics as the dynamics of change, understanding group roles, designing and staging events, conflict, controversy and negotiation, and planning for a community project to be implemented in the second year. In the third year, participants would be invited to mentor and support new participants just starting out.

My intention from the very beginning was to reduce dependence on me and my involvement. On reflection, maybe I did that too well! (just kidding) When Geoff Brown (a participant from that very first intake) took over the facilitating of the program after a few years, I felt quite chuffed that I’d hand-balled it on to someone so capable and enthusiastic, not to mention local as well.

There’s so much more I could write about the Casuarina Project. How I delivered it for a few years in Gippsland as well, the celebrations – especially when we invited Melbourne Playback Theatre Company to help us reflect on the experience (with hilarious results) – the friends made, the projects started, the excellent support from the CEO and the Councillors, the freezing cold halls (with dubious heating) in winter, the dreaded smoke in summer when we all raced home to make sure our houses were safe from bush fires, the laughs, the frustrations, the tears and most importantly, everyone’s generosity. And don’t even start me on the time I returned from Vietnam with bronchitis and was quarantined because it might have been SARS, hence unable to facilitate the important opening weekend.

The Casuarina Project is alive and well, with the first ever Youth Casuarina Program scheduled for October. What a great way to celebrate 10 years!

It’s evolved, as it should.

Haven’t we all?

Happy Anniversary Casuarina Project.

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