Words by Martha Gouniai, Local Landcare Coordinator – Broken Hill, NSW
We need to get young people off the streets
getting up to no good
these kids needs something to do
to keep them busy…
I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard the above sentiments when participating in many discussions around youth. Often lead by adults who are long past the age of adolescence, these conversations paint a narrative of youth as being lazy, rebellious, bored and prone to destruction, in constant need of entertainment to curb their latent desire to commit crime. And as a result we see initiatives created for young people with no consideration of them, their needs or ideas.
I’ve been engaged with youth since long before I moved to Broken Hill and I’ve been listening to these conversations carried over and over by the people shaping youth engagement. I’ve had to defend the integrity of children as young as five from comments that degrade them as incapable of being able to demonstrate honesty or kindness and find myself constantly having to prove that young people are altruistic, idealistic and capable, they aren’t looking for a what they are looking for a why.
When I took on my role as Local Landcare Coordinator for Western Landcare NSW I began hearing a different conversation with regards to youth, landholders concerned about the future of agriculture, the need for more skilled workers in the local area and the ever expanding generational gap between those making decisions and those who would live with those decisions.
From the intersection of these two conversations there formed the idea for a network of youth building their capacity to take on their role as the future caretakers of our world.
Early in 2017 I began creating plans for the inception of the Western Landcare Schools Network, inviting high schools from Broken Hill, Wilcannia and Menindee to nominate students to form the first network of youth in our region engaged in agriculture and natural resource management, filling a need for education and training opportunities as well as the need for meaningful engagement of youth into an area of activity that they could be truly passionate about.
By August I was able to launch the program with a funding commitment from Local Land Services. 13 students had enrolled in the program from 5 different high schools. Together they formed the first intake of students and each one of them shaped what this program would potentially become.
I knew from the outset that I wanted to create something greater than just a training program or a ready for work or pathways program. Training and skills would be a part of it but at its core I wanted to create a space where young people would be able to develop themselves, to have their voices heard and to make a difference to the world with guidance and support from mentors.
The aim of this program is to elevate the status of youth across our region by allowing them to demonstrate what they are truly capable of.
These are the 3 core aspects of this initiative, learn and gain skills and experience, develop a passion for the land and the environment while forming a sense of self, and contribute to positive change in the world through designing and implementing a local environmental project.
At all times I had to keep the why in my sights, why would a young person want to be part of this network? Why would a young person want to work on the land? And most of all why am I doing this?
This is what is missing from most of our conversations about youth, we make assumptions and stereotypes but we fail to understand what lies beneath. We often leave out the purpose and meaning, we fail to ask ourselves and them why?
The answer to why is purpose and passion.
Without passion, without meaning there is no way that we can sustain ourselves. Money and status have so little to offer where there is no joy or love. This is how we engage our youth, by helping them develop their passions and assist them in finding a sense of purpose. Connection to the land, to nature and to the environment has long been acknowledged, through ancient cultures and modern philosophy as providing a unique connection to ourselves. What better way to inspire and motivate youth than by providing them access to the land in such a meaningful way.
I was so fortunate to be able to collaborate with a group of young people who didn’t take the opportunity the Network provided them for granted, they were engaged and enthusiastic. The days were long and taxing. The training was provided over an intensive week where they did their Chemical Certification, chainsaw training and low stress stock handling with working dogs. During the training week the students also took part in a mesquite eradication workshop, for those who are familiar with this weed you would know how the spikes scratch and dig into you as you try to saw away at it. They treated some 200 mesquite plants and GPS logged each one they killed for monitoring. Despite the early morning starts and the length of the days which were longer than a regular school day the participants continued to show up, on time and ready to go proving with each day their discipline and reliability.
Teachers and parents shared with me their joy at seeing the impact of this program on the participants. The most important thing they noticed was the spark that resonated within their child, something they hadn’t seen before as their child ignited their passion for the land and their desire to pursue its care. So much more than finding a career, these youth found something to invest themselves in.
With increased demand from schools, parents and youth a new program has been developed based on the learning and the experience of the first intake, in 2018 we launched the Western Landcare Youth Network expanding participation to young people who have left or completed their schooling as well. The new program offers monthly gatherings with mentors providing workshops on a variety of areas including native plant identification and propagation, drones and emerging technology for land management, climate change and its relationship to agriculture and even Herman’s Brain training and mental health first aid. Each month the Network is able to meet and with the support of these mentors explore concepts and share ideas on the environment and their responsibility to it. Complementing these workshops will be two intensive training blocks, one in each half of the year, where formal training will be provided. One of the training components is fencing training and this will be delivered as a partnership project with Broken Hill City Council to re-fence 2.5km of the Regeneration Reserves which are a conservation belt that surround Broken Hill and protect the town from dust storms. Allowing youth to take ownership over a project with such significance to the town while training and building their own skillset provides a perfect example of how we can improve ourselves while contributing to the betterment of the world around us.
With so much interest already gained for this program it is hoped that it will continue to grow from year to year encompassing more and more youth and extending its reach with each graduating intake taking on the role of mentors for the younger generation. As the Network grows it needs to retain its core and that is the building of a generation of youth equipped to inherit the earth.