Championing rural communities for a better future

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By Gretel Sneath

When Sarah Powell drove into Darke Peak, a small agricultural town in central Eyre Peninsula, after more than a decade working interstate, she was stunned by the deterioration of her home town.

The school, general store and post office were long gone, but it was the loss of the local sporting teams which hit hardest, for they were the district’s heartbeat; a place where people not only socialised and exercised, but learned how to be a positive role model and communicator.

Sarah wondered how such community spirit could be passed on to the next generation when there was nowhere to bring people together.

“Our sporting clubs are not about sport alone; they are one of the last remaining regional incubators for leadership, and a learning ground for a well-rounded human,” she explains.

Sarah Powell encourages greater social cohesion in regional towns to help keep them thriving. Photo by Amy Rowsell.

The prospect of the next generation missing out on such vital life skills spurred now Wharminda-based Sarah to draw upon her corporate background and develop Champions Academy, a leadership program harnessing these value systems for future generations by creating a culture of mentoring.

“The idea is to engage the next generation of leaders and give them the confidence and motivation to step up in their club and community, carry responsibility and demonstrate commitment,” Sarah says. “I called it Champions Academy because anyone can be a champion of change; it’s not about winning individual accolades, it’s about representing a cause greater than yourself and acting in a way that inspires and motivates others.”

Sarah Powell, third from left, at the 2018 Women and Leadership Australia symposium in Adelaide.

Being named Australia’s Rural Woman of the Year in 2015 enabled Sarah to expand the Champions Academy focus from standalone clubs to associations, and close to 700 people have now participated in programs across the Eyre Peninsula.

“It’s building relationships between clubs which are often fierce competitors, and showing them that it’s in their best interests to keep all clubs strong,” Sarah says. “Social cohesion is the critical factor as to whether or not a community prospers or collapses.”

Sarah initially planned to roll the program out across the state, but she’s now thinking big after being recognised by the Westpac Scholars Trust as one of 10 outstanding social innovators around the nation driving positive change.

Her fellowship allowed her to travel to Boston in April to undertake a series of intensive courses surrounding innovation and solutions-based thinking at Harvard University, connecting her to an even broader network of ‘enablers’.

Sarah Powell is on a mission to educate rural people that they have the power to influence positive change and better their community’s future. Photo by Amy Rowsell.

“My thinking was challenged in such amazing and uplifting ways; I’ve come home with a giant world of possibility inspired by bright minds who know the power of shared knowledge and collaboration,” Sarah says.

There is a growing global community of interest around rural contraction, decline and exodus and if Sarah Powell has her way, South Australia could very well become its epicentre.

“I’m on a mission to show rural people that they not only have the ability to influence significant positive change, they have an obligation to snap out of autopilot and become part of the solution if they want their community to move toward a brighter future,” she adds.

Feature image Amy Rowsell.

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