I promise this isn’t some kind of mummy blog rant. I’ve never had the urge to write publicly on the topic of pregnancy and parenthood, but recently some friends have encouraged me to share my experiences. They said it would be helpful for women “like us” to read, so I’ve jotted down some observations and thoughts – I hope some of you find some of it useful.

Last week Ash turned nine months old, and in exactly a week from today I will be on my way home from my first official day at work in almost a year. Lots of people have been asking me how I feel about it, and while I will undoubtedly miss Ash, I am  looking forward to it (it helps when you enjoy what you do for a living).

It will be great to get back to contributing to positive social change, being inspired by my talented colleagues, and exercising the professional part of my brain. Importantly for me, the work aspect of my life hasn’t been completely on hold while on parental leave. I’ve been chipping away at developing a start-up social enterprise with a good friend of mine who happened to also be on parental leave at the same time.

Over the past nine months we’ve spent many days pushing prams together while brainstorming, feeding our babies while planning, and writing to-do lists while cleaning up vomit. It’s been so much fun!

I also decided to do a bit of tutoring at uni to bring in a few extra dollars, and have a break from full-time parenting duties. Fortunately I was able to teach classes in between Ash’s feed times, and feel relaxed about leaving him, knowing that he was with his wonderful grandmother.

Interestingly, when I tell people about working while on leave, most of the time they respond with something like “How do you manage all that? Aren’t you too exhausted to think about work? I can’t believe you can handle a newborn baby and work at the same time!”.

I guess I could take it as a complement, but these comments are usually promptly followed up by more generalised advice such as “don’t think about work while you’re on leave, enjoy your time with your baby”, or “you should really forget about doing the housework, you need to sleep when the baby sleeps”, and “don’t worry about exercising, your first priority is looking after the baby”. Sigh.

Clearly it never occurs to them that my way of coping, managing, and mothering may be different to theirs, or social norms.

Some days all I want to do is clean while Ash sleeps, so that when he wakes up I can enjoy the environment around us. Sometimes I am physically exhausted, but have lots of ideas that I just have to get out of my head and onto a google doc before Ash wakes up. Other days I sleep when he sleeps.

I think it’s really important to do what makes you happy, especially when you’re sleep deprived, a little isolated, and going through a lot of physical and psychological change.

For me, having professional projects and “work” to focus on has really helped keep me grounded, intellectually challenged, and feeling like I hadn’t had a complete identity change the minute Ash came into the world.

There is no single, better, or right way of spending your time. This clearly isn’t rocket science, but then why hadn’t anyone, any blog, or any book suggested it to me before?

In light of this, I thought I’d share some of the things that I found really helpful when I was pregnant, and in the early days when Ash was born.

But before you read on there is one very large caveat to all this – I am extremely fortunate to have a fantastic husband, an amazing mother, a caring father, a supportive workplace, and good mental and physical health. Without these things, the list below would undoubtedly look very different.

Seeing a kick arse GP

A visit to a GP is typically where your pregnancy journey will begin, so having a good rapport with them is pretty important. They’ll likely influence your decision making and set the tone for your pregnancy early on. One of the most helpful things my GP did was to firmly tell me not to read too many pregnancy or parenting blogs, and under no circumstances play Dr Google when it came to health-related issues. After that appointment I promptly unsubscribed from a bunch of sites that were doing little more than causing me mild anxiety about all the things that could go wrong with me, my baby and my relationship while I was pregnant.

Listening to the experiences of like-minded women

I’m fortunate that most of my closest girlfriends already had babies, or were well on their way by the time I fell pregnant. They have been an invaluable source of information and ideas for me, and a great sounding board.

I should stress though that I chose pretty early on in my pregnancy who I would listen to and who I would politely smile and nod at, while disregarding everything that was coming out of their mouth. There’s no shortage of opinions and views about pregnancy and parenting out there, and most people don’t hold back before telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. That’s why I think it’s really important to stick to a few trusted sources, and ignore the rest!

Writing up my birth preferences

I was hesitant about birth plans, but I really liked the idea of Simon and I both knowing my birth preferences. For me it was about understanding some of the decisions that I might need to make during labour, and discussing them with Simon and our midwife in advance. For example, what pain relief options I would like to try during labour, whether I wanted to have vaginal exams during labour (and whether I wanted to be told how dilated I was), preference for skin-to-skin contact with the baby immediately after birth, how I wanted to birth the placenta (and what to do with it afterwards), the list goes on!

One of the most useful sources of information I found in preparing my birth preferences were the prenatal yoga classes I attended with Vedanta Nicholson. Not only were these classes a fantastic way to relax and learn essential active birth skills, but Vedanta gives you really practical, evidence-based information about labour and birth in each class. I also found the following books incredibly useful – they all helped to inform my birth preferences:

One of the things I learnt about birth preferences, is that they can be helped or hindered by hospital policies. For example, some hospitals in the ACT don’t allow water births, and they all have various standards when it comes to medical intervention during labour.

A couple of my girlfriends had gone through the Birth Centre at Calvary, and highly recommended it. After chatting with them I thought it would probably suit me, because I was keen to have a vaginal birth with little or no intervention if possible. I must say that I received amazing care from the midwives, nurses and doctors at Calvary – and I saw quite a few after a 30 hour labour that ended in an emergency cesarean section!

Even though my labour didn’t end as I would’ve liked, I found the entire experience absolutely empowering and mind-blowing! Anyway, that’s another blog post

Once Ash was finally born, there were a few key things that I found helpful, particularly in the early days:

Focusing on the positives – there are lots!

While I spent the first few months post-partum feeling frustrated about being so physically inactive while my body recovered from the Cesarean Section, and adjusted to keeping another human alive (outside my body this time), I kept focusing on the fact that we had a gorgeous and healthy little boy in our lives. This simple mantra gave me a clear reference point when I was thoroughly sleep deprived, full of raging hormones, feeling fat and lethargic, and at times, completely unsure if Simon and I were “doing it right”.

Forming a parental brains trust

Simon and I are really lucky that the group of parents we did our hospital classes with started a really supportive and candid closed Facebook group so we could stay in touch. While I’ve never been big on the concept of “mother’s groups” or discussing difficult and personal issues with perfect strangers, this crew was (and still is) a great support for Simon and I. It’s been so interesting to chat with other parents about everything from sleep, to teething, nappy options, health issues, weaning, first foods, childcare experiences, and everything in between.

Finding my new training routine

Having gone from doing functional fitness, Capoeira, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu regularly pre-pregnancy, to being restricted to “just walking” for 6 months post-partum, I had to rethink and reimagine my ideal training routine. It went something like this:

When Ash was about four months, I started to do some one-on-one personal training sessions with my man Simon. My focus for these sessions is mobility and light strength work. When I am super tired we run through a series of stretches, focusing on unlocking all my tight and tangled spots (there were lots).

At six months I felt I could add some more dynamic, whole body movements into my training. So I was super excited when I returned to FuncFitness to train once a week, it’s one of the friendliest gym communities in Canberra. The culture of where you train is always important, but even moreso when you’re getting back to training after a break, and are feeling super unfit.

Most recently I’ve started doing some one-on-one Muay Thai sessions with my friend Mitch Langman. Some days we work on the psychological aspects of my training, sometimes we spar, sometimes we run drills on the focus pads. One of the things I love about training with Mitch is that regardless of what we’ve done during that hour, I always leave with a smile on my face, feeling a billion times better than when I first walked in.

So what’s next? I’m absolutely itching to get back into some Capoeira and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at Elements – I’ll find some time somehow!



Ash James Le was born on 22 September at 6am, after a 30 hour labour.

Yeah it was hard, like, the hardest workout I’ve ever done by any stretch of the imagination. And yeah it hurt, like, a lot – even for a tough girl with a background in contact sports. But, it was the most incredible experience of my life!

Like many women I know, I hoped to have an active labour and vaginal birth with no medical intervention. I had my birth preferences written up as a “best case scenario” where I laboured at home for as long as possible, received little or no artificial pain relief, and just had my husband and midwife at my side when our baby would be born in the birth centre.

For the most part, this is certainly how it went.

I was 6 days overdue, feeling a little anxious and frustrated (I was huge and really wanted to just have the baby), when my waters broke at home at midnight.

I was really excited, but knew I should go back to bed to conserve my energy. I told Simmo what had happened, but urged him to go back to sleep – which he did without too much protest!

After about 10 minutes of lying in bed I had my first contraction, which was followed by another one about 15 minutes later. They continued to come every 15 minutes, and were quite uncomfortable, so I started doing some light yogic breathing during the contractions (I could hear my pre-natal yoga teacher’s voice as I counted).

After an hour or so, the strength of the contractions had increased, so I opted to sit on the floor of our bedroom, wrapped in a blanket, just breathing gently and staying calm. I did this until 5am, by which time the contractions were 5-7 minutes apart.

I woke Simmo and told him to pack his hospital bag and call my dad so he could come and pick up our cat, just in case we were kept in hospital for a while.

I called my midwife to let her know what was happening. She talked to me on the phone for a while, I knew she wanted to listen to me having contractions, so she knew whether I should be going in to the birth centre or staying at home.

After about 15 minutes she said that we should head to the birth centre at 7am, so we did.

The next 25-ish hours went by really quickly for me (not so much for Simmo though), because I was “in the zone”, and just going with the whole experience. I tried not to predict what would happen next, or dwell on how much each contraction hurt, I just kept reminding myself that we would soon be meeting our little guy!

As the contractions became stronger, I really used the full ujjayi breathing that I’d learnt in yoga class. It gradually became louder as the pain increased, until I started to use my voice to match the sensation of the toughest contractions.

I briefly felt a bit weird about making lots of noise, I thought of the people on the other side of the door who could probably (no, definitely) hear me, but that thought quickly went away when the next contraction came!

I remember being in the bath, and thinking how strange it was to feel such intense sensations during contractions, but being so relaxed in between that I was literally falling asleep (again, I heard my yoga teacher’s voice saying “it’s important to completely let go and relax during contractions”, so that’s what I did!).

I felt really calm, in control, and so well supported by the lovely midwives (there were a few of them as they changed shifts throughout my labour) and Simmo, who was by my side, breathing with me, making noises with me, giving me sips of water and mouthfuls of crushed ice.

He used the shower head to spray warm water over my back, and refill the bath when it got a bit cold. I was really particular about how full the bath needed to be – too much water and I felt like I was floating, too little water and I felt like my body weighed 100kg!

I soon had the urge to push, and the midwives thought I had transitioned. After a while though, they became doubtful that I actually had transitioned and were worried that I might not be fully dilated.

They suggested that they have a look at my cervix to see what it was up to. I got out of the bath, up onto the bed. They could see that I was 7cm dilated, and they told me not to push anymore. It was hard because I felt like my body continued to push during the contractions, even though I was just breathing through them.

They kept tracking the progress of my cervix opening, but it hit a plateau after they had monitored for six hours, only increasing 1cm in the subsequent three hours.

At this stage I had been labouring for about 25 hours, and they suggested I have an epidural so I could relax for a couple of hours and let my cervix fully open. They said that because I had already laboured for a long time, that this would give me the best chance at having a vaginal birth.

I agreed, albeit reluctantly. I had the epidural, the midwives told Simmo to go and get an hour’s sleep in the birth centre.

A couple of hours later I had the opportunity to try and push my baby out. At this stage I felt a little tired, but I was so excited about seeing our little boy!

They checked my cervix and I was fully dilated – yey!

I pushed for the next two hours, in almost every position imaginable. For some reason, each time I pushed I got really painful cramps in both of my hip flexors, and felt immense pressure in my pelvis – this was the most uncomfortable part of the labour for sure.

Soon a surgeon appeared at the door (Simmo says he looked like Billy Dee Williams), introduced himself, and said that he felt they should try to assist my pushing with the vacuum. He did also say that Ash was still quite high up in the pelvis, and he was doubtful that it would work!

I was a bit annoyed with that comment, and wanted to prove him wrong, but unfortunately after two attempts, Ash wasn’t shifting down.

He then spoke to my midwife, and they agreed that given how long I had been in labour for, and the fact that Ash was still quite high up, that I should have a Cesarean. While I really didn’t want to have surgery, I knew deep down that it was very unlikely that it would happen any other way. Oh, and I was pretty tired by this stage!

I soon arrived in the theatre, and they topped up my epidural. The sheet went up and Simon was at my side. They did some “test cuts” and unfortunately I could feel them, and move my feet, which meant I had to have a general anaesthetic, and they asked Simon to leave.

I was pretty emotional at this point, mainly because I wanted to see the baby when he was born, and I wanted Simmo to be by my side. The surgeon and paediatrician were really lovely though, and they spoke to me kindly as I drifted off to sleep.

Next thing I knew I was in a room with Simmo, who was standing there looking very handsome in blue scrubs, holding our little Ash! My feelings of disappointment (and nausea) quickly vanished when I saw the two of them – I couldn’t believe he was finally here. Our 4.5kg, 54cm long bundle of cuteness was the most extraordinary thing I had ever seen!

Simon had already changed his nappy, fed him some of my colostrum that I expressed when pregnant, and wrapped him tightly in a swaddle, ready to meet me.

We spent the next two days in hospital, receiving the most wonderful care from all the midwives and nurses. Thankfully, Ash breastfed well from the beginning, and slept like a champion.

While Ash’s birth didn’t turn out how I had hoped, I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to utilise all my active birth skills, and labour for as long as I did. I also couldn’t wish for anything more than a healthy, robust little boy who is thriving and growing every day.

I wanted to publish this post because I know lots of women who are afraid that their future birth experience will not go according to plan (I know I was). This is despite the fact that they have no medical reason to worry, and no prior health or fertility issues.

Maybe it’s all the horror stories we’re told when pregnant by our well-meaning (but stupid) friends, family and colleagues? Maybe it’s the Dr Googling we all do when we feel a bit anxious? Maybe it’s the parenting blogs that publish click bait rather than balanced perspectives?

I’m not saying that terrible things don’t happen during childbirth. But if you don’t have reason to be afraid or worried, then try to stay in the moment, and enjoy it (in between contractions).

I’m still surprised at people’s reactions to this story when I tell them. Nine times out of 10 its “oh my god, you must be so traumatised, you poor thing” or words to that effect.

Thing is, both Ashie and I were fine throughout the labour, nothing was going wrong, it was just taking a long time.

I never expected childbirth to be quick or easy either – makes sense that getting another human out of your own body is going to be pretty intense. But intense doesn’t have to mean horrible.

If there’s no medical issues, you don’t need to be afraid – just go with the flow (good pre natal yoga classes will help with this). In the end you’ll see your gorgeous little person, and your new life will begin!

Oh, and sleep deprivation is way harder than labour 😉

I was recently asked to share my leadership story with a group of students participating in YWCA Canberra’s She Leads Diploma program. Below is an abridged version of my talk – enjoy!

I would like to start by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people as the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we are meeting on this afternoon.

I would like to particularly extend my respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, who for thousands of years have preserved the culture and practices of Aboriginal nations across their countries.

Having just last week hosted Julia Gillard at an event at the Portrait Gallery, where she discussed her memoir, My Story with 300 adoring fans, I’m feeling a little dwarfed, standing here with you today as I share my humble insights into my own experiences – I hope you take something useful from them.

So what I’ve decided to share with you are three moments in time, that I believe have fundamentally shaped my leadership journey and my career.

But first, a little about my early outlook on life – to set the scene.

When I was 16 I wanted to be a rock star. I had green dreadlocks, facial piercings, and a really intense death stare.

I played bass guitar and sung in a couple of punk and metal bands with my brother and friends.

We were about as “out there” as you could get for kids from the upper middle class, lower North Shore area of Sydney.

We wrote music about stuff that concerns most angst-ridden teenagers: conformity, oppression, “the system” – all that.

But at the heart of what we were doing, were a set of strong values, and a desire to see all people treated equally – regardless of the way they looked, how much money they had, where they were from, what music they listened to, or what they believed in.

We didn’t know it at the time, but we were proponents of social justice principles.

So I always thought I’d make a career out of writing the kind of music that would fundamentally change the world – but in my final two years of school I made a conscious decision to pursue photography and film making, my other passions.

It was a really difficult choice because I loved to do both, but as my HSC exams loomed, I reconsidered my potential career path.

I decided that storytelling through visual and written media was where I really wanted to focus my energy.

Which brings me to my first stand-out moment in time.


It was a bright summer morning, the day I found myself in a small plane, descending on Broome Airport – which looked more like a garden shed than any airport I’d ever seen!

I was about to embark on my broadcast internship with Goolarri Media, an Aboriginal owned and led television and radio station. Their vision – “to close the gap for all Indigenous peoples across the Kimberley region”.

So looking out the plane window at the red dirt and dazzling aqua blue water, I felt pretty scared.

I’d only had a short video-conference interview with the Director and staff at Goolarri the week before, to see if “I’d be alright out there”, and all of a sudden I was on the other side of the country, about to live and work with a crew I’d never met before, in a place I’d never been before, immersed in a culture so completely different to my own.

I reminded myself of my purpose and intention – I wanted to learn to harness the power of communications and media to tell important human stories, and facilitate positive social change.

It’s hard to put into words exactly how much the time I spent out there blew my mind, both on a professional and deeply personal level.

From working on documentaries about hunting and cooking in the middle of the desert in 40 degree heat, to producing important community service announcements and health campaigns with incredibly knowledgeable local people – to mentoring a young, deaf Aboriginal man in post-production techniques – it all pushed me way out of my comfort zone.

But it wasn’t just what I learned about my professional craft that shaped my world view, it was the first time that I felt like I was part of a minority (I’m pretty white as you can see), it was the first time I had met Aboriginal people the same age as me, and it was the first time I’d ever been trusted so much as a young professional.

I think I learned more about this country we live in, and my own leadership potential in that month than I have from any other experience in my life.


After a few years freelancing in film and television production, I finally came to terms with a few cold hard facts about the industry I was working in.

The penny finally dropped while I was working a 16 hour shift on a shoot for a very well known “Princess of Pop’s” music video. I realised that:

  1. The hours were long, the pace furiously unrelenting, and getting decently paid work involved competing with a lot of other people
  2. The gigs were mainly corporate – commercials, training videos, and the like
  3. I wasn’t prepared to claw my way to the top of the industry food chain

So one day on set, as she tried to get me fired from the crew for purchasing the wrong brand of herbal tea for her dressing room stash, I knew I had to face up to the fact that my dreams of telling important community stories, and making the world a better place were not coming true.

In fact, I was exactly where I didn’t want to be – spending my time and talent working for people I had little connection with, on projects that I largely didn’t care about, in an industry that facilitated an “every man for himself” culture.

So I finished the shoot, had a BIG sleep, and thought hard about what to do next.


As I wandered around my first Multicultural Festival, I took some time to hang around the not-for-profit stall area.

I was working on a project for the Heart Foundation, and really wanted to grow my networks in the sector. I was on the hunt for a volunteering opportunity.

I’d never heard of the YWCA before, and wondered if the well-intentioned ladies behind the stall had their wires crossed.

But after hearing about their mission to “work for a world where reconciliation, justice, peace, health, human dignity, freedom and care for the environment are promoted and sustained through women’s leadership”, my interest was immediately sparked.

As I signed off on my membership form that day, I had no idea what opportunities would present themselves to me in the years to come.

A friend of mine, who was also a member, spent the next few months harassing me to undertake the Y’s Board Internship Program. I gave in, applied, and much to my surprise, was selected.

In 2011 I was actually co-opted to the YWCA Canberra Board when a position became vacant.

The next year I was again politely harassed into standing for Vice President, and was voted in by the membership.

That same year I was also successful in applying for a Great Ydeas grant, which enabled me to bring together an offline and online community of women martial artists here in Canberra – to share knowledge and skills.

Last year I was politely harassed into applying for a Communications and Advocacy internship with the World YWCA in Geneva, and I was truly shocked and delighted when I was selected.

In Geneva I was fortunate enough to spend time with the World YWCA and UN Human Rights Council to explore how digital communication can enhance the work of international advocacy efforts.

And now here I am, Director of Corporate Relations and Communications at YWCA Canberra – one of the most influential, dynamic and innovative NFPs in this town.

I can honestly say that I’m “living the dream”, albeit my dream of helping share important community stories, and facilitating positive social change.

So what did I learn from Broome, a Princess of Pop, and the Multicultural Festival exactly?

On reflection, my time in Broome gave me the perfect opportunity to explore and understand my values, passions, and innate leadership qualities. Agreeing to get on a plane with a week’s notice to do that internship, was the first time I had said “yes” to something pretty big, that I didn’t feel at all confident about. I had no real reference point, no support, and I didn’t know what to expect. I’m so glad I said yes.

From The Princess of Pop I learned that sometimes it’s incredibly valuable to have a clear understanding of what you don’t want to do. While some people might see these experiences as “wasted time”, I am thankful that I had a chance to live the life of a freelancer in Australia’s film and television industry. I honed my business acumen, organisation skills, technical ability, and it definitely tested my resilience on a number of levels.

Through my membership and now employment with the Y, I have been exposed to life-changing opportunities that have allowed me to explore my own leadership potential, to understand what positive social impact I can make as a communications professional, and to form friendships, skills, and experiences that are well beyond any dollar value.

I recently caught up with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world medallist, Jess Fraser, ahead of an exciting event she’s hosting in Canberra this weekend. Here’s what she had to say about life, both on and off the mats.

Founder and organiser Jess Fraser is the woman behind Australian Girls in Gi (AGIG), a community of women and girls dedicated to empowering women to participate in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

A Canberran at heart, but currently Melbourne-based, Jess is back this weekend to host the exclusive AGIG women’s only “Open Mat” at Elements Fitness and Martial Arts.

Many of us have preconceived notions of what kind of women practice martial arts. They must be aggressive, masculine, or angry at the world, right?

Well, not exactly. Jess’ foray into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu came about primarily because she wanted to get fit, and brag about her skills to guys.

“The reality is that I was motivated mainly because I wanted to be a badass, to look buff and to impress boys at the pub with a rockin’ body, and tales of how ninja I was,” says the 27 year old.

“My priorities have changed since then. But the badass thing is still appealing!”

Having medalled at the Abu Dhabi World Pro Championships and won multiple state, national & pan-pacific championships here in Australia these days Jess is one of Australia’s most decorated BJJ practitioners and says that training is more than just her mediation.

Jess in action.jpg

Jess in action on the mats.

“It’s my personal development, routine and the most challenging and rewarding pursuit of my life to date,” she says.

“I also found the love of my life through this sport, and a community that is now my second family, and a team that I would do anything for. I get a lot out of it. I guess that’s why I want to give back as much as I do.”

One of the many ways that Jess gives back is through AGIG, which she says is having a positive effect on retaining women in BJJ clubs throughout the country. With a focus on women’s personal and physical development, AGIG comprises an inclusive and vibrant online community, and runs events and activities for women at all stages of their BJJ journey.

AGIG started in 2010 as a way to connect with other females that train. I was one of three girls that trained at my first gym, which, at the time that was seen as a large female team,” says the founder of the empowering female movement.

“I figured if there were more girls at the gym, there would be higher odds that I could find an exact clone of me to roll with. A luxury our male training partners can take for granted every day. Imagine!”

“I felt there must be more girls out there as crazy in love with fighting sports as me. Though they might be few and far between, I figured there should be a way to bring like-minded chicks together for all sorts of benefits: friendship, support, training, inspiration, competition, ideas, advice, guidance – all the things that contribute to AGIG’s most important goal: retention.”

Jess clarifies that AGIG was formed not out of necessity, but as a way to add value to women’s training experiences.

“Don’t get me wrong, we can also find all of the above in our relationships with male training partners and coaches, but all too rarely it comes from other females,” she adds.

“It wasn’t so much that I felt something was lacking on the mats training with guys, but that we could add more to how great this sport is for ourselves.”


Jess is passionate about inspiring both women and young girls to take part in the martial arts sport.

While Jess regularly trains with men and women, she sees female-only training spaces as most valuable for both emotional and mental reasons. However, she also recognises that these spaces are the only way for some women to get their foot in the gym door.

“Plenty of my friends chose to train in women-only environments for reasons ranging from religion to simply feeling more comfortable, to working through trauma or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” she shares.

“Anything that allows ladies to train that otherwise might not, is a good thing.”

While BJJ continues to grow in popularity, and AGIG’s one thousand-plus following continues to expand, the BJJ practitioner acknowledges that there are still significant barriers for some women who are thinking about stepping onto the mats.

“I believe the biggest barriers are front doors and the fear of the unknown. The guts that it takes to go up to a gym and check it out, when it’s something you’ve never done before, is absolutely huge,” she says.

“If only girls knew that this sport is almost more suited to them physically, than men. Flexibility, speed, strength, hip movement! These are absolutely the assets I value in my game. Girls be rocking that!”

Beyond her AGIG network, it is Jess’ family that provides unwavering support for her career development.

“My nephew thinks I’m pretty much the champion of the universe due to the medals on my wall. My sister is a powerlifter, and has made it to national level so far. She’s me, but a lifter. We inspire each other a great deal,” says Jess proudly.

“My brother is an epic skateboarder, field and ice hockey player and now coaches soccer. He leads a group called Thirroul Needs A Skatepark; a sports-focused community group trying to raise funds and approval from the local council for a skatepark in the area for the kids.

“They also follow my competitive career pretty closely. Three medals in three years internationally—it’s been a good run and there’s always cake waiting for me on homecoming.”

On the mats, Jess cites both men and women as her mentors and role models.

“Dave Hart is my mentor, coach, boss, closest friend. He is vitally important to me. Martin Gonzalez is my partner and long time coach. He is the most brutally honest person I know,” she reveals.

“I think in this sport, honest feedback is the greatest gift you can receive. The trick is being able to hear it.”

Jess also finds inspiration in her other role models including Sophia McDermott Drysdale and Luanna Alzuguir, for more reasons than she can even begin to list. But says that are definitely worth Googling.

Jess and Sophia McDermott Drysdale.jpg

Jess (right) with her fellow fighter and role model, Sophie McDermott Drysdale

With a cool year planned for 2015, one that will involve a lot of travel with AGIG and More Grappling, new competitions for people of all ages throughout Australia and lots more community events (especially for girls), Jess says her journey will take a slightly different direction with a renewed focus on refining her BJJ game.

“I no longer want to prove myself to anyone,” she says.

” I just want to develop and diversify. I think you can kick ass without necessarily taking down names.

The essentials

What: AGIG Open Mat for Women – Canberra
When: 11am, Sunday 5 October 2014
Where: Elements Fitness and Martial Arts – 15 Moore St, Canberra City
What: Fun and safe warm up, followed by just over an hour of timed BJJ rounds in a safe and supportive environment.The day will finish with a closed-door Q&A session focused on unique issues for women within the world of grappling. All levels and experiences welcome. Children also welcome to sit mat-side. More info here.
Cost: Donate a note of any amount.

This article was originally published in Her Canberra

Starting a game with Contra Mestre Loki, Canberra, 2011.

Starting a game with Contra Mestre Loki, Canberra, 2011.

Being injured sucks. It’s a place that nobody wants to find themselves in, whether they’re athlete, couch potato, or anything in between. 

As I approach the 3-year anniversary of one of the biggest challenges of my life, I thought I’d jot down what I’ve learnt about injury, recovery and the importance of being innovative with your training. Hopefully this post provides some food for thought for folk out there facing similar challenges.

Please note: I don’t have a background in medicine, health or sports science. In this post I explore my personal experiences, and what I’ve learnt along the way.

The back story

One of my first Capoeira classes in Brazil with my brother (Kojak), Emma (Rupunzel), Mestre Cocoroca, and myself.

One of my first Capoeira classes in Brazil with my brother (Kojak), Emma (Rupunzel), and Mestre Cocoroca. Laranjeiras, Rio de Janeiro, 2002.

Anyone that knows me will verify the fact that I am a giant Capoeira nerd. From the moment I first walked into a Capoeira class and heard the twang of the Berimbau at age 20, I was hooked!

To me Capoeira has always been about much more than a physical discipline or even a cultural practice. It’s not about the gradings, festivals, games, music, language or dance.

Being a Capoeirista has allowed me to delve deep into the heart of who I am, and explore every facet of my identity. Through my practice I have seen with absolute clarity my flaws, talents, and creativity.

This art form also connected me with people who have undoubtedly shaped my life. It has been the catalyst for positive change in my self perception, the way I deal with friendships, and the world. Capoeira has walked with me through some of my toughest moments; helplessness, heartbreak, death, and betrayal.

Above all else, Capoeira is my way of consolidating my experiences in life, processing them, and celebrating them.

The initial diagnosis

After more than a decade of training Capoeira every other day, and dabbling in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai, and surfing, I’d had my fair share of minor to moderate injuries. I’d experienced the frustration of needing to rest, rehab, and climb my way back to where I was before. But nothing really prepared me for the diagnosis I received in mid 2011, and the events that followed.

I was playing a Capoeira master, who applied a take down on me that saw me land awkwardly and smack the outside of my right knee on the wooden floor.

After a couple of weeks of swelling and pain, I went to see a physio, who treated me for an impinged fat pad. After a couple of months of rehab and rest, I was back on the mats, feeling strong and pain-free.

Just when I felt I was getting my groove back, I dislocated my knee cap when doing the splits after class. I was comfortably stretching in the splits and went to square up my hips. As my right leg moved with my hips, my knee cap seemed to “stick” in the mats, forcing it out to the side.

Yep, that hurt.

Over the coming days the swelling and inflammation worsened, and I returned to the physio. She sent me to get an MRI because she was concerned about why my knee cap had dislocated so easily, and because the knee joint had experienced multiple traumas.

Weeks later I sat in the sports physiologist’s rooms, anxiously waiting my turn.

With an almost expressionless face and with no preamble, she bluntly delivered the news, blow by blow:

  1. I had developed significant osteoarthritis in my right knee, particularly under the patella. I’ll never forget the way she said “your knee looks like it belongs to an ex-rugby player”.
  2. I should never do any martial arts ever again, or any exercise that involves lunging or squatting.
  3. Panadol was going to be my new best friend – forever.
  4. The condition and pain would only get worse over time.

I was gutted.

With tears in my eyes I asked her if there was any shred of hope for an alternative treatment, surgery or more positive long-term prognosis, to which she said “no, that’s the way it is with arthritis. There is no cure and it will only worsen the older you get”.

The surgery 

My mum is a “never give up” kind of woman, and she certainly doesn’t take no for an answer, at least without making sure she’s exhausted all other options first. She’s also very well connected here in Canberra, and within 24 hours of my diagnosis, had spoken with a golfing friend who also happened to be a top orthopaedic surgeon.

Still doubtful as to whether the surgeon could help me, I made an appointment to see him. The long and short of it was that there were a range of surgery options available to me, but none would restore my knee to its former structure, and none came with any kind of certainty about whether I would actually experience any kind of pain relief, let alone get me back to training.

He sent me home after a cortisone injection to see how I felt, and ponder whether I wanted to opt for surgery. The most minimal form of intervention was an arthroscope where he would “reshape” the underside of my knee cap, which in the MRI scan looked a bit like a jellyfish, the tentacles being the damaged, misshapen bone that was grating against the rest of the joint structure.

Being in pain every day can be pretty motivating. After the mild relief that the cortisone injection provided had worn off, I was just about willing to try anything to improve my situation.

I had the arthroscope in November 2011, and the initial recovery period went well. A month or so later, frustratingly, I was still experiencing significant inflammation and swelling around the knee, which was making any kind of exercise tricky.

Learning to “do it differently”

At this point I don’t know what was more difficult for me, the physical pain, grappling with the uncertainty of what lay ahead, or redefining my identity as a Capoeirista. I’m forever in debt to a handful of very good friends, who played an integral role in my rehab, recovery, and discovery of alternative ways to be happy, healthy and train hard.

Here are a few key things that I believe that helped me immensely on this journey:

  1. Adopting a low inflammatory diet: cutting out as much sugar and saturated fats as possible to minimise insulin spikes and subsequent inflammatory responses in the body.
  2. Squatting and weight bearing activities: despite the fact that the sports physiologist had told me to steer clear of squatting and lunging, I learnt to start slow, and build up the muscles around my knee joint.
  3. Learning about different types of pain: it’s true to say that some days it hurt to walk, let alone do weights or any kind of training, but I over time I learnt the difference between a full on inflammation and just general arthritis pain.
  4. Taking high doses of fish oil, glucosamine and chondroitin: like, a lot of it.
  5. Sleeping more, reducing my stress levels, and getting acupuncture when I was really inflamed or swollen. This proved more effective than any anti-inflammatories or pain relief medication.
  6. Learning to weigh up the risks: at first I would worry a lot about trying something new at training, or whether to train at all because I was afraid of being in pain. A good friend of mine who is well versed in managing chronic pain and an inflammatory condition taught me how to objectively assess risk VS reward, and to not succumb to fear!
  7. Not looking over my shoulder: another good friend of mine who is a physio and yoga teacher told me something really simple, and it has stuck with me. That is, that our bodies are living organisms that are forever changing. Sometimes it’s positive change, and sometimes it’s devastating. Change in our bodies over time is inevitable, so we should never expect them to perform or respond in the same way forever.

After about 18 months of ups and downs (and no Capoeira), I noticed that the periods of time that I was pain-free were growing. I started to  challenge my knee with new exercises and movements, and felt confident in pushing the boundaries of my initial diagnosis.

My awesome partner and my coach instilled in me a belief that I would get back to doing what I loved most, and more! I began to feel the strength building in my legs, and I started to experiment with Capoeira again. I am still working on my “new game” and train as much as I can (pain free of course).

I can now comfortably squat, lunge, skip, jump and run, and have gained full flexion back in my knee. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been in my life with a dead lift of 122.5kg, back squat of 80kg, bench press of 60kg, and push jerk of 55kg. I’ve also started to train BJJ again, with the assistance of chunky knee pads, and some awesome training partners.

There are no guarantees with my knee, but I’ve decided to set my sights high, and roll with the punches.

Moments after receiving my blue belt in 2007.

Moments after receiving my blue belt in 2007.

Playing Contra Mestre Ourico at the Capoeira Aruanda Batizado in 2010.

Playing Contra Mestre Ourico at the Capoeira Aruanda Batizado in 2010.

Meeting one of my Capoeira heroes, Mestre Acordeon (centre) with Contra Mestre Borracha in Melbourne, 2010.

Meeting one of my Capoeira heroes, Mestre Acordeon (centre) with Contra Mestre Borracha in Melbourne, 2010.

Playing music with Simon at Bondi Beach, 2012.

Playing music with Simon at Bondi Beach, 2012.

Earlier this year I was invited to participate in a live panel discussion, exploring content marketing for not-for-profit organisations at Gungahlin Library. My fellow panellists were Mike Zissler, former CEO of Lifeline Canberra, and Chris Barry, Director of Communications and Fundraising at Communities at Work. A big thanks to David Pembroke, Gavin Tapp, and the Content Group crew for creating a space for us to have this discussion!

Last year I was lucky enough to attend the Better Boards Conference, and co-present with the talented Ruth Pitt on the YWCA of Canberra’s long-term strategic plan. This week the Better Boards team sent me the video of our presentation, so here it is – enjoy!

You can read my original post covering the conference here

Note: I’ve since resigned from the YWCA of Canberra board to take up an exciting role within the staff team, and I love it!


I was recently asking my NGO communications buddies if they knew of any courses that focused on digital campaigning and community mobilisation. The responses I received were largely along the lines of “I don’t think anything like that exists in Australia”, and “hey you should run a course on that”, so I was starting to get a little disheartened.

That was, until Sarah Stokely suggested I grab a ticket to Progress 2013 – and man I’m glad that I did!

In this post I’ve tried to capture some of the highlights of the last two days, and will no doubt add to it as my brain digests the smorgasbord of ideas, critiques, and strategic thinking I was lucky enough to learn about at this landmark event.

Richard Wilkinson

Richard Wilkinson

Richard Wilkinson, social determinants of health guru and expert on the societal effects of inequality framed our thinking as the morning keynote speaker on day one.

His opening slide encouraged us to consider the question, why are we so miserable?

He explained that at a global level (comparing country-to-country), life expectancy is unrelated to economic growth, happiness and other measures of wellbeing.

However, when we look at the population within countries, health and social problems are more prominent in countries where there is an inequitable distribution of wealth. That is, the larger the income gap, the worse off countries are across a range of areas including: homicide, mental illness, imprisonment, life expectancy, high school drop-outs, maths and literacy scores, social mobility, teenage births, social capital, and the prevalence of trust between citizens.

Research shows that people who live in unequal countries actually trust each other less. Only 15-20% of people living in unequal countries feel they can trust each other, compared to more equal countries, where it’s about 60%.

Richard explained that a naive view of inequality only looks at one end of the spectrum that focuses on poverty and income differences. Whereas a more informed view examines the layers of all the subtlety destructive tendencies that humans possess, ie the psycho-social effects.

Fundamentally it’s about a response to social hierarchy and ranking, and whether people feel valued or devalued.

Richard Wilkinson-Public health slide
Research tells us that friendship is a protective factor of health

We then had a look at the “U shape of inequality” from the 1930’s to the present day. It bottomed out in the 70s (thank you feminism) and is now sadly on the rise again. Richard says we’ve lost any vision of what a society that serves us all might look like – a thought for us to keep in mind throughout the conference.

So what might this more equal world look like, and how do we get there?

Richard challenged us to consider what would happen if we extend the idea of democracy into the economic world, and transform big business and corporate control into democratic spaces.

His talk convinced me that in many respects, some of us have reached the end of the benefits of economic growth, and that now we need to think about how to create a better quality of life for everyone, beyond consumerism.

Tim Costello on the narrative of progress

Tim says that the notion of progress needs to be unpicked. He says it can’t be a narrative about material goods, and that we need to understand its limits. The economic rationalism storyline should have already been unpicked, but it still dominates our public debate and policy making.

Australia ranks number one in the world in terms of medium per capita wealth, and number two for wellbeing. We are healthy and wealthy, but are we wise?

The story of “the wealthier I am, the happier I’ll be” doesn’t necessarily work out the way we think it will when we’re ultimately faced with greed, stress,  and fragmentation of communities.

Working out the narrative of progress was one of the challenges Tim put to the conference attendees. This was particularly important given that the NGO sector is largely written out of the progress story.

His take-home points for us:

  • If we can understand our size and our muscle, we can change this place
  • We need to empower people to define what “the good life” means for them
  • There are a lot of people in Australia who should be having a voice, and they need to be connected

Limited news: a future for media in Australia?



Tim started out talking about how he often sees journos dealing with Twitter followers like they are some kind of pest. He said journos don’t like being publicly held to account, they don’t like being questioned, and they still resist engaging in meaningful dialogic communication.

This got me thinking about how we can break down the barriers to social media use, how we can bridge the digital divide, and how we can empower citizen journalists to deliver quality, yet independent content. I’m yet to come across a better example than the PakVotes project that I came across in Geneva earlier this year.

We then moved on to discussing the Murdoch press, and how we break down the empire and it’s constraints. The general consensus was that monetising free-to-access media is still very difficult, and the publications that have opted for the paywall option are finding it problematic.

Jamila thinks that by 2020 we’ll have online media accounts where we pay very little (eg half a cent) per article read, but that it will take a while for us to get to the point where culturally we’re ready for that to happen on a large-scale.

She flagged that sponsored content is one of the more promising ways that we can monetise online media. I saw a couple of examples of this when Mamamia ran its “Most Clickable Women” awards, and invited female bloggers to engage in the creation of branded or sponsored content.

Digital Campaigning: going well beyond clicktavism


This was one of the sessions I was most looking forward to attending, and it delivered! It was a real honour to hear some of the world’s leading campaigners share their approaches to strategy, implementation and evaluation.

Some tips from the gurus:

  • Technology is just an enabler, it’s how we use it that’s important
  • Seize the moment – when something happens in the real world, leverage it!
  • When people see real action in the world it galvanises support in the online environment
  • By challenging politicians to do something about an issue (by collecting signatures for an online petition, for example), you present not only a big stick, but also a very big carrot
  • It’s important to agitate around issues that “no one cares about”, but recognise this will often require a much more long-term strategy
  • Many people fail because their target audience can’t see how it will lead them to success, and they can’t see their role in the journey
  • When people take action you need to celebrate little victories along the way

Moving beyond the “gender card” – opportunities for the Australian women’s movement.

Y women

Josie Swords of Feminaust, Krista Seddon of the YWCA Victoria, Michelle Deshong of the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre, myself representing the YWCA of Canberra, and Nina O’Brien of Kindling.


Jane began the discussion by saying that she doesn’t see feminism as a movement. She sees feminism as a way of seeing the world, where women are at the centre of their own lives, rather that at the periphery of someone else’s. Jane noted that one of the things that we (women) consistently deal with is a trivialisation of our thoughts, feelings and desires, and that this needs to change.

Rebecca however, was more interested in talking about how we as a collective can move our agenda forward faster. She said the average GetUp member is a 55 year-old woman, and that one of the reasons women make excellent campaigners is that we’re comfortable with emotion, and the vulnerability that leads to connection.

Michelle challenged the position that Jane presented, because she feels like she has only just had the opportunity to start participating in feminism. She sees her race as the first thing that has prevented her participation, and then her gender, which is why she calls herself an Indigenous Feminist.

Michelle believes that gender equity is a conversation for everyone, and that Indigenous women want to participate in feminism while bringing their men along with them.

There aren’t a lot of Aboriginal women who are participating in the “feminist debate”, because they are more comfortable participating in the “Indigenous conversation”. The overlay of cultural context for Aboriginal peoples is very important, and shouldn’t be underestimated when it comes to participation in feminist debates.

Jane sees social media as one of the biggest ways that we can move feminism forward faster. The fact that we can have a public conversation without being mediated is unprecedented, and is something we shouldn’t take for granted.

Using the Destroy The Joint campaign as a case study, Jane passed on a few words of wisdom about progressing the feminist agenda:

  • Mock stupidity – it’s the best defence!
  • You have to fight mockery and insults with the same thing!
  • We need to make all progressive movements FUN!
  • Start with a group of people who are like-minded, and want the same outcome. You will have a much better chance of making your campaigns fun and engaging.

Finally, Michelle encouraged us to think about what the world will look like when gender equity exists, and stressed the fact that for us to get there, women’s rights first need to be accepted as human rights.


Throughout the month of October, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) is the Official On-Screen Charity Partner for the One Direction ‘Take Me Home’ Australian Tour. FARE will be screening video messages at concerts, as well as talking to parents and young people at the concerts about alcohol-free fun. I wrote this post for FARE’s blog, Drink Tank, to share what I would consider to be the best night of my life as a teenager – no alcohol was involved!

Explosive, unbridled, teenage hormone-fuelled excitement doesn’t even come close to describing how I felt the day my parents agreed to let me go to my first live music concert.

I cried tears of joy when mum told me that I’d finally get to see Green Day. And not on an old, over-played VHS tape, oh no. They would be right there in front of me – we would be breathing the same air.

If I got close enough to the stage, maybe I could catch their eye? Maybe, just maybe Billy-Joe’s sweat would flick onto my face as he danced around the stage. It was a long awaited dream come true.

But before you read on I need to be up front with you. 14 year-old me wasn’t exactly a One Direction fan-girl type, or Directioner as they’re affectionately known. In fact, I’m pretty sure 14 year-old me would’ve hated Directioners, but that’s beside the point.

You see, I was more of a Grunger, or at least I wanted to be.

I grew up on the Upper North Shore of Sydney in a nice house with my big brother James and my loving, hard-working parents. James and I both went to good schools, played sport, enjoyed art, and loved writing music (or noise as dad used to call it).

Every time school holidays rolled around, I couldn’t wait to dye my hair some kind of crazy colour, buy a new pair of Dr Martins Boots, or get another ear piercing.

I was a creative spirit, and I was trying to break free. Free from my very comfortable, middle-class existence.

But with a good 17 years between me and my first live music concert experience, I can say without hesitation that Directioners and 14 year-old me probably have a lot in common.

Picture this. It’s summertime, 8 February 1996. Paul Keating was enjoying his last moments as Prime Minister, and Friends had just aired on Australian TV for the first time.

I legged it out of the school grounds with my two best friends straight after 5th period. We hurriedly crammed into a toilet cubicle at Pymble Train Station to change out of our private girl’s school uniforms and into our real identities – freedom!

There I was, rainbow knee-high stockings, skate shoes with matching rainbow laces, a tatty black skirt of mum’s that I’d cut short with a pair of scissors, and a commemorative Kurt Cobain t-shirt.

On the train trip to Central Station we scoffed down sweets, recited line after line of the band’s song lyrics, strategised about how to make it past the security guards to get back stage, and made bets on what the set list would be.

After what felt like a lifetime, we finally arrived. Five hours early for the concert – we were real fans.

Buzzing on sugar, we plonked ourselves down on the footpath with half a dozen other kids. They had “missioned it” from Newcastle that morning – respect.

We marvelled at the gate of the Hordern Pavillion, the infamous rock temple of awesome that my big brother had always gloated about seeing bands play at. Finally it was my turn, and I wasn’t just there to see any band. They were the coolest, most amazing punk rock trio in the world.

I wonder if this is how Directioners will feel when they arrive at the Homebush Bay Stadium on Saturday night?

Sure their hair will be meticulously GHD-styled rather than intentionally mashed into a bird’s nest, sure their makeup will be all glitter and glam, rather than the Courtney Love-inspired racoon eyes look, and of course their short shorts and skinny jeans are a far cry from the stone washed, torn up thrift shop threads we used to wear.

But ultimately, we all just want “one thing”, and that’s to see our heroes up there on stage, blowing our minds.

As night fell over the Hordern, thousands of kids joined the back of the queue outside. It was time.

The loud speaker crackled, and then a voice announced, “before the gates open we would like to remind you that there’s no running allowed inside the venue. I repeat, do not run when we open the gates.”

Well, I think it’s the first and last time I’ll ever witness 7000 teenagers power-walking into a venue. But we managed to get the perfect spot, right at the front and centre of the mosh pit.

For the next three hours we lived the dream. Sweaty, screaming sardines packed into that room so tight that we could hardly breathe.

The band busted out hit after hit, their lyrics and melodies penetrating our souls. They understood our deepest fears, our aspirations, our lives, it was magical.

While in that moment I certainly believed I was the biggest Green Day fan on the face of the planet, I hadn’t realised the extent of my own excitement until I was approached by a towering, shaggy-haired concert goer.

He grabbed my shoulder, leaned down, looked me straight in the eyes and yelled above the music “dude, can I get some of whatever you’re on?”

I paused, puzzled for a moment, and then responded with “nothing man, it’s just the band”! I raised the horns and moshed on.

Finally the end of the set rolled around, and the crowd demanded encore after encore. And then, the drummer, Tre Cool, walked out from behind his kit to the front of the stage, a pair of Zildjian drum sticks clasped in one hand.

He gestured to the crowd with a “who wants these” signal, and of course everyone went nuts. He paced to the right of the stage and pegged the first drum stick into the crowd. Then he strode back to the left of the stage and stopped, right in front of me.

The mosh pit surged, people were pushing and shoving each other out of the way to try and line up with him. I kept my focus.

And then, it happened. His arm propelled the second drum stick towards us. In slow motion I saw it, rotating as it flew gracefully through the air. Someone next to me jumped, but they were too eager, a premature attempt. I waited, I had it in my sights.

Then, like a seasoned AFL player, I grabbed hold of the guy in front of me and leapt into the air, pushing off his shoulders to get an extra bit of height.

I reached out my hand and snapped the drum stick out of the air!

I bolted for the exit, running from the group of crazed fans that wanted to steal it from me. As I passed through the entrance to the Hordern I spotted the Wendy’s ice-cream van, and slid underneath it to seek refuge while I waited for the mob to pass.

It wasn’t until years later that I realised the significance of that moment. What I had that night was something that people search for; that raw, untamed excitement and the ability to express it without a care in the world. Or more importantly, without a drug in the world.

I hope that this month One Direction fans feel what I felt that night. I hope they can’t contain themselves. I hope they are completely overwhelmed by the experience. I hope they remember every glorious detail. I hope they don’t grow up too quickly. And most of all, I hope they always remember that they don’t need a drink in their hand to have the best night of their lives.

This post was originally published on Drink Tank.


Ruth and I, Better Boards Conference, Melbourne, July 2013

Having been back in the country for less than a week, it was a bit hectic to then head off down to Melbourne for the Better Boards Conference, but I’m so glad I did!

The opening keynote on Saturday was from ThinkPlace’s Dr Nina Terrey on how design thinking can drive innovation. She talked about some of the challenges of our NGO environment, from technology and the demand for businesses to operate online, to our ageing population and the impact of this on our economy, housing, and family structures.

She suggested that perhaps one of the biggest challenges is how we (NGOs) connect within one another, and challenged us to consider how we can be cooperative as well as competing.

She then talked about how many young professionals are “mission-driven”, and there’s a trend toward social entrepreneurship in Australia. I certainly notice this in my friendship groups.

Dr Terrey did say though that there are no formulas or models that will simply help us deal with these uncertain times, but that design thinking can help us navigate the “mystery” of our environment.


Leadbeater’s appetite for collaborative innovation

So where to start with design thinking?

Dr Terrey encouraged delegates to think about where some of the biggest challeges are for our organisations, and said to start with looking at the available evidence to help us understand “where we are” at this point in time.

She then said to think about what success looks like. Then how we might get there. Talk to stakeholders to understand what it’s like from their perspective. Do some interviews, spend time with those people, get some information. Then hypothesise…


Dr Terrey’s “leading on the edge of innovation” preso

One of the other sessions I attended on Saturday was with Philip Mayers, Director, Dakin Mayers Associates, on the role of the nominations committee in recruiting the right board directors.

He started out by saying that one of the fundamental issues in recruiting board directors is that many are recruited through the “old boy/old girl” network. There’s also the “big names” syndrome, and he reckons these people only want to put in minimal effort on a board, and more often than not they’re doing it for the professional development or networking opportunities, rather than having a deep connection with the issues the NGO is dealing with.

He said that some of the biggest challenges for a nominations committee includes:

  • there are no magic bullets with recruitment
  • big names will not help your board strategically guide an organisation
  • recruitment can be a very slow process and it needs to be tackled strategically and thoughtfully

He suggested that the makeup of the nominations committee comprise: 2 senior board members, 2 externals, and the CEO. He stressed the importance of the externals in keeping the internals honest (if they’re the right people).

In terms of what to look for in board members, Philip cited the following qualities: big picture thinker, open-minded, non-biased, approachable, change agent, inclusive, think on their feet, team player, positive manner, ability to delegate, personal integrity, and has skills in board governance.

He talked about the danger of appointing young people to the board (eeek). The reason being that “board members need to have an understanding of governance.”

This comment puzzled me. Don’t young people have the capacity to understand what governance is all about? I sit on a board where there is a minimum requirement that 30% of all board positions are to be held by young women, and I can tell you, they discuss governance A LOT.

In fact, most of the young women on the YWCA of Canberra board pride themselves on their governance nerdiness. More about the Y’s awesome finance and governance workshops here and a good overview of Gen Y in the board room from Chris O’Neill here.

After hearing this comment I asked the other folk on Twitter what they thought about having young people on boards. Here are some of the responses:

todddavies “my experience as a Gen X is that boards can get stayed and dull without a Gen Y or two.”

Rebecca Vassarotti “I know plenty of older people with no governance exper. Everyone has to learn.”
Michel Hogan “because we need diversity on Boards as well as experience and also need to build future generation”

At the end of his presentation I had a chance to ask Philip to elaborate on his earlier comment, and asked him how he got his first gig on a board. He told me that his comment was more to do with “getting young people on boards just for the sake of understanding what young people want”.

He also told us that his first board appointment was when he had just graduated from law school, and he was recruited by his local synagogue – a great learning space for him, I imagine.

One of my favourite sessions of the weekend was run by Sallie Saunders from Building Better Boards, on “Assessing the CEO: the good, the bad and the ugly”.

The key message that came from this session was that a thriving NGO relies on good relationships, in particular the relationship between the CEO and the board.

She said that if you can be the CEO of an NGO, you can pretty much run the country. This was on the one hand a light-hearted comment, but when you look at the qualities, role and responsibilities of a CEO, they aren’t dissimilar to those that are required of a PM.

It’s no surprise then that she considers the CEO to be the most precious asset of an NGO.

Recruiting, developing and assessing the CEO is the only HR job a board has, and Sallie stressed that if directors can’t find reasons to support the CEO, then it’s probably time for them to get off the board.

So what makes it work?

  • keep board development and appraisal on the agenda – it’s a 2-way street
  • set targets for board achievement
  • talk about the difference between strategic and operational matters
  • keep reporting demands to a minimum
  • use the board expertise to add value to the work of the organisation
  • provide support and advice, especially when requested
  • avoid getting involved in staff matters
  • ask the CEO how the board can help (and listen to the answer)
  • the Director’s default position should be to support the CEO. If that’s not the position, then follow grievance procedures.

Later that afternoon there was a lively debate about the question of NGO board remuneration – “to pay or not to pay”?

On the affirmative team:

  • Victor Harcourt, Principle, Russell Kennedy
  • Dean Phelan, CEO, Churches of Christ in QLD
  • Christine Jones, Dispute Resolution Practitioner

Arguing against:

  • Brian Herd, Partner, Carne Reidy Herd Lawyers
  • Alexandra Zammit, CEO, Thomas Holt

The debate itself was pretty entertaining, but the thing I was most impressed with was the live polling and Q&A that was taking place via PigeonHole as the debate progressed.

The idea was to vote on the question of the debate “Should not-for-profit boards be remunerated?” before the discussion took place, as well as afterwards. The MC then compared the results to see whether the speakers had convinced the audience to change their opinions.

In the end there was a shift from something like 65% of delegates thinking that NGO boards should be remunerated, to almost an even split.

I really loved the fact that with PigeonHole delegates were not only able to pose a question to the panel, but also “vote up” other delegates’ questions that they really wanted to hear the answer to.

I think the inclusivity that this kind of tool offers is really valuable, because it means that people who may not feel confident enough to stand up in front of a crowd to ask a question can articulate their idea through a written submission. They can even participate anonymously if they perhaps don’t want the subject of their question to be linked with their organisation or board.

From a strategic communication perspective, I would be really interested to know why the BBC2013 team placed a much greater emphasis on dialogic and digital communication this year as compared to last year (when there was virtually nothing). I’d like to think it had something to do with the feedback I provided!

As Sunday approached I began to reflect on my time volunteering with the YWCA of Canberra. The last 12 months in particular have been a huge period of growth for me.

There are a few guarantees that come with volunteering for an organisation like the Y:

1. You will have the opportunity to work with inspiring, bright, courageous, like-minded women of all ages
2. You will be afforded opportunities to grow your personal and professional experience
3. You will at times, find yourself completely out of your comfort zone thinking “how on earth did I get talked into this?”

But rest assured, you will have the support, encouragement, and expertise of a community of women who want nothing more than to share your success with you.

This is kind of how I felt when Ruth asked me to co-present with her at the Conference this year, but I’m so glad that I accepted her invitation.

Our presentation focused on telling the story of how the board of the YWCA of Canberra developed its 15-year strategic plan. To put the presentation together, Ruth interviewed a bunch of past board members and the Executive Director, Rebecca Vassarotti. The aim was for them to tell the story from their perspective, with Ruth and I providing the commentary around the implications for the current board.

Typically I felt pretty anxious in the lead up to delivering this presentation, but of course it all ran very smoothly!

We had enough time for a 15 minute Q&A session at the end, and later received some really positive feedback from delegates, including CEOs and directors from a range of NGOs.

If you’re interested in checking out the Better Boards Conference as a professional development opportunity for your board, I highly recommend it.

There is something for everyone, no matter how “new” or “experienced” your board directors are, whether your NGO is service-provision focused, or an advocacy organisation, or how big your budget is.

One of Her Canberra’s 15 Women to Watch in 2015

Her Canberra - 15 Women to Watch

Nominated for Mamamia’s Most Clickable Women of 2013

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