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The Job of Shaping Future Generations

5 January 2015 at 11:30 am
Xavier Smerdon
As the CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians, Jan Owen relishes her part in helping to shape future generations. Owen is this week’s Changemaker.

Xavier Smerdon | 5 January 2015 at 11:30 am


The Job of Shaping Future Generations
5 January 2015 at 11:30 am

As the CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians, Jan Owen relishes her part in helping to shape future generations. Owen is this week’s Changemaker. 

Jan Owen has spent almost her whole life in the Not for Profit Sector. She gained inspiration from her parents and has since become a source of inspiration for others.

As her organisation gets ready to launch one of its biggest campaigns ever, Owen is determined to show the world what young Australians are made of.

How long have you been in the Not for Profit sector?

It depends when you start counting, but probably 30 years.

I started when I was very young. I started work in drug and alcohol education on the inner-city streets of Brisbane as an 18-year-old.

I was doing youth work. My job was working with young people and their families and at that time there were a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had come to Brisbane from all over the state to get jobs or to try and find something in terms of opportunity for their children.

I was working a lot with those people and doing what I call guerrilla social entrepreneurship, which was really where we used to take over unused assets like service stations and turn them into massive drop in centres for children, which was fun.

So I cut my teeth on the streets of Brisvegas.

So what was it that made you want to join the sector full time?

There were three things that were always very intertwined for me. One was a strong sense of social justice, my parents helped set up LifeLine in Australia, so from an early age I was exposed to all kinds of issues.

In those days when you ran LifeLine you took the calls yourself, you didn’t refer them, because there was no referral agency, and then you got off the phone, went to your car and drove out to where the problem was. So you really got involved in the issues.

I would wake up on any given morning and there would be a family asleep on our lounge room floor that had come in over night because of a domestic violence problem, or some kind of hardship that they had found themselves in.

That was pretty amazing.

My parents had a strong sense of social justice and believed in this idea that all of us can go through difficult times and it was just about if you’ve got enough support around you to be able to move through it. They believed that it didn’t need to define your life forever.

Secondly, I was an entrepreneur from a really young age. As a young child I tried to set up multiple businesses and sold stuff.

I was also identified at a very young age as a leader. So between leadership, entrepreneurship and social justice, I guess those three things would take you to the social sector.

It’s always been my heartland. I’ve always felt that making the world a better place through those three things was what I was meant to be doing.

I had a very strong sense that this is what I was meant to be doing.

What are you working on at the moment at FYA?

In January we are launching a massive campaign called Innovation Nation. It’s going to be the largest campaign for ideas for social change that Australia has ever seen.

We’re looking for 1000 ideas for a better Australia.

We're putting the word out to 16 to 28-year-olds who have got an idea in whatever way or form to make Australia better.

We’re going to run a competition off the back of that and we will pick 50 to 100 of the best ideas and then those people will have the opportunity to go through our young social pioneers program, which is a six month intensive program to get their program up and developed.

We will run a big campaign to harness the ideas and curate what we hope will be more than 1000 ideas honestly.

Is this the first year you’ve done this?

We’ve been running our social pioneers program for the last five years but we’ve never had a campaign at the front end which is about promoting thinking about Australia as an innovative place and young people as our best innovators.

So what do you hope that it will achieve?

As I said I hope we’ll get thousands of ideas from young Australians and be able to prove to ourselves as a country that this generation of young people and the generation coming behind them are incredibly optimistic about the future and want to be part of shaping that future and shaping Australia.

They genuinely want to part of shaping Australia and I think we’ll see a lot of ideas about the kind of Australia that they want to live in.

The second part that we will achieve is that we will have 50 to 100 of those ideas become actual projects and we’ll support those young people to take them to the next level.

The campaign will run for six weeks and then we’ll do the judging and then we’ll announce who are our young social pioneers.

We often hear that this current generation is the “me” generation. Do you buy into that or do you see something different?

I think this is what we’re going to prove through Innovation Nation. Buy curating and by calling for 1000 ideas for a better Australia, I think we’re going to get a lot more than that.

I genuinely think that we have probably the largest number of young changemakers and young socially orientated people in this country than we’ve had in decades and decades.

They’re extremely socially conscious. Even young people that don’t identify as being in the social sector, the things that they care about are the social issues. They care about equality, gender issues and the environment.

I think young people are not organised institutionally like they used to be, they’re not part of political parties and things like that but they are building movements, they are passionate about ideas, causes and issues and they go after those hard and they organise around those very effectively and quickly.

I think this is an incredible generation and the one coming after them, the 12 to 18-year-olds, are also incredible, because they’re the first truly digital generation.

They’ve never known anything else.

They’ve got a set of tools that are remarkable. They’ve got a big world view, they have a lot more information than other generations and I’m incredibly positive about them.

What’s the most rewarding part of the work you do?

The most rewarding part is obviously getting the opportunity to invest in young Australians; to spend time with the next generation of young innovators, young entrepreneurs, young leaders.

I just have the most privileged job in the world and then to get to work with that job and to get to invest in and back young people, there’s literally nothing better that you could do.

It’s an incredible privilege to be working with and investing in the next generation.

Do you see yourself doing it for a lot longer?

My heartland has always been with young people in any role I’ve had pretty much.

This is clearly the work that I do and this is my passion and as I said this is very much my sense of purpose I think.

It’s incredibly rewarding to release a generation of young people and their ideas for this country and the world.

What would you say is your greatest achievement?

I think one of my greatest achievements is having children who are just incredibly tuned into what’s going on in the world and have a real discernment about the world.

I feel like bringing up great children is really a fantastic achievement for any parent really.

What would be your ultimate goal through the work that you do?

I would like to build a strong movement of young people who are passionate about  being enterprising and entrepreneurial and are passionate about leading their community.

We definitely want a generation who feel very connected to the region. There are 376 million young people in the region, literally on our doorstep, so the future for our young people is clearly centred around how we turbocharge relationships throughout the region and make that the norm.

We’ve got some pretty audacious goals at FYA and we’re certainly not done yet. I’m certainly not done yet.

What’s a question that you’re always being asked?

I’m asked a lot about my career trajectory in the social sector and how I found the thing that I want to do.

I also get asked a lot about how to engage and inspire and invest in young people.

What are you reading or watching at the moment?

I’ve been watching House of Cards. It’s awesome.

I’ve just got all my Christmas books so I’m reading a few things at the moment.

I’m re-reading the Future Chasers, which is a book I put together this year.

I’m reading Ian McEwan’s latest book called The Children Act and Peter Carey’s latest book which is called Amnesia.

What did school teach you?

I went to a few different schools because I was a non-school attender. So school did not teach me a whole lot.

My entire education occurred since I left school.

The education system failed me, I didn’t fail it, that’s my line anyway.

I was not the typical learner that kind of falls into line. I was very impatient to get on with the rest of my life.

School was in the way of me getting out and living.

Looking back now, would you tell young people that it worked for you or would you advise them to stay in school?

I think education now is in a really interesting place because it is in a state of real transition globally from the old model to a school system that is trying to prepare and equip young people for the world beyond school and to give them the kind of core capabilities to be able to navigate it.

The world is becoming much more complex and I think young people need a very different set of skills, and I think that school education is having to work hard to keep up with what’s going on beyond the classroom.

I would always say to young people that an education is actually really important and I think further education is also really important.

You’ve got to find the thing that you love and are passionate about, but understand what education is about, it is about a set of capabilities but also a way of thinking.

What, or who, inspires you?

I’m genuinely inspired by different people all the time.

I’m inspired by people who have a resilience and can get up and go again if  they’ve backed themselves and something hasn’t worked out.

I’m inspired by people who are just generally generous. I’m always inspired by generosity.


Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist  |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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