Unlocking the power of community
8 November 2021 at 4:39 pm
As the new CEO of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, Wiradjuri man Ben Bowen is using the knowledge and power of Aboriginal communities to propel the organisation into its next phase. He’s this week’s Changemaker.
Ben Bowen’s professional path has been varied, to say the least.
He spent many years as a professional triathlete and fitness coach, moved into the corporate sector, and then the NFP sector.
In 2011 he found a way to combine his passion for sport with social change, teaming up with Sean Appoo to start the Indigenous Mountain Bike Project, a program designed to get multiple generations out riding bikes together and connecting back to Country.
From there, Appoo and Bowen founded Shared Path, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporation working with Aboriginal communities to positively impact their priority local social issues by achieving economic independence through business development.
Now, as the first Aboriginal CEO of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF), Bowen’s focus will be on collaborating with communities and unlocking the knowledge that already exists within them, taking the organisation to new heights.
In this week’s Changemaker, he discusses his journey to ILF, the things that inspire his leadership, and his top tips for making a change in the world.
What drew you to ILF?
Literacy rates in Indigenous populations are obviously something that I’m really aware of in terms of my own role within community and what I’ve seen working in other jobs. It’s also an issue that I have a personal understanding of. Coming from an Aboriginal background where it was difficult for me to understand the different contexts and understandings of Western text meant that at times I struggled with learning and literacy at school. That was my grounding, but through a lot of support from my community, I managed to explore the world through sport and travel, and then come back into the corporate and not-for-profit world. When I did enter this new role, I realised that my experience was unique.
I guess my understanding is that literacy is very different for a lot of people and the world that we’re in now. The world is changing rapidly, but there’s still this fundamental step of being able to build context and comprehension and understanding, whether that’s written or visual or audio, and for kids who are missing that foundational step in their literacy journey, it has a lifelong impact. So that’s what sort of brought me back in to working with communities, whether it was building businesses, or building technology, or talking to kids about the fourth industrial revolution of technology and apps and all this sort of stuff, it always comes back to this literacy question about how they build their comprehension and understanding and context around the information.
What does it mean to you to be the first Aboriginal head of ILF?
There’s a couple of things with it. Our former CEO, Karen Williams, has done an amazing job, and the legacy she’s set up is hard to live up to. But coming from an Aboriginal perspective and growing up and being part of a community, the focus I have is really not so much the capacity development, it’s really about how do we collaborate and how do we unlock what communities already have and then enable that.
Our communities are vibrant, strong, and highly intelligent. We have this literacy around culture, land and community, but how communities engage with a really highly Western concept of literacy is different. And I want to try to engage communities in those conversations so they can redefine that space themselves and help ILF be the way they want to engage and the journey they want to take on it.
And where do you draw inspiration from to lead an organisation like ILF?
My skills or ability or the journey I’ve taken is more about the community that has always helped me. Whether it was when I was racing professionally, or even now in these professional roles, I achieved very little by myself. And the community that’s been around me, that has championed and given me the support or given me the nudge, they’re the ones that have enabled me to have the privilege of taking positions like this. It’s a very big responsibility and obviously a very big motivator to make sure I’m doing the right thing by all of them.
What advice do you have for other people out there wanting to make a change in the world?
I think a lot of things have to change, and I think people are really diving into that emotional intelligence and being creative and innovative and not set in the ways of the world, I think that’s where change comes from. I think it’s very easy for us to look at data and see the bad picture. The topical thing at the moment is climate change for instance, and it’s very easy for us to get stuck in that hopeless moment. But having the emotional intelligence and the energy and vision to really innovate from the outside is where I think people should really spend their time. Engage people in conversations and platform ideas.
And when you’re not running ILF, what do you like to do in your spare time to take a break and recharge?
I’m very, very lucky, I’m married to my best friend in the world, so we have that and then two kids that are very, very busy kids, and one on the way. So look, there’s not a lot of downtime, but I love getting out for a run or a bike ride or walking on Country or being able to get out on Country with my community is really what I need. So most days I’ll try to either ride somewhere or run somewhere and feel the ground under my feet and travel that Country. There’s nothing quite like unplugging with family and community out on Country.