I’m from a really small village. When I say small, I mean it. Within the village of Rydal, which is located atop of the Great Dividing Range in New South Wales, Australia, there is a population of just 50 (depending on how many of my family are visiting).
And it’s been this small village, in the middle of nowhere, that occupies my mind when reflecting on International Women’s Day. Rydal is a testament to the old adage that ‘size doesn’t matter’.
There’s only one shop in Rydal – a pub of course! But for one weekend each year, Rydal transforms with local Rydal-ians, farmers, and towns-folk cracking out their best for the ‘biggest little show in the west’.
Our local agricultural show is probably the catalyst to why I’m now writing this blog from Aberdeenshire, Scotland. You see, Rydal Show, and indeed many others across rural and regional New South Wales, support young women in their professional and personal development through The Land Sydney Royal Showgirl Competition.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, the term ‘showgirl’ can seem disparaging and dated from an external perspective, and perhaps it doesn’t properly convey the merit of the programme – but hear me out.
Since 1962, the ultimate aim of the competition is to find an ambassador for rural New South Wales and the agricultural show movement, playing a significant role in the overall development of rural youth within the state.
From teachers, nurses, students and communications professionals (like me!), anyone can enter and receive an incredible package of support with access to mentors, development workshops and events.
I participated in the programme in 2017/18 and it’s hard to put into words the life skills, confidence and support it gave me.
It helped me articulate and action a passion project focusing on succession in family farming businesses and gave me a platform to beat on the doors of decision-makers about the issues affecting small rural villages like Rydal.
All these skills, combined with the support of my community back home, gave me the confidence to send a cold-email to the Rural Youth Project and subsequently jump on a plane and speak at their 2018 Ideas Festival.
The Ideas Festival brought together 110 young people and organisations from ten different countries to hear from inspiring speakers and to discuss the challenges young people face living in rural areas. Through this event, not only did I find a group of like-minded people, but an entirely new community of cheerleaders.
It also gave me the nerve to back myself (and hope that my frank Australian approach would be taken in good nature) and email Rural Youth Project Directors and Co-Founders, Jane Craigie and Rebecca Dawes, a month after the Ideas Festival to convince them to take a punt on me to work on both the project and for Jane Craigie Marketing, which specialises in marketing and communications for rural and agricultural businesses.
Grassroots initiatives cannot be underestimated for the self-belief they instil into those that participate – helping build the next generation of rural young people empowered to take on the issues that plague rural communities.
We are seeing this in the Rural Youth Project which, even in its infancy, is giving young people who want to live and work in rural areas the skills and confidence they need to build their lives and futures in rural places. The power of the collective and helping people find their voice is also reflected in the Scottish Enterprise Rural Leadership Programme – which I’ve just completed here in Scotland – striving to inspire women and men to make a difference to our rural places and farming businesses.
Programmes like The Land Sydney Royal Showgirl Competition, the Rural Youth Project and the Scottish Enterprise Rural Leadership Programme might not appeal to everyone, and that’s okay. What I’m saying is, no matter who you are, you need cheerleaders behind you.
Rydal continues to celebrate the achievements of rural women and has built a dedicated footpath with bricks detailing the names of young women who have proudly represented our community.
And although it saddens me that I’ve reduced the village population, I’m comforted by the fact that I know 49 people are sitting on their veranda – or at the local pub – cheering me on from afar.