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Jan Owen mentors future chasers
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“I think young people are more active than they have been for decades."
Conversations
2 March 2017

Jan Owen mentors future chasers

Interview by Nathan Scolaro
Photography by Adam Haddrick

Nathan Scolaro on Jan Owen

No one waves the flag for today’s generation of young people like Jan Owen. As far as she’s concerned, Australia’s future is bright—indeed, the world’s future is bright.

We just need to invest the energy into empowering the next crop of leaders and give them the tools to act while their visions are big. Jan’s the kind of antidote to cynicism that every teenager and 20-something needs—especially in these times when just about everyone else is accusing them of being lazy, narcissistic and disengaged. She’s the one who believes in you, who knows you can do it.

Mentorship has been a big part of Jan’s experience. She’s both been a mentor and had mentors—of all ages, from all walks of life. And she’s observed that for more and more young people today, valuable mentors are found close to home—they’re parents and friends as opposed to celebrities on Instagram. After all, if young people are to succeed, they need someone real in their corner. Jan has been that person to thousands of Australians for more than 30 years.

As a child in Brisbane, Jan grew up watching her parents perform incredible acts of social justice, like rescuing mothers and children from domestic violence incidents and giving them a couch to sleep on. They were the kind of people who acted when something needed to be done, and that’s exactly how Jan has approached her work in youth advocacy—ever since she started out as a drug and alcohol educator in her early 20s. After various roles in child and family welfare, and having three children of her own, Jan applied that grit, determination and massive heart for social justice to establish CREATE, a foundation dedicated to supporting and connecting young people in foster care. It was during this time that she took in a homeless 15-year-old named Liz who has since become a much-loved member of the Owen family.

In 2010 Jan was made CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians, an independent not-for-profit that runs a range of initiatives designed with and for young people to achieve their full potential and deliver change across the world. When we talk, I’m moved by her fresh perspective, how she sees teenagers and 20-somethings as this incredibly savvy, compassionate and socially aware force. It’s particularly stimulating as someone on the cusp of that cohort, who for too many years now has been fed only demoralising rhetoric about his generation.

Through the Skype cam I watch Jan pace from the couch to the kitchen table to the bottom of the staircase, drawing the laptop in when she gets passionate, pulling it away when she reflects on something. I can feel her great sense of urgency about what needs to change in Australia, and she knows exactly who can deliver it. We just need to listen.

This story originally ran in issue #42 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

NATHAN SCOLARO: You’re  a young people’s champion. An incredible doer too. What gets you out of bed every morning?

JAN OWEN: I feel ridiculously privileged to do the work I do—in this country, with our young people. There has never been a generation like it. They are absolutely on fire. They are disruptive, they are innovative. They have the tools for innovation. I just get to help bring it on. Through FYA I get to provide platforms and resources and support that will help unleash this generation of young Australians on the world. Doing that everyday is a gift. I literally have the best job in Australia.

And you’ve been working with young people for nearly 30 years. That’s a phenomenal commitment to the cause.

I was a fledging maverick from Brisbane who took on leadership roles at an early age. I was just fortunate to be a young person who was passionate about social justice and had a strong entrepreneurial bent.

Where did that come from?

I’m actually unsure. I was adopted as a child so I guess I have both nature and nurture influences. My father was in chemistry and mathematics and he helped Hewlett Packard put some of their first computers together. That was pretty entrepreneurial now I think of it. I just had that drive. As a kid I had the obligatory entrepreneur’s lemonade stand and then moved on to selling large polished rocks, which I tried to flog off as dinosaur or emu eggs! Neither of those could be described as hugely successful. Then I had a venture called Toads Inc. with my three younger brothers where we would catch toads and deliver them live to the vet science department at the university for a fee. Things changed at 14 when I started leading church youth groups. At 19 I became a youth worker. If you get picked as a leader in those situations you get an enormous amount of responsibility and opportunity, and I quickly ended up on a national platform with the first youth council of Australia.

Amazing that you had this strong sense of social justice at such a young age.

Well, my parents helped establish Lifeline, and in those early days as a counsellor you took the crisis call, put the phone down, got in your car and drove to the person in trouble. I spent many a night as a six, seven year old in the back of my parent’s  car watching them go into houses where there were serious domestic violence incidents going on, and then coming out with the mother and children and bringing them back to our house.

This story originally ran in issue #42 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #42 of Dumbo Feather

I would wake up on any given morning and there would be a family on our loungeroom floor. This was social justice live.

Wow.

But for my parents it was just what you did. In no sense would they have called themselves social justice leaders or advocates. They were relatively quiet people. They genuinely thought that the way communities work was that you help people who were in trouble—and that that trouble doesn’t last forever. We all, at different times, need support. So I think it clicked for me really early as a child that these were episodes in people’s lives over which they had little control, but with some support they could get back on their feet. And I’ve always had that view. I’ve never held a welfare view. I’ve always believed that community and civil society work really well when people are there for each other, and that every one of us needs support at different stages in our lives.

What were your experiences as a teenager like?

I had wanderlust from a very young age. I first tried to leave home when I was about five. I was born in Melbourne and my family found me up the Nepean Highway. School was an absolute barrier to the real world for me. I went to three different high schools.
I was either asked to leave or expelled from each of them. When I was 13, one of the deputies at my school took my parents aside and said, “One of the best options for Jan is that she goes to Coles now and gets a job as a check-out chick. In fact, her maths isn’t that great so that might even be difficult.”

It’s a common story for entrepreneurs.

It is. And of course my parents were incredibly angry, but  I always believed that school failed me, I didn’t fail school. I was so sure of that. By the time I was in years 11 and 12 I was absent from most classes, but then I was also doing things like setting up social justice groups that reached out to the community. I established the first motor mechanics course at a girls’ school in Australia. And for a year I wrote a 100-page magazine each week canvassing everything going on at school. I think my last school thought, We can’t really expel her—she’s a sports captain, she’s in the debating team, she got us on the front page of the newspaper, it’s just that she won’t come to school. 

[Laughs]. Why do you think you struggled with the education system?

Unfortunately the  education system then and now, which is something I find really distressing, is not designed for a range of learning styles, or around people exploring their passions and interests. It’s becoming more and more narrow. The fact that you make your subject choices for the rest of your life at year nine and 10 just seems bizarre to me when you’re in this period of intense development.

The best we can possibly do is give young people a set of transferrable skills, and let them explore those and test them.

Entrepreneurship in my view is one of those core skills. How to be enterprising, innovative and solution-focused should be core curriculum today. In this country, on any one day, there are a quarter of a million young people who just aren’t at school. Today. And part of that is because of an outdated education system that doesn’t connect to students.

What needs to change?

I think education and learning has to radically change. I don’t think it’s a couple of incremental steps. There are some monumental leaps we need to take. Globally, we’re in a two-speed system, which makes this difficult. There are children in the world who don’t have access to basic education. For them, turning up to school is still an absolute privilege. But in Australia, we’ve had hundreds of years of compulsory, formal education, and we’re now at a place where we need to rethink what education is for, what the experience is about. We need to talk about lifelong learning—the fact that our children are going to have 13 or 14 different jobs in their lifetime, many of which don’t exist yet. This means we’re going to need a learning environment that’s a constant throughout life. I created that for myself through experiential learning, a vivid imagination and a thirst for ideas and pure determination. I did that despite having a poor formal education. But that’s not the way everyone works. So we need to build a system that’s enabling of that.

What would that system look like?

It’s something that happens early on, so instead of all this effort we put in at the back-end of high school, it’s about building those opportunities from early primary school on—opportunities around enterprise, innovation. It’s about stimulating an environment with challenges and opportunities for young people. What we’ve got is a disconnect between the national curriculum, future industries and the skills that the existing labour market requires. Then we have teachers who are only as good as what they’ve been taught. And again, a whole heap of it is from a different time. We’ve got thousands and thousands of teachers that need to be upskilled. We have to get really, really focused on this, and it has to be a national priority. Number one.

Yeah.

I thought for a really long time I was unable to be educated, and that it was my problem.

It was only since I started working with young people and became more involved in education and saw that there are heaps of things going on—from a systemic level through to the individual experience—that things needed to change. I’ve always been interested in systemic reform. When we set up CREATE in the 1990s it was the first time a group of young people in this country were given a voice, young people who might have lived in 30 different families and attended 10 different schools, and had never seen their siblings—a basic human right. One of the reasons we set up CREATE was so they could connect with people who had similar experiences.

The programs you’ve developed, they’ve made such a difference. And they seem to draw on what you went through as a young person. Did you have a vision then for the person you wanted to become?

Not really, but I think those three things—a strong sense of social justice, an entrepreneurial skill set and somebody telling me I was a leader—had coalesced by the time I finished school. Still, I had no idea what I wanted to do because the opportunities weren’t there. I tried to study, that’s what everyone in my family did, and then I got a job working with children and young people in drug and alcohol education, which connected me to more people and set me on my way. That’s actually been a feature of my career. I’ve always worked with a co-founder or a team. I’ve rarely been a lone entrepreneur. I’m an extrovert. We do stuff in crowds. And I’ve always thought ideas are better and you get superior results, when you’re working with other people.

So we started this guerrilla-style social entrepreneurship where we commandeered unused assets and spaces. There was an oil crisis in the ’80s which resulted in all these abandoned petrol stations across Australia, and we took over a Shell servo in Brisbane and turned it into a massive drop-in centre for all these inner-city young people, many of them Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander. We took over the station and asked for forgiveness later, something that was well ingrained in me: to act first and ask for forgiveness later. So we eventually wrote to Shell and said, “By the way we’ve taken down the fences and taken over your servo for youth work,” and they were pretty cool about it. We went on to do all kinds of guerrilla-style social entrepreneurship across the city. I cut my teeth on street youth work and repurposing unused assets in the community, all the time getting grants to do it.

Amazing. What did you love about that work?

I guess I was always really passionate about providing people with opportunities and finding ways to achieve that with limited resources. It was mostly out of necessity than some well-constructed strategy or business plan! I loved working directly with those young people and their families. We were really close and I was more or less adopted by a huge Aboriginal family during that time. We spent an enormous amount of time together and I learnt and saw the complexity of these big extended families from rural Queensland moving to suburbia to access better opportunities for their kids.

How have the challenges facing young people changed since those days?

Some haven’t. But the things that have are to do with the rapid changes in technology and information. There has always been 10 to 20 percent of the community that has struggled for various reasons. Sometimes young people in care are part of that, sometimes it’s indigenous people. I guess the thing I’ve come to notice more and more is that 80 percent of our young people are doing well, and the consequence of that is this untapped resource. What are we doing to tap into the potential of 80 percent doing well around creating, innovating and designing the future Australia we want to live in? It seems to me we have this great capacity that’s locked up. We’re not unleashing it. So we’re running a campaign called “Innovation Nation: 1000 Ideas for a Better Australia.” And we’re going to curate thousands of ideas from young Australians, pick the top 50 to 100 and let them craft their projects with experts from relevant industries to help them. We want to showcase how skilled and equipped our young people are at creating change quickly if you back them.

Yeah, because society doesn’t do that enough. It doesn’t place enough value on what young people can bring to the table.

I hear a lot of stories from teachers about young people getting up and running the class when it comes to technology. Reverse mentoring.

I think anybody over 40 would be crazy not to have a mentor under 30 these days.

Seriously, how could you survive in this world without it? I’m lucky I’ve got thousands of them. When we started CREATE we slaved away in the garage day  after day—my poor kids—stuffing envelopes for 20,000 young people in foster care. A young person today can build a movement overnight. If they have the right messaging, the right approaches, for better or worse, they can mobilise millions  of people. They have access to some of the most disruptive tools we’ve ever had.  And they get it—this generation of young people has witnessed and experienced  the power of these tools.

What does community mean to this generation?

I think we’ve been through a period of “I” and we’ve landed in “we.” That’s a powerful and incredibly important shift in our collective evolution. We’re back at “we.” I think finding people to build family and community with, to not try to go it alone, is an incredibly important message for young people. The almost pathological, individualistic era that we’ve come out of was so destructive on a mental health level and also for just getting shit done. The ability to find people to do real work with, to seek diversity in that and be motivated by different perspectives across different sectors, will reap the most innovative rewards.

It’s such a contrast to the narrative we normally hear about this generation—that they’re all about “me” and have no real sense of contributing.

I think young people are more active than they have been for decades. Everything I see and hear speaks against the common narrative that they’re entitled, don’t like hard work, are disinterested, narcissistic. I think it’s pretty hard to argue that young people are entitled when we’re in the most disruptive change the world has seen since the Industrial Revolution. For every university degree there is no guarantee of a job, and each person is going to have to craft their own opportunities. Most of those opportunities are going to be in large corporate institutions, freelancing or entrepreneurship. Work as it was and has been, and the sense of identity and contribution we derive from it, has changed forever.

Wow, that’s kind of daunting. Especially for someone like me in his late 20s who has grown relatively used to traditional working environments. That it could all change like that is scary. What advice do you have for people as they venture into these unfamiliar waters?

Well, first, know thyself. And to that I mean, understand and follow your passions. Try stuff out. Your generation is going to be around for a long time. I always say, “You’re going to be around for 100 years, you do actually have time.”

The number one thing to try out is: who am I? What am I passionate about? It’s so important to find that deep sense of yourself. From that comes your best creativity and your best work. It’s about bringing your wellspring of talent and passion and creativity into the world.

Yeah.

The other thing I would say is, “Have a go, have a crack.” That’s the wonderful thing about being young, and being young in Australia: nothing can really go wrong. You can experiment. You can set up an enterprise with no capital and you can
just have a crack. You can get your friends together and run a campaign, take up a challenge, be it for a day or a year.

The thing that prevents many young people from having a go is fear of failure, not having other people to do it with, and not having support networks.

That’s why I think finding your tribe, being part of a larger community, is incredibly important. I always say to young people who have come together around a shared interest or experience: “Welcome, you’ve found your tribe.” It’s incredible to see their shoulders drop and their faces lift.

It makes me think that parents of this generation must have a lot to get their heads around too—with the way things are changing and all.

I think parents are in a really difficult position at the moment. They’re stuck about what they need to be doing for their children, what advice they should be giving them about their future, their education, their work. My view is the best thing you can do is de-risk your kids. I think parents have become risk averse, our country has become risk averse. A lot of that is to do with a heightened fear around this rapid change,  but also with creating fear where there is no need for fear. It’s really important to change this by encouraging children to experiment and participate. The potential negative about young people staying home longer with their families is that they’re not getting out, working alongside others and really experiencing the world.

How do you do that? How do you get them off the couch, show them what they’re missing?

It’s about unlocking their passion. As parents we’ve got to help our children discover what they care about by listening to the things they pick up on at school and the media. Once you’ve helped them identify that passion, show them the various groups and activities they can get involved in. There are so many out there! Let them experiment!  And celebrate those experiences they’re having. That’s how many of these Gen Yers have come to find meaning in their lives.

What else is it about this generation that makes you hopeful?

I just love that they’re genuinely informed about the world. Way more informed than we think. They have access to more information than we could ever need, and possibly want, in some instances. But they’re also looking for help and mentoring and guidance in understanding and applying that information. Once they do that, once they have the information, they’re unstoppable. And I love that these young people have a strong sense of purpose. They are looking for meaning. They want a purpose to their life and to know how to make it real. I’ve also never seen a generation that is more informed and knowledgeable about the key issues of our time. Marriage equality and equality generally, along with gender and sustainability, are their key interests. This is also a generation that loves their parents and family more than any other generation. They’re genuinely friends with their parents, and it’s really interesting to see that difference. Part of it is housing affordability keeping them at home, but part of it is them actually liking their family.

Why has this generation got it right in this sense? Are the messages in the media different do you think? Are they more discerning?

I think they’ve got a high bullshit detector. My generation got the first magazines, we got Dolly and Cleo once a month and it was amazing. This generation has been saturated with, and also let down by, that media. The crazy focus on body image has really let young women down. Media at large has perpetuated issues like that, and I think young people have become more cynical as a result. I think this yearning for purpose and meaning means young people are going out and looking to craft their own adventure. And I think our role to help them is incredibly important. That’s not how it works. We’ve got to back and invest in young people.

It’s not about unleashing them into the world and saying, “Go forth, make it all right. We’re sorry we’re delivering you climate change, we’re sorry about poverty.”

And I imagine that’s been a big factor in the book you recently released, The Future Chasers, where you’ve profiled 15 young leaders. Tell us about that.

We wanted to capture the ambition and sense of urgency that this generation of young leaders share. Each of them views the status quo as flawed, as not good enough. And each of them has a clear vision of the kind of future they want for the world and for themselves within it. They all have a passionate commitment to realising that future, and they all invest extraordinary amounts of time and energy into it. The book celebrates that. The ability of this generation to bring diverse disciplines together to create social change is astonishing. We’ve seen that happen in other industries, in building businesses for example, but never for social change, never like this. Previously, social change was for social workers, aid and development workers, but this group coming through brings a plethora of disciplines. And we believed that these are stories that needed to be told.

Why these 15 Australians in particular?

Well, they’re incredibly inspiring, they’re smart and driven, they’re fun. And they have what I call “stickability.” All of them started when they were in their teens and they’re now in their mid-20s. I wanted to bust that myth that Gen Y doesn’t stick to things, that they flit around the place. This group has worked in different ways on their passions for a really long time.

How so?

There are people like Chris Raine, who came through a few years of binge drinking in his adolescence and university years and said, “That’s not for me anymore.” He turned that experience into an online organisation called Hello Sunday Morning, because he wanted to share the idea of reclaiming Sunday mornings. People will quit drinking for themselves—for fitness, weight loss, whatever—but rarely do we see someone inspiring tens of thousands of others to do the same. The book’s full of those stories. Young people who go above and beyond. Of course that’s not unique to this generation—that’s what has always made a leader. What’s unique is the speed at which this generation can move, and the disruption they can create, the number of people they can mobilise. When you look at Oaktree or the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, they are three times the size of any political party in this country. To all intents and purposes, they should be running the place!

I wonder what that would look like— an Australia governed by young people?

I often have a vision of our entire Senate being under 30. Every generation has an enormous responsibility for the generations to come. But the particular things we’re dealing with now, around the future of the planet, are critical. And this generation recognises that.

To not have young people front and centre, not just for their ideas and token participation, but for their innovation and their ability to act and move in a really agile way, is such a mistake.

In the book you identify 15 different “types” of changemakers. What was the thinking behind that?

I wanted to show that a changemaker isn’t one type of person. I wanted to show that being an activist, an architect, a commentator, someone who creates opportunities—they’re all leaders. I went looking for the archetypes we need to create the future civil society. The book highlights identifiable character traits, so someone reading can connect with the changemakers and feel inspired that they too are having, or can have, an impact. I wanted to inspire the generation coming behind them especially—the 12 to 18 year olds—and show them there’s not just one kind of person you have to be to make change. Not everyone is a maverick social entrepreneur like me who got kicked out of three schools. In fact, most of the future chasers did really well at school and university.

Do you see many parallels between yourself and this generation of changemakers?

Yeah, some things never change, right? I think that entrepreneurial spirit, that ability to back yourself, that confidence and self-belief—those are timeless universals. And the ability to motivate others to bring out their best selves. I have a fantastic affinity with this group. We’re the same in essence. I’ve just had more experience and a lot more scar tissue!

[Laughs]. I want to go back a bit to the early 90s when you were starting CREATE. What drew you to working with young people in foster care?

I was actually an adopted child myself and my parents were also short-term foster carers, so kids living apart from their biological families was always an issue that was close to my heart. I was working for Save the Children, running their women’s domestic violence and residential foster care programs in Queensland, and I was confronted and outraged with how the young women in our care were forced to live as if they were the perpetrators of the abuse they experienced. We virtually had them under lock and key and they received very little information, education, support and access to opportunities—and yet they were the victims and the ones removed from family, friends and school while the perpetrators often stayed in their own environments.  I heard about a national advocacy organisation in the UK, a consumer body of and for young people in care, and thought, That’s what we need in Australia. We applied for a small grant and the rest, as they say, is history!

And you took in a foster child during that time who has been part of your family since.

Yeah. So Liz was homeless at 15 after a series of foster care placements had broken down. Very few people want to foster teenagers. I met Liz when we were setting up CREATE and she came to stay with us while the Department of Community Services was sorting out a placement for her. They found one about six months later but by then she’d decided she wanted to stay with us. Our kids were much younger and they loved Liz, so we said “yes.” Liz went on to become Young Australian of the Year in Queensland, gain degrees in teaching and psychology and have three children of  her own. We’re so proud of her and couldn’t imagine her not being in the family.

You’ve been a mentor to so many. Who have been your mentors?

My entire life I have been surrounded by strong “feminist firsts.”  I went to a Catholic high school with nuns who broke the church’s glass ceiling with Masters degrees and PhDs. As a child, my parents’ church had the first ever female-ordained minister. As a teenager, one of my female mentors pioneered music as a form of youth work in churches across Australia. Then as a young mother and professional I was mentored by people like  Dr Dale Spender and Dame Quentin Bryce. I’ve had the privilege of being surrounded by many, many strong women—and men as well—throughout my life, but it was the pioneering courage, tenacity and spirit of those women that really influenced and drove me. It continues to inspire me today.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt?

Building teams, getting the right people on the bus and on the right seat at the right time. I think that’s one of the hardest things to do.

As an entrepreneur, you can usually pitch and sell an idea, describe it vividly and compel people to join you, but formulating and getting the best out of a team and building the systems that are required around that are crucial.

I’ve learnt that over many years. Before I was at FYA I was at Social Ventures Australia, which was full of “corporate refugees” as I like to call them: ex-bankers, ex-lawyers, ex-management consultants… and me! Who’d come from the social sector! For the first six months we literally couldn’t understand each other. I think that’s changed massively in the last 12 years in Australia: people across sectors have found a way to communicate. For any entrepreneur, I think it’s important to have the rigour of finance, strategy and operational systems around you. If you want to create enduring change you’ve got to build things that are enduring.

Nathan Scolaro

Nathan enjoys getting elbow-deep in sentences, pressing and pricking them like a Chinese doctor until the blood is flowing just right. He hails from Western Australia, where he first experienced the joy of putting together a magazine, and now indulges his love of thoughtful, life-giving storytelling by bringing Dumbo Feather to life once a quarter.

Photography by Adam Haddrick

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