This week Vivid Minds Vivid Futures interviews Rebecca Spence, Executive Director of Peaceworks Pty Ltd and Training Lead at the University of New England’s International Development office. Rebecca is the training leader of three major programs funded by Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I moved to Armidale from Ireland – via South Africa, basically. I studied for both my bachelor and master’s degrees at Edinburgh University. When I left Edinburgh, I got a job with Voluntary Service Overseas and ended up in South Africa, where I stayed for three years. It was an interesting and exciting time because it coincided with when Nelson Mandela was being released. I came to Australia for a ‘short holiday’ … 30 years ago. I did my PhD through UNE on the processes of peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. In 2007 I started a consulting company specialising in peace and conflict training and advice. A few years ago, I broke my leg really badly and, the short version of the story is that I had to find another job. At the time, I was working for DFAT as a peace conflict adviser flying in and out of the Philippines.
What does your current role entail?
I love my current job. I work with the most fantastic team. My current boss heard that I’d broken my leg and he offered me a job writing a tender for a training program in leadership, management, social inclusion and career development – so, right up my alley! The program is for agricultural scientists who were moving into the management side of the organisations they work for in different countries. From there, we got the tender and another for women in leadership in the Asia-Pacific region.
We’ve now got a suite of programs around developing leadership skills for people working in agricultural science. It is exciting to see these people develop their leadership skills outside of their comfort zone, which is obviously, in most cases, more focused on laboratories and their science than on the managerial or admin side of things.
The programs are all about leading yourself, leading your team, and leading your organisation. I work with the most fantastic team and the people we work with and train are all extraordinary people. I’ve learned so much more than I can teach from this experience.
What have been some of your challenges in delivering the program?
Well, of course, the past 12 months has been difficult with the closed borders due to COVID. That has really disrupted our delivery of the programs. We had to move from an intensive face-to-face mode of delivery through workshops to online. One good thing is that COVID has not affected many parts of the Asia-Pacific to the same extent as other parts of the world, so many of the program graduates have been able to just get on with their projects. Apart from the Philippines and Indonesia, most countries we work in have been relatively COVID-free.
There are so many different contexts at play and the cultural constraints mean the programs have to be flexible to accommodate this. There are some places where you’re not considered an adult until you’re 45 – so you’re not really allowed to speak in the context of leadership until you are 45. In fact, if you are a woman, sometimes you are simply not allowed to speak in public until you 45!
It’s really how you give them the courage and strength to work around the culture. So, you’re not really working within the culture – you’re working around it in the most appropriate way possible.
Another challenge is living in regional NSW while all the work is internationally based. It’s really hard to constantly live out of a suitcase. Part of that challenge is explaining to people here in my local community what I do! My work has taken me all over the world, I have been able to work with many governments and non-government organisations – and that is a great privilege.
You’ve said you love your job. What are some of the highlights?
I love the people I work with and for. I get to meet incredible scientists – and I’ve never been a scientist. They work on such compelling issues around food security, around poverty reduction, around developing the best possible outcomes for their community. Now that they have the leaderships skills and they’ve also written a compelling study about how to reduce poverty or about how to increase food security, they’ll be able to advocate for it much more effectively. And, even more so, they’ll have the leadership skills required for successful implementation of the plans.
We’ve now trained 75 people and they are spread over a large part of the Asia-Pacific. So, they have a good network set up for them and they can continue to use us as mentors.
What inspires you?
My work, particularly with my last job, took me all over the world. The way the training sessions are run is not about me telling them what to do but learning about each other and working out what we could do – really, I don’t have the answers … they’ve got all the answers. It’s about finding out what the answers are!
I’m inspired by every single person I meet in any training space who is working for the betterment of their community, whether it be agricultural scientists working on food security or people in conflict around building peace. Those people get me up in the morning.
The other people who get me up in the morning are my co-facilitators. I learn so much from them and they’re really inspiring as well.
What is your secret for success?
Use your networks; networks are so important. They’ve got me everywhere – and they’ve supported me. If you plan on making a career in the development space, then you’ve got to have a really good idea of what you are capable of.
What’s next for Rebecca Spence?
I’ve just written a mentoring handbook with a colleague (Phil Harrell). It’s about how to create good mentoring partnerships. I’m excited that we will be getting this out into the public space. And, of course, I will continue with the programs we’re currently running.