That's the Spirit: Lee O'Connor - Coonamble NSW
Over the course of her working life, Lee O’Connor has devoted her time through various organisations to making sure regional communities have a voice. It’s a pursuit that has brought her, fittingly, to the helm of the Coonamble Times as owner, editor and keeper of the important local flame of public record. Community spirit, she says, is a relay not a marathon and she’s committed to ensuring her home town keeps passing on the baton.
Lee sat down with JEN COWLEY to share some of the lessons she’s learned about strong communities from those that don’t take “no” for an answer.
Jen: You’re the owner/editor of the Coonamble Times and a long-time local – what is the snapshot of the community here for you?
Lee: What keeps a community like Coonamble ticking is the fact that it’s a relay, not a marathon. The good ideas meet the needs. Someone will make things happen and sometimes a great idea comes up, people will get it going and run with it. If it’s still a need and still a good idea – whether it’s 20 or 40 years down the track, or just five or ten – someone else will appear to take the baton. They’ll either be nurtured by the existing group, or that group will recruit the new guard, or someone will just see the idea and go again
Jen: You’ve been the owner/editor of the Coonamble Times now for three years, but you have spent much longer than that working in, for and with this community.
Lee: With the paper for three years, 13 years with (Coonamble Shire) Council in economic development, seven years with various state departments in a role as community facilitator for families with 0-5-year olds, and prior to that as regional arts development officer for five or six years.
Jen: In all those roles, you’ve learned to be and are quite adept at taking the community’s temperature as both an observer and participant. Do you see a synergy in now running the paper, which in any small town is an historic record?
Lee: The local paper puts things on the public record and then it’s as if the paper is the witness to the life of the community. You see that when people come in and look through the old papers. It’s an absolute snapshot of what is happening in any given week in that district.
Lee O'Connor, Coonamble NSW.
Jen: There’s a huge responsibility that comes with that.
Lee: Oh yes, definitely. When I bought the paper, someone said to me “You might think you own it, but you don’t. The community owns the paper and you work for the paper”.
You have a responsibility to community.
Jen: How does that responsibility play out for you? What’s the most important thing to you as the editor?
Lee: My main focus is to ensure that the paper is a voice for everybody. Young, old, black, white, town, rural… everybody needs to be in the paper because everybody is here doing their thing. We also need to be showing the people who are doing great things as well as the hard, tough stuff that our community is dealing with. We try to cover the whole cross section, with the aim being to equip and engage the community so that they feel we are all living in a place where stuff happens, and where we can all get involved in what’s happening and we can make our own future.
Jen: What do you love about your community?
Lee: I think this town is very inclusive. I’ve worked in a lot of other places but I think Coonamble is particularly inclusive. It has this sense of humour which I think is born out of shared adversity. You have that full gamut of people encapsulated in a small town, from the quite privileged right through to the people who are struggling to feed themselves and everyone has to get on with each other to make things work.
Coonamble Times office, Coonamble NSW.
Jen: What do you think are some of the misconceptions about life in a small town that need to be dispelled?
Lee: It’s hard to know what’s true and what’s not true. Sometimes the misconceptions are based on truth to a degree, but it depends how you look at it. There’s the thing about everybody knowing your business – yes, to a certain extent that’s right, but I still have people saying they didn’t know something was happening, or that this person was doing that…until they read it in the paper. It seems we can still surprise people (laughs).
And yet, they think everybody knows about everything all the time, when in actual fact they truly don’t.
There is the misconception that there are no opportunities here. I think that’s the biggest one, that your kids have to leave to have access to good opportunities. Or that nobody wants to come back here. That’s an out and out lie.
The truth is that people want what we have, and that’s not just Coonamble, they want what small towns have. The small-town vibe and the easy access to community and support networks and that whole spirit of having fun together and being part of something bigger than yourself. The opportunity to give to other people is easier in a small town. A small town like Coonamble embraces you, people know you and accept you with all your warts and all. It is a lovely way to live.
Small towns are the antithesis of the city – the push back against the corporatisation of the world.
That idea that you don’t need the big fast food outlets because you can get the best burgers at a small local café. People come back here to live all the time. There’s lots of young families here. They come back with great partners and make their lives here. They don’t come back out of ignorance and stupidity or desperation, they come back by choice.
Jen: You’ve put your money where your mouth is with the paper, which shows faith in the community and in the region and the future of the community.
Lee: Depends which day you ask me (laughs). Sometimes it shows just complete stupidity!
Seriously, I think your future is what you make it. If you are prepared to be a little bit creative and take things as they are and accept the realities then throw your weight against those that you don’t believe are set in stone, then you make your own thing. It’s always worth a shot.
The paper is really important – that’s why bought it, because I think people need to know they live in an interesting place. There is this general notion that says small towns are dead and dying and why would you bloody want to live there? If you think that, well, I think you’ve missed the point.
I think, “Why wouldn’t you want to live in a small community?” Especially since it’s rained, we’ve gone from “Why would you?” to “Why would you want to live anywhere else?”
Jen: Any further thoughts?
Lee: Since returning to the western region in 1987 I have had the absolute privilege of being at what people like to call the “coalface” of community action.
First, I lived in Dubbo and worked across an area from Nyngan to Tibooburra, and Brewarrina to Ivanhoe and Menindee with isolated schools and their communities.
I was able to see first-hand how people make things happen in some of the most remote and disadvantaged communities in the state.
When I started with the Arts Council in the Outback Arts region I was thrown in with some of the most ingenious, talented and fun-focused volunteers and saw how their work made their towns more liveable, brought visitors and income, and changed the lives of people young and old.
In 1997 I started as a community facilitator working in my hometown for four state government departments to create activities and services for families with young children.
That's when I was really able to get in amongst it and could see how easy it is to make a positive difference.
Lee O'Connor, Coonamble NSW.
People will come together and move mountains to make things better for their families, their friends and their neighbours. It's part of belonging to a place, whether you're there for a short or long time.
We started a radio station, a family nutrition program, an early literacy program, one of the first home-visiting programs in the state and a therapy support service that is still going to this day. We held massive family fun days, ran lots of training and built a playground.
What's more, I learned how people before us had started the town's first child care service, aged hostel, disabled accommodation and employment programs, migrant support, you name it. If a community has something, it's likely to have come from a small group of positive, determined residents who wouldn't take no for an answer.
I took this lesson with me into local government and out again into my own business and volunteer groups.
Even in the past few years when the drought has been so horrendous, I've been fortunate to be among the instigators of the Coonamble Raindance, the Coonamble Drought Busters Alliance and part of or witness to many other exciting community initiatives and events devised and driven by the (extra)ordinary people who live here.
I firmly believe that small towns have the advantage in that it is easier to see what needs fixing and to find like-minded people who will brainstorm ideas and sign on to get things moving. These people come in all ages, sizes and colours, and they'll stick with it. What they create for us is amazing: gyms, health programs, live theatre, festivals, all kinds of events, support networks, great facilities, public art, training, sports competitions…the list is almost endless.
Small towns are dynamic places and everyone is welcome to be part of making them better. That's why people want to live here. They want what we've got - being part of a place where people care about more than just themselves.
I'm excited to see what people come up with next. Watch this space.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.