Interview: Shirley Chowdhary, CEO, GO Foundation
For Adam Goodes and Michael O’Loughlin, football was the ‘ticket’ out of a life of disadvantage. Embracing a sporting community that provided guidance, education, training and support enabled both men to thrive, and rise to be amongst the most successful AFL players in Sydney Swans’ history.
Having both now retired from the sporting arena, they’ve turned their disciplined focus to giving back to the community, by supporting the education of disadvantaged Indigenous youth through their GO Foundation. We spoke to the foundation’s CEO, Shirley Chowdhary, about her journey and why education is so critical to community success.
Tell us about your journey and how you came to be part of the GO community.
I began my career as a lawyer and worked in some wonderful firms in the USA and Japan for many years before returning to Australia. I felt I needed a change, so on my return I got involved with a number of community initiatives, including the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, and wrote a biography for a prisoner of World War 2. I returned to the corporate world as part of the legal department at BT Financial Group and then as Counsel in Treasury at Westpac and had the opportunity to volunteer for the Westpac Foundation. I realised that my true passion lay in the community work I was doing, so when the opportunity came up to join Adam and Michael and be part of the amazing things that GO was doing, I jumped at it!
How did the GO Foundation begin?
Like many great success stories, GO had very humble beginnings. The foundation is very much the realisation of Adam and Michael’s passion to give disadvantaged Indigenous children opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, and to give back to the communities that nurtured them when they were young.
Along with their good friend and supporter James Gallichan, they established the GO Foundation, and began supporting a variety of community programs in the NSW town of Dareton, which has a population of only 600 – a third of whom are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage.
In the first three years, the foundation supported presentations to the community about healthy lifestyles, vocational training for Indigenous students, the donation of sports uniforms to local schools, and a financial contribution towards the purchase of play equipment for the local community centre.
In around 2014, the foundation refined its focus to the exclusive support of education.
It simply wasn’t sustainable for the foundation to support a hugely diverse and ever-growing list of initiatives, despite Adam and Michael’s best efforts! It became clear that of all the things the foundation could do to help young, disadvantaged children living in urban Indigenous communities, education was by far the most significant influencer of future outcomes. Although the sources of disadvantage can be very complex, if there was ever to be a ‘silver bullet’ to addressing those complex issues and creating a pathway for a brighter future, education was it. Adam and Michael both had first-hand experience in how education can change the course of your life, and the profound impact it can have on others around you. So, our focus for the past few years has been solely on providing educational scholarships within an ecosystem of support to young, disadvantaged, Indigenous children.
How does the Foundation select scholarship candidates?
It’s not easy! Obviously, we’d love to help as many children as we can, but we deliberately implemented a fairly robust selection process because, from the very beginning, Adam and Michael wanted to ensure that each child was as committed to the process as we were.
Approximately 85 per cent of Indigenous kids are in public schools, so for us it made perfect sense that we work within the public school system, where we can make the biggest difference. Every child’s circumstance is absolutely unique; often their challenges may be financial, environmental, social, or a combination of many things. So, we take a holistic approach to addressing their core challenges and finding practical ways to help overcome them. Sometimes a solution can be as simple as funding the cost of WiFi into the home, or providing a laptop, so the child has the same tools and resources needed to do their work.
Outside of the classroom, the children are also supported by a community and ecosystem of advisors, experts and role models, and provided with access to opportunities they otherwise might not have, to help them explore their full potential in every area of life.
The other unique aspect of our process is that we try and support the eldest child within a family. Our experience has shown that younger siblings are heavily influenced by the attitudes and behaviours of older ones, whether it be a sibling, relative or friend, so by providing opportunities for children who can act as role models, we create an opportunity to positively influence an entire community of young children beneath them and help create role models of the future.
Both Adam and Michael attribute much of their success to the role played by positive role models, including their mothers, both on the sporting field and in business, and clearly they’ve gone on to be extraordinary role models for a whole generation of children all over the country. It was a logical focus that one of the primary goals of the Foundation be to nurture and develop the future leaders and mentors within the Indigenous community.
Tell us about the #GOFurther initiative.
At the end of 2017, in conjunction with KPMG Arrilla Indigenous Services, GO released the results of research that examined the correlation between Indigenous students continuing their education after Year 12, and better outcomes. The research was clear – the longer Indigenous students stay in education, the better their outcomes.
Our #GOFurther #RealSkillsRealCareers campaign is all about helping to give Indigenous students the opportunity to choose the educational path that’s right for them. It could be university, VET or an apprenticeship. It’s about empowering them, inspiring them and giving them the guidance to make the best choices, and change their own lives.