By Kat Vella
Karen Wright had to grow up quick. At 19, barely out of school and contemplating her next move in life, she fell pregnant and made the decision to become a mum.
“I was planning on having a gap year after finishing high school and I was going to leave the Bega Valley and then I fell pregnant, at 19, to my boyfriend at the time and put everything on hold and went ‘I’m gonna do this!’” She said. “I had a shot-gun wedding. Despite it not being a thing anymore it was still expected in the community. We then had our second child and soon after got divorced. So, I am a single mum, working full time, campaigning and also doing a business degree!”
Karen is a 28-year-old single mother of two, and she is running for the first time for a position on Bega Council in December’s NSW Local Government Elections. She is passionate about seeing diverse representation at all levels of government in this country, particularly young people of colour.
“I think (young people) just have a different perspective. For example, the people in the generation before us were still able to afford to buy a house. A lot of the challenges young people have in this area, even going to rent is difficult. There are no houses available. People are still living with their parents far longer than the previous generation because they have been pushed out of the housing market,” she said.
“Young people feel like they don’t have their voices heard so having a young person to represent them I think is a good start.”
Women like Karen need to be superhuman in order to even be in the running as an alternative to the stereotypical candidates on local government councils.
If you are thinking ‘how does this woman find the time?’ I dare say you are not alone. I spoke with Karen for an hour, tapping away on the laptop listening to her tell me her story of challenges and triumphs and I could not help but feel slightly overwhelmed.
Why would a young person, with already so much on her plate working full time, parenting as a single mother and studying, want to take on a huge community responsibility?
Well for Karen, representation matters. Having people who come from diverse experiences in leadership makes for better decision making in her opinion, and its hard to argue with some of the anecdotes she shares about her local council. For example, when a pedestrian bridge was paid for and built by Council some years ago and no ramp was installed for accessibility.
Besides NSW local government having a dismal rate of women represented in its ranks at around 30 per cent, age representation is worse. Of the 128 local councils in NSW the most common age represented is 60-69 years of age, while the median age of the NSW population is only 38. On top of that, only two per cent of councillors identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and most councillors come from a household that speaks only English at home where 26 per cent of the NSW population speaks a language other than English. There is a clear disconnect here.
Becoming a local councillor is a fulltime commitment with minimal remuneration. As a consequence, this almost always excludes women and in particular, young women who still, in 2021, are overwhelmingly burdened with childcare responsibilities, household duties and lower income employment. This makes Karen’s story not only a testament to her strength and determination, but absolutely necessary in kick starting real change in representation in her community.
Women like Karen need to be superhuman in order to even be in the running as an alternative to the stereotypical candidates on local government councils. How is it fair that this is what needs to happen in order for other women, girls and also the wider community to have leaders that truly reflect them and represent their interests?