Hannah Wandel knows all about isolation: she was the only girl in her class for seven years of primary school while growing up on a sheep property in mid-north South Australia.
Fast forward 20 years and she’s embarked on an epic 20,000 km road trip to connect with high school girls throughout regional and remote Australia.
In this age of hashtag activism, it’s never been easier to make a point without actually doing anything.
But for Hannah, taking four months unpaid leave to become a road warrior for her cause is the realisation of a dream.
“To be behind the wheel, out in the regions, meeting all these girls and inspiring them to dream big and plan for their future is an amazing experience,” she says.
Hannah Wandel at sunrise during her national road trip to empower young rural women to become leaders. (Supplied: Lara Sinclair)
From country to Canberra
At 24, Hannah founded the not for profit organisation Country to Canberra, which provides opportunities for young rural women to reach their leadership potential and influence public life.
The program includes an essay competition where the prize is a Power Trip to the heart of the nation’s capital.
Winners meet political, business and community leaders, take part in public speaking and advocacy workshops, sit in on Parliament and cultivate a network of mentors and contacts.
Australian women occupy a third of elected council positions and just five per cent of CEO roles, numbers the Local Government Association says haven’t changed much in 20 years.
When it comes to women in national politics, Australia ranks 50th in the world, between Sudan and the Philippines.
It’s those statistics that drive Hannah, now 28, to work towards cultural change at a grass-roots level.
Her education program has expanded every year and now she’s halfway through Project Empower with a small band of volunteers.
They’re visiting more than 80 schools, from Nambucca Heads in NSW to Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory, driving a borrowed ute and staying in billeted accommodation when possible to save sponsorship money.
“When we asked for expressions of interest in our leadership and gender equality workshops, 245 schools replied in just two weeks,” says Hannah. “What that shows is people are crying out for these programs in the bush.”
Hannah delivering a gender empowerment workshop during her national roadtrip. (Supplied: Lara Sinclair)
‘I was one of those girls’
“The reason I want to help these girls is because I was one of these girls,” says Hannah.
“Looking back, there was definitely gender inequality but it was so ingrained I didn’t even realise it,” she says.
“Then I went to boarding school at 15, and I saw the education imbalance between the country and the city. It wasn’t fair that rural students had fewer opportunities.
“Even now, the more remote you go, attitudes to schooling are worse and completion rates are worse.”
These aspects of rural life were a big influence. But her desire to help build better communities was also shaped by what happened when the family home burnt down when she was 13.
“Not only friends and family but complete strangers were coming from everywhere to lend a hand, to give us clothes and shelter and to help us rebuild,” says Hannah.
“It showed me that bad things can happen but it’s how you react and move on that makes such a difference. It inspired me to want to give back.”
Hannah’s own trip to Canberra
Hannah studied law and journalism at university and was starting her radio career in Adelaide around the same time that Prime Minister Julia Gillard was at the centre of an ugly public discourse about sexism and misogyny.
“I’d always been passionate about gender equality,” says Hannah, “but this was a definite catalyst. What message is this sending to young women if we think this is ok?”
She quit her reporting job and moved to Canberra to take up a position with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet as a policy adviser.
But the bureaucratic wheels of government turn slowly and Hannah was spring-loaded with enthusiasm to do more than her 9 to 5 job.
So she formulated the idea for Country to Canberra and won her first grant from the YWCA to get started.
“I was nervous,” says Hannah. “I was thinking if everyone knows that this is my goal then everyone will know if I fail.
“But my mantra since then has been: what would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
Malcolm Turnbull’s selfie with rural schoogirls and Hannah at a Country to Canberra workshop. (Supplied: Hannah Wandel)
YWCA Canberra chief executive Frances Crimmins has seen plenty of young women with good ideas apply for grants but says Hannah’s hard work and energy made her stand out.
“She was determined to make this happen.”
Hannah was invited to join the YWCA board, of which a third of members are women under 30.
“It’s actually quite shameful that we have such a low representation of women in rural and regional communities in local government,” says Ms Crimmins.
“It’s very hard for a young woman to see herself in that picture when there are so few role models.”
She backs Hannah’s belief that Country to Canberra is addressing the problem.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” says Hannah.
“I want to be a role model for young women to show them you can do anything you want to do.”
Country to Canberra volunteer Mandy Mills who moved to the capital after meeting Hannah. (Supplied: Hannah Wandel)
‘I can make a difference here’
Mandy Mills from Forster in NSW was an original winner of the Power Trip essay competition. She’s since moved to the ACT and joined Country to Canberra as a volunteer mentor.
“I’ve gained so many skills in leadership and met so many amazing people,” says Mandy.
“I’ve joined so many organisations because of Hannah. There are so many more opportunities in Canberra than where I’m from and I feel like I can make a difference here and make a difference in other girls’ lives like Hannah did to mine.”
Ironically, Hannah has no plans to run for Parliament herself just yet. She’s too busy changing the world.
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