Dr Catherine Keenan with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at Parliament House on Australia Day.
Dr Catherine Keenan with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at Parliament House on Australia Day.

'Local hero' nurtures narratives from disadvantaged kids

DR CATHERINE Keenan became a public figure on Australia Day when she received the 2016 Australian of the Year Local Hero award.

The mother of two is the co-founder and executive director of the Sydney Story Factory, an organisation that runs creative writing classes for disadvantaged schoolchildren, one-quarter of whom are indigenous.

The Story Factory operates from a building in Redfern known as the Martian Embassy, offering thousands of young people the chance to unleash their creativity and improve their literacy thanks to support from 1200 trained volunteers.

Keenan comes from a highly successful family. Her brother Michael is the federal Justice Minister while her sister, Jen, was a pioneer of the raw food movement in Australia.

Passionate about words and language, Keenan was previously a journalist, arts writer and literary editor before she focused her career on nurturing the talents of marginalised children in 2012.

A month after Keenan received the Australia Day gong, Weekend asked her what it's like to be known as a "hero'' and how her life has changed.

Your award labelled you as a local hero, how has that changed the way you see yourself and your job?

A: It's obviously deeply strange to be called a "hero'' and completely misleading. I may be the public face of the Sydney Story Factory, but it's the team I work with, and our hundreds of volunteers (including our board), that give me any superpowers I may possess.

What are the long-term benefits you see, for individuals and society, if children are able to unlock their creativity and improve their language skills?

A: The benefits are huge. There is a growing body of research, from all around the world, showing the many social, emotional and academic benefits that flow from involving young people in quality creative arts experiences.

Young people who are immersed in good arts programs do better at school, watch less television, are more likely to become politically engaged, are more likely to volunteer in their community, and stand a better chance of going on to university.

I think it's hugely important that we develop the creativity of our young people. The only thing we can guarantee about the world they will grow up in is that it will change all the time, ever more rapidly. Being creative enough to adapt to this change, and thrive, becomes absolutely crucial, both for individuals and for society as a whole.

Having strong language skills is obviously a prerequisite for engaging at school, and time again we're told that when our students master the art of writing and storytelling, it's not only their English marks that improve - it's all their marks. But more than that, storytelling is a fundamental way of understanding the world around us, and articulating who we are. If you can't do this, it's much harder to make your mark on the world.

How do you explain the Martian Embassy to people who haven't visited it yet?

A: Well, that bit can be tricky. The front of the Sydney Story Factory is our shop, The Martian Embassy and Gift Shop, which sells products made on Mars. It was designed pro-bono by some fantastic architects, LAVA, and it's variously been described as like being in a rocket ship, the belly of a whale, or inside a model dinosaur. The shop generates a small amount of money to help fund our programs, but most importantly it creates this very weird, slightly sci-fi, very unschool-like space. By the time the kids walk through it to the workshop area, they know they're in a different place, where they can do things differently. They can risk things creatively, and know it will be okay.

Are there any concrete plans to expand the work of the Story Factory outside its current scope?

A: We would love to grow what we do. There are so many more young people we'd like to reach. We're currently extending our programs, particularly into western Sydney and regionally. This year we're rolling out a Teacher Professional Development Program, to give teachers practical strategies for enhancing their creative writing lessons. We're also doing our first regional program, called State of Mind, where we're going out to teenagers across the state and asking them to share with us some moments from their life. It will culminate in a book published in early 2017.

What has been the upside and the downside of your sudden public profile?

A: Personally, it's been great fun but most importantly for the Sydney Story Factory it's been brilliant. There's been an uptick in donations, which is great. People are just that bit keener to collaborate with us and we hope it will allow us to work with even more young people in coming years.

You are a mother, a wife, a sister and a daughter, a business owner, a professional and a member of your community; now you are a "hero", what new roles would you like to add to your profile in the future?

A: That feels like enough right now. I feel very lucky. The award is a wonderful thing but I feel acutely aware that any one of the national finalists - indeed any one of thousands of people working in not-for-profits around the country - is equally deserving. It would be great if they all got this recognition.

For more information visit http://www.sydneystoryfactory.org.au

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