Firefoxes – Women Rising Together

14 / 03 / 2013

Kate Riddell is one of the founders of ‘Firefoxes Australia’, a group of women who came together following Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday bush fire tragedy, which claimed the lives of 173 people.  In this piece for Sheilas, Kate Riddell provides us with the ‘Firefoxes’ story – how they came together and how the group has since been working with other communities in natural disaster affected areas. 

Following Black Saturday, ordinary women were thrust into positions of leadership in their families and communities. There were insurance battles to be fought, homes and infrastructure to be re-built, complex systems to navigate, children and relationships in need of nurturing. Womens’ wisdom proved invaluable.

With lots of love, mentoring and a few safe spaces, women in the Kinglake Ranges began gathering to share ideas and support each other through this challenging time.  It is no secret that women can do things differently – we are collaborators, talkers, doers.  But none of us can do it alone. In this spirit, a grassroots community group Firefoxes was born.

Co-founded and lead by Kinglake residents, Jemima Richards and myself, Kate Riddell, Firefoxes hit the ground running with monthly gatherings, special events and family activities. We had belly laughs at the theatre and sore bottoms after galloping through the foothills on horseback. We skied, ate, cooked, surfed, laughed, cried, shared, supported and listened our way through the months. Together we watched each other ride the roller coaster of life.

We saw new faces every month, strengthening our belief that different people needed different support at different times. It came in many forms – psychological services, allied health professionals, emotional self-care and programs like Horses for Hope. However, perhaps the greatest support came from simple acts of kindness from friends and strangers. Houses were painted, meals cooked, laughter and tears shared.

In 2010, Firefoxes recognized the need to support those who had stepped into community leadership roles. We gathered fifty wonder-women from across Victoria along with an amazing team of well-being practitioners and psychologists. We were joined by the incredibly inspirational Amanda Gore who was booked for an hour and stayed the entire weekend!  We combined cutting edge leadership theory with opportunities for self discovery. What resulted were amazing acts of courage and love from women who shrugged off their fears to get in touch with themselves, their passions, higher purpose and voice.

Of the weekend, one of the participants said:  “If I could have asked for a particular kind of retreat-information, ideas, playfulness, healing, beautiful food-I would have asked for this retreat.  But I would never have dared to believe it was possible.  To have the kind of “out there” ideas brought into the midst of such a diverse group of local women and given credence and credibility; it makes everything seem possible and I am grateful beyond words”. 

And this one: “I made new friends & have not laughed so hard for a long time(my sides still hurt). I found a part of myself that I had lost and learnt things about my inner self that I did not know. I have come home with a different perspective on life, my life!”.  

We also heard from women who were hitting walls and using their new found tools to find a way over, under or around that wall to keep going! Check out this Youtube clip on the retreat  (And YES, they ARE Wonderwoman undies on their heads!).

In 2012, with the generous support of Victorian Women’s Benevolent Trust, Firefoxes produced a documentary Creating a New Normal.

Leading academics, global disaster response agencies and ordinary women from around the world have been inspired by the documentary. Dr. Elaine Enarson (Researcher and Founder of the US-based Gender and Disaster Resilience Alliance) wrote: “This film clearly shows that connecting as women, with women, and for women is a powerful strategy for meaningful recovery both at the individual level and for the family and community. This wonderful awareness and training resource will be widely shared and – one hopes – put to good use in support of women, men and children affected by disaster or trauma. Congratulations to Firefoxes for bringing disaster recovery to life in such a powerful way”.

Some of the most significant feedback came from the women involved in the documentary. Ming wrote: “Being involved in the process gave validity to my life. I did not want to be a victim, pitied or seen as a burden. It gave me a voice to stand up for my community and an opportunity to repay the help and generosity afforded to us”.

Courtney said: “The process of making the documentary, discussions, dinners, interviews were in themselves some of the most effective recovery therapy I underwent. The privilege of being able to discuss problems and understand other women’s experiences in such intimate detail allowed me to apply a whole new context to my experience and for the first time I truly felt I was not alone“.

We thank VWT from the bottom of our hearts for supporting this endeavor. The messages will impact communities now and in the future.

VWT staff with Firefoxes founders at the documentary launch – from left, the Trust’s Liz McAloon, Kate Riddell, Jemima Richards and Sheilas Editor Sarah Capper.

In recent times, the founders of  Firefoxes (with the support of loads of amazing people) have visited other disaster effected communities to share their stories and journey. It is this collaborative sharing of wisdom that assists other communities to better prepare for the impact of disaster or trauma or make the recovery journey less isolating. Over a dozen women’s groups formed in Queensland following the Firefoxes visits.

Today, four years on, Firefoxes still provides social outings, educational opportunities, leadership training, conference presentations, consultation services and special events (focusing on social, vocational, financial, educational, health, well-being and psychological domains). Topics covered include community engagement, self care, resilience, disaster recovery, planning, leadership and community development.

Firefoxes engages with locals (face to face, on line and over the phone) around what they want or need and respond accordingly (‘doing with’ rather than ‘doing to’). Firefoxes achieves remarkable outcomes through sharing, acknowledging the gendered response to community, addressing barriers to community participation, positive role modeling and empowering locals to lead. In doing this, the group has touched the lives of thousands of people affected by fire, flood, storm and cyclone. The Firefoxes team is expanding rapidly, with lots of women volunteering to share the workload.

Disasters provide unique opportunities for individuals, communities, organizations, Governments and others to learn and grow. The legacy of Firefoxes is to ensure that insights are gained and changes made that result in communities and individuals better prepared for and able to bounce back from future challenges. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said he was going to rebuild our communities brick by brick. Firefoxes believes that we need to rebuild ‘person by person’!

Keen to assist Firefoxes or want to check out more of our work? Visit us at www.firefoxes.org.au

The Victorian Women’s Trust (which publishes Sheilas) provided Firefoxes with a grant to help produce the documentary ‘Creating a New Normal’ (email us for more information on obtaining a copy).

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