Your last letter from Penny, outgoing Executive Director

Your last letter from Penny, outgoing Executive Director

What a strange thing this is, to sit and write my last letter to you all, a community I care about so much: people who have cheered us on time and time again; advocates who have spread the word and sung our praises in spaces we cannot always be; pioneers who began and worked in the company long before I ever had the privilege to and paved the way for us all to build and grow; young people who are currently participating in our programs; not-so-young-anymore people who were participants once; artists, co-workers past and present; board members; family members; funders; arts lovers; culture shifters; champions of the West… This community is truly special, and I will miss being one of its leaders very much.

My journey in the company began in 2015, when, as an emerging theatre director and youth arts facilitator, I took a gig with Western Edge Youth Arts to direct a show with Year 9 drama students in a North Geelong high school. The class was compulsory – so, as you can imagine, not everyone was very enthused about having to get up and perform in front of their peers! On my first day, I met three Support Artists who were working on the project with me and was blown away by how fantastic they were with the young people. These Support Artists were young themselves (aged 18 – 25), from the communities of the West, had been part of the programs when they were younger and were now learning how to facilitate by working alongside Lead Artists like myself. Before I took the gig, I thought I had been assigned Support Artists to support me in activities and tasks, but they were, as I soon realised, providing invaluable support to my understanding of communities in the West, young people’s needs and wants, and how to navigate the nuanced intersections of culture, class, gender, disability and sexuality within our group of 30 people. They were so capable! So approachable! So fearless! So fun! The students took to them immediately. I realised that the model of Western Edge was so powerful that although I was there as the trained theatre director to create a work, I would have gone nowhere fast without the guidance, knowledge, wisdom and openness of the three young Support Artists I was working with every day.

Over the next seven years, I went on to direct 14 works for the company, and facilitated countless in-syllabus workshops for high school students to help with their English and Drama curriculum, working with hundreds of young people and dozens and dozens of artists to co-create adaptations of classics and devise original new work for stage and screen. I became Artistic Associate in 2018 and was joined with my friend and ride-or-die Tariro Mavondo in 2019 as we became Co-Artistic Directors/CEOs to lead the company through a leadership transition that was quickly followed by a pandemic and many pivots. Despite this instability around us, the company grew stronger than ever – we built valuable partnerships with local, state and national artists, organisations, funders, venues, schools and community groups. We grew our staff from four to ten people, and successfully kept all our artists employed during six lockdowns. We found a new home base for the company, becoming a Company in Residence at The Substation. And before Tariro left at the end of 2021, she and I worked with the Board to restructure the rapidly growing organisation and create space for two POC artists to co-lead as Artistic Directors, and for me to become Executive Director and guide the organisation through its next evolution in a post-Covid ‘new normal’.

Over the past two years of being Executive Director, I’ve been driven to ensure that everyone who works in the company – our Support and Lead Artists, Guest Artists, administration and management staff and senior leadership team – are supported to carry out the very challenging and essential work they do delivering life-changing programs to young people through Melbourne’s West, an area that has one of the highest percentage of young people. Our work is not just to create shows with young people facing severe structural disadvantage and systemic challenges but also to challenge the structures and systems that keep communities disadvantaged and challenged every day. We are not just artists – we are activists, advocates and disrupters. As our team wrote earlier this year while creating our new Strategic Plan for 2025-2028:

Our values are grounded in the resistance practice and collaborative leadership that marginalised communities live and breathe. With love and courage, we collectively reclaim our historically silenced narratives and challenge the white, inner city-centric arts sector and its conscious and unconscious biases. Our artistic practice is our community engagement – they are not separate. For us, deeply listening to the unique differences of each person who makes up our community is as important as the final artistic outcome. We know the system is broken – we feel the impacts of its inequity every day. Our work begins from this reality. We are in the business of change making and culture shifting.



The past eight years have really been a leadership and culture evolution – bringing the organisation to this point where it is now nationally recognised as a leader in Community Arts and Cultural Development and Youth Arts practice, and where the Board, Artistic leadership and staffing reflects the diverse communities in the West we are all here to serve. Now that the company’s foundation is strong and our community is working together towards our common goals, we can respond to challenges in the world with courage and confidence.

In the light of the referendum result, this next chapter will no doubt deepen our connection and commitment to First Nations wisdom and leadership – we must be prepared as a community to stand and be part of the healing and the hope that was requested in the Uluru Statement of the Heart. The Western Edge I know and love is centered around equity, understanding, and listening. There is a way forward from here – First Nations folk have always and continue to know the way forward for their communities, and it is on us to listen and act when called on to be part of this change our country so desperately needs. I know that we are ready to face this new chapter, in the company and the country, collectively. With Veronica Pardo as our Chair and Chanella Macri and John Marc Desengano as our Co-Artistic Directors, the company is being led by three brilliant and passionate POC leaders who understand the communities we serve and the wider sectors we are inextricably part of, and how our organisation fits within this complex Venn diagram of Australian society. They are the ultimate change makers and culture shifters, and I could not be happier with leaving the company in their incredibly capable hands.

I leave with nothing but pride and adoration for all the artists, staff and Board members who make up this beautiful, courageous, loved-filled company. Together, we have created a space for young people from the outer-metro to take up all the space in the world. ‘Edge of the city, center of the conversation’ has been my mantra for years now. I look forward to cheering on everyone as the years go on, from another part of the world, as I enter a new chapter of my own life, of marriage and family and of course – always – love.

Oh dear dear Western Edge – thank you. You have taught me to come as I am, to fail happily, to move at the speed of trust. Your evolution has been my evolution. Ubuntu. I am because we are. I will always have your back.

With love,