From teen mother to founder, Bernadette Black of the NFP Brave Foundation, works to find educational opportunities for expecting and parenting teens across Australia.
It’s been almost three decades since a 16-year-old Bernadette Black clambered aboard a Melbourne bus with her newborn son. However, she’s never forgotten the look on the driver’s face, or the words he said to her: “You dirty little tramp.”
Black was heading to the only local school that would allow her to finish her education. Amid the whispers, glares and stigma, she’d made herself three promises. “First, to be a good mum. Second, to finish my education. And third, to write a book to help others like me,” she says.
Black launched that book, Brave Little Bear, in 2006. Soon after, she began receiving calls from parents, teachers and others who wanted to help pregnant or parenting teens finish their education. The first came from a teacher in Toowoomba, inquiring for one of her students. “I literally took her call, hung up the phone, then rang the schools and services in that area [to find out] where this young woman could finish her schooling… and attend a young mums’ group,” says Black.
This was the start of the Brave Foundation and its national directory of services, which, with 771 listings for teenage mothers, is the largest of its kind in the world. Brave was incorporated as a public company and charity in 2009. The task of recruiting a board involved finding people who believed in her vision. “My husband [Steven Black] and a friend [Jonathan Cavenagh] fitted the bill,” says Black.
Building the foundation
Black was introduced to Tracy Matthews FAICD, commodore of the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania and a director of TasPorts, who impressed the importance of a “skills-mixed board”. Keen to ensure sound governance from the start, Black actively approached potential directors on this basis, reaching out to former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, then chair of Beyond Blue. Kennett introduced Black to one of her first mentors, the inaugural CEO of Beyond Blue, Leonie Young MAICD, who in turn helped Black hone her search. “She taught me that as founder, your job is to hold the vision and get the people around you that help you to achieve that,” says Black.
Due to other work commitments, as the state manager for the Special Olympics Australia, Black wasn’t appointed CEO by the board until 2013. Former Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett GAICD was chair at this time. “I can still hear him saying, ‘We need to get Bernie out of managing another charity, so she can start managing her own,’” says Black.
Black employed a small contingent. “We did everything, including mail-outs, board papers, stakeholder engagement and fundraising,” explains Black. In 2014, she brought on board Gary Lottering, former CEO of TasRacing.
He believes Black’s strengths include “an ability to recognise what it takes to make things work — like surrounding herself with the right people”.
In 2016, the Brave Foundation hosted a national 30-strong working group for members, aimed at supporting young parents to continue their education. It developed a pathway plan strategy for pregnant and parenting teens. So when the Department of Social Services’ Try, Test and Learn Fund called for applications for programs that sought to reduce costly long-term welfare dependence for young people, the Brave Foundation was invited to participate in a series of meetings and policy discussions.
“As we already had our findings from our working group, our idea was mature, research-based and evidence-informed,” says Black.
This activity gave Brave a voice, but didn’t pay the bills. “I remember talking to my chair [Bartlett] at the time, and him saying, ‘I didn’t realise getting Brave sustainable would be this hard.’ That was a tough conversation,” says Black.
Then came a call from the Social Services director and Brave was hired to write the strategy for expecting and parenting teens in Australia. The $150,000 fee was half its operational income at the time. Brave was also invited to apply for a direct, non-competitive grant of $4.4m to implement the strategy nationally.
“The director said they’d been keeping a close watch on Brave and our governance structure, and this was what gave them the confidence to award this large tranche of funding,” says Black.
Seven directors sit on the Brave Foundation board, which meets every two months. Lottering has been deputy chair since 2015 and chair since 2019. Like Black, he is keen to maintain a balanced board and says the Brave Foundation’s mission — to support young, single parents — makes good governance all the more pertinent. “The stigma around that, and the social debates on teen pregnancy, were all enough reason to ensure… we were watertight,” he says.
Similarly, the Brave Foundation nimbly sidesteps the pro-choice debate. “Our position is simply this: if you’re in a situation as an expecting teen, and you decide to go down the path of parenthood, we will support you,” says Lottering.
The Brave Foundation now has 21 employees. “Integrating our culture has been a core priority for Brave,” says Black. “We have a code of ethics and intensive inductions, as well as providing culture surveys biannually with staff, and a separate culture survey of the board.”
In addition, 13 Brave Foundation mentors support 274 expecting and parenting teens as part of a pilot program connecting them to health services, linking them into education and work, and helping them with various other tasks. Research conducted by PwC, on behalf of the Department of Social Services, shows 79 per cent of teen parents are on long-term welfare, each costing $648,000 in lifetime actuarial costs. Black says 70 per cent of the trial’s participants meet their goals of re-engaging with education or work, “turning these numbers on their head”.
Black hopes to expand further, increasing the number of full-time mentors by 28 over the next five years, to allow the organisation to work with up to 815 expecting and parenting teens.
“Our primary prevention strategy — creating opportunities for social economic empowerment of those at most risk of long-term welfare — is applicable to other groups of young people facing these same trajectories,” she says. “Our strategy is gaining momentum and recognition. We have discovered something powerful to help those at most risk of disadvantage.”
Although Black’s personal story is inextricably intertwined with that of Brave, she considers it critical she and the board engage in succession-planning conversations. “I’d recommend this for any board,” she says. “My ultimate reward would be to see Brave Foundation running independently of key personalities, me included.”
Black says building capacity is a top priority, to ensure the organisation’s legacy outlives those people who have been around the board and management table at different times. “We’re there to steward Brave for the period of time required. I’m not the owner of it and it is a privilege to be a part of something that has changed the culture of our nation.”
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