Jen Bray is one of the newly elected councillors for the Birch Ward of Hepburn Shire Council. The Wombat Post sat down with her over zoom to get a sense of who she is and what she hopes to achieve.
Over an hour on zoom, it was clear that Jen’s great passions are education, theatre, the bush, and community. She likes to make things happen. Putting on a big show doesn’t faze her – it’s all about the planning and working with people, both things she loves doing.
She was born in Darwin and spent her early years in Indigenous community at Yirrikala where she learnt to speak the local dialect Yolngu Matha.
After moving to Kerang in country Victoria, she pursued her passions at school in theatre productions as well as bushwalking, and camping with family around Australia.
She went on to Study a Bachelor of Education in Theatre, Drama, Literature and Outdoor Education at the University of Melbourne before working as a professional actor in theatre, short films and TV productions.
One of her professional highlights was touring Victorian Schools performing an Indonesian language comedy with the Theatre in Education Company, on a motorbike. For 2 years she performed in over 165 schools. “We’d rock up to the school on our bike, a Yamaha XS 1100, in our leathers, turn up looking really cool and all the kids would go, ‘ok maybe this Indonesian show is not so really terrible’.”
Then there was a stint running a theatre company as production manager and director – touring Victoria before becoming Opera Production Manager and Course Administrator at Victorian College of the Arts School of Music. There she learned a lot about how to deliver to high expectations on a low budget.
Later as short course co-ordinator and production manager at the newly established National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) Jen had an office upstairs in the training centre, where tight rope students would walk past 7 metres up on the tight wire.
She came to Hepburn Springs with her husband Mark and bought block of land and built their own house because they loved the beauty and the community feel of the area. They raised their 2 children there, now both at Daylesford College.
Since moving to Hepburn Shire, Jen has been involved in a range of community and business activities. She said, “When you have kids, that connects you with the community, whether you like it not.”
She set up a bush playgroup – an outdoor education style kinder program for young families in Wombat Forest – and ran that for eight years.
Families can sometimes become isolated, particularly in winter so Jen created an indoor winter festival day for families in Daylesford Town Hall – a family day with workshops, craft, guest authors, music, performances and even one year a giant inflatable planetarium.
The Words in Winter festival followed, for two years, co-ordinating over 140 events across 6 towns shire wide.
Jen has also been a regular consultant to the Hepburn Shire on projects like the Daylesford Community Plan, the Hepburn Hub (when it was going to be the Town Hall) and the Skate Park. As her kids got older and went on to high school, she was heavily involved with a group of parents in getting the Daylesford Secondary College, where her children go to school, rebuilt.
She has retained her passion for drama theatre and dance, particularly for children and young people. She has taught drama at Inside Out Dance Theatre for 12 years, producing big productions in the Town Hall each year with 60 or more children performing.
In 2018, she got a grant for a Theatre project Mavericks and Misfits working with 40 teenagers in drama, circus, and dance to create their own performance. This led to forming Daylesford Youth Theatre. Last year’s production was the student’s response to Climate Change – called Trashlanders.
When you talk to Jen, even on zoom, you get a sense of intelligence, energy and organisation. Not surprisingly, when Council introduced a set of rules and regulations that went against her sense of what the community wanted for the local tip, she got involved.
Over a period of time, Jen increasingly saw the importance of building a stronger relationship between the community and Council. A loosely-based group began to discuss the best way of engaging with Council and she became interested in running for local government.
She admits running for Council has been a big step. She still has a family and other commitments. “But at the end of the day, I saw that Council had an important role to drive a strategic direction for the community.”
She is keen to make a contribution with others. She sees the emergence of groups like Community Voice as an important trend, one that has global parallels. She accepts this form of engagement can be robust and fiery, that it still has some way to evolve to find its most constructive form, but one that is an exciting development in participative democracy for the community.
The development of a Council Plan is a high priority for Jen and she is keen to try a new approach to community engagement around the plan. She recognises she still has lot to learn and that there are limits on what Councils can do. She is also very conscious of working constructively with her colleagues on Council and with the Council officers.
But for her Council is a great opportunity to get things done for the community.
Importantly, Jen is keen to have ongoing contact with the community as a councillor. She sees this as central. Her email and contact details are up on the Council website and she encourages people to contact her.