Community and collaboration: Representing Noosa the ultimate privilege

“Pomona? Perfection!” says Noosa councillor Karen Finzel, reflecting on the first time she set eyes on the town she has now called home for nearly 40 years.

Karen and her husband Craig moved from Brisbane in 1985 with a baby, Joshua, in tow and another, Zach, on the way.

“We settled in Noosa to raise a family, care for the natural environment and contribute in a meaningful way to our community,” she says.

“There we lots of people in a similar situation to us: new to the area and with young kids. No one had family nearby, so our friends – our community – became our family.

“At the start it was just helping each other to get by. Everyone chipped in to build each other’s houses, provide childcare and get small businesses up and running.”

Another child came – a girl, Rebekah – and as the Finzel family was expanding, the hinterland community and its needs were evolving, so Karen joined with friends and neighbours push for change.

“In the 90s there were no activities for kids in the hinterland, so we advocated for the construction of the Pomona playground and skatepark,” Karen says, “we worked to get the kindergarten accredited as a learning centre too.”

“We probably ruffled a few feathers at local government along the way, but we had to in order to get things done for our community.

“Local people understand best where the gaps and opportunities are. That’s why their voices and their stories are so important.”

In 1993, the Finzel family were expecting a fourth child when Karen received a life-altering diagnosis: she had cervical cancer.

After baby Hannah was brought into the world, Karen immediately went into treatment and won the battles and, ultimately, the war against cancer.

“That was undoubtedly one of the hardest periods of my life and I couldn’t have gotten through it without my family, community and medical professionals,” she says.

Through her journey, Karen also received support from the Gynaecological Cancer Society and – after being declared cancer-free – joined forces with them to help others.

“Getting a cancer diagnosis is a terrifying and bizarre moment – you don’t know what to do or how to feel,” she says.

“I received specialised training to provide emotional support for people diagnosed with gynaecological cancer and advocated to government for improved education, prevention and care.

“Often people don’t have someone who can empathise with their situation and give advice, so I was very glad to be able to provide support where I could.”

Karen continued working in the medical sector as an administrator at Eden Private Hospital in Cooroy.

She worked there for 10 years, a period in which she also completed a counselling diploma, before being elected to council in 2020.

“Representing the people of Noosa is the greatest honour and a privilege,” Karen says.

“It has also been an opportunity to take the connections and lessons from decades as a community organiser to strengthen our local government.

“Every day I draw on those experiences and the diversity of perspectives in our community to bring authentic representation to the council chamber.”

Throughout everything, one constant for Karen has been art – originally as a creator and then (perhaps unsurprisingly) as an organiser.

She has helped to provide platforms for Noosa’s artist community, including through the iconic Tall Trees Art Festival and as a committee member for Noosa Open Studios.

“Art is about telling stories – often the stories of people who don’t otherwise have a voice,” Karen says.

“As a councillor, I think the job is similar – we need to listen to the community and provide them with an opportunity to have their voice heard.

“In a rapidly changing world, it is more important than ever that we listen, and foster a good understanding between government and our community.”

To fulfill this promise, Karen traverses Noosa every week meeting with individuals, community groups and businesses to hear what they think and inform her decision-making as councillor.

She has also proudly represented Noosa at Local Government Association of Queensland conferences, ensuring perspectives from the shire are being considered at state level.

In 2021, Karen was also selected join National Rural Women’s Coalition and Network and take part in a leadership program in Canberra.

Participants were urged to apply the tools and ideas from the course in their communities which led to the establishment of Women’s Collaborative Network Noosa.

The network is another platform to elevate community voices by providing an inclusive and collaborative space for women to share experiences and work together for change.

When asked about how she has adapted to being a councillor, Karen indicates she’s taken it in her stride.

“In some ways a lot has changed over the years – for me and for the shire – but the focus supporting our community remains the same,” she says.

“People are always going to have different views – whether it’s in the council chamber or around the dinner table – but everyone is entitled to have their voice heard and considered.

“As a councillor, the most important things I can do are to keep engaging with the people of Noosa and ensure the council is transparent and accountable with its decisions,” Karen continues.

“By working collaboratively and inclusively, we can maintain our pristine natural environment and provide the foundations for our community to thrive.”

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