People with Purpose: helping disadvantaged young people to make tracks

Posted on 05 Jan 2024

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Bern and dogs doco update

Nurturing deep and meaningful relationships is the key to helping troubled youth build better lives, says former stockman and BackTrack founder Bernie Shakeshaft.

Tell us a little bit about your background

I founded BackTrack in 2006 in Armidale, NSW, after years of experience in youthwork and seeing that short term, siloed approaches are just not enough to turn kids’ lives around.

How did you come to found BackTrack?

I was working with some of the really difficult kids at the local TAFE and I saw so many who were dropping out of school, getting into trouble, sleeping rough, dealing with problem after problem.

I could just see that the mainstream education system was never going to work for these kids.

I’d worked as a stockman and in remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory where I learnt the power of some really simple human and First Nations values: forgiveness, empathy, sharing, connection and, most of all, - belonging.

The Circle of Courage principles of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity became the cornerstone of what we set up in those early days and still live by.

My frustration was that all the other programs were missing these integral pieces. The BackTrack approach is all about relationships and a very long-term approach that looks at the whole person.

I knew I was onto something when I started putting these wild kids together with wild dogs. Because you can see the power of connection right there in front of your eyes.

Bernie Shakeshaft and Back Track CEO Marcus Watson
BackTrack founder Bernie Shakeshaft and the organisations CEO Marcus Watson.
"It is life changing for individuals, but also sometimes for their families."

How does BackTrack work and what difference has it made?

We work where there are no other options, and we do whatever it takes for as long as it takes.

We run alternative education and training, diversionary and residential programs, a social enterprise, a farm and a BackTrack network and offer 24-hour wraparound support.

Our programs are targeted to each young person and it’s not a prescribed time frame. It’s holistic and flexible.

It’s also a family – for as long as a young person needs it. Some of our original young people are still connected 10 or more years later as mentors, working in our social enterprise or, just visiting when they’re in town.

It is life changing for individuals, but also sometimes for their families.

Just proving that there are alternatives to incarceration that work. That’s a broader impact we hope to have across the board.

Part of what makes BackTrack work is that we have the support of a whole community - the magistrates, the police, the education department, local organisations and business - because everyone can see that it actually works.

Why are you so passionate about empowering young Australians?

Everyone deserves a go.

The young people we work with start off as some of the most disempowered, disengaged and disadvantaged kids in the country.

Every young person deserves a chance to chase their hopes and dreams. We are 100% committed to keeping them alive, out of jail and chasing their hopes and dreams.

Why are you handing over the reins as CEO of BackTrack and what comes next?

In late 2022, we were gifted a farm by two incredibly generous donors.

That got me thinking much more long term. We are now thinking in generations rather than years.

I want to know that BackTrack will be here, supporting as many kids having a hard time as possible, and helping them get their lives back on track, long after I’m gone. It’s so much bigger than me.

And there is no better person than Marcus [Watson] to take over the reins.

We share the same values and the same commitment to these kids – we’ve been working side by side for a long time already and it just makes sense as part of our evolution into long term thinking.

We go further together.

BackTrack has just released an update to the award-winning documentary ‘BackTrack Boys’. A recent episode of the Future Generation podcast profiled Bernie and his work.

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