While Mick Cronin’s fierce determination has been an enduring force behind the success of a criminal youth justice and social enterprise initiatives transforming the lives of young offenders in Victoria for more than 16 years, he says he’s become even more ambitious as a changemaker since earning a Westpac Social Change Fellowship.
As the executive manager of youth services at YMCA Victoria, Cronin leads social enterprise YMCA Bridge Project and its social enterprise ReBuild, which aim to break the reoffending cycle by engaging young people who’ve spent time in the criminal justice system, offering training and employment and building sustainable carers in trades and other industries
“Most people in prison have never been given the right opportunity or the right pathway to change," says Cronin, who has been with the community-based organisation, known as ‘The Y’, since 2007.
“We show these young people that there’s an opportunity for them to change, to build a potential career, and, in doing so, we show them life doesn't have to revolve around the cycle of reoffending and everything that goes along with that.”
The results of Cronin’s programs are clear: Among the young people who work with YMCA ReBuild, the proportion who reoffend is below 5 per cent, compared to 50 per cent among the broader population.
“I feel privileged to be in a position in which I can create meaningful, supportive and sustainable career pathways for young people in the Victorian justice system,” he says.
“Many participants have had a difficult start in life, whether they struggled with substance abuse, homelessness or have been victims of family violence. We aim to provide them with support they need to turn things around.”
A strong advocate for social enterprise, Cronin says he decided to apply for a Westpac Social Change Fellowship in 2019 when he heard about the program via some colleagues. After making the national interviews, he was among 10 applicants in 2020 – the fifth year of the Westpac Scholars program – recognised for their leadership potential in driving social impact in Australia.
“I have loved every minute of my fellowship experience,” says Cronin, a former drug and alcohol residential unit worker, and educator.
“The connections I’ve made and the support I’ve received is just gold.”
Through the fellowship – one of five scholarship programs offered by Westpac Scholars Trust – each fellow receives up to $50,000 to invest in their personal and professional development, through training, mentoring or work experience. Beyond the funding, recipients also take part in an immersive leadership program and join a collaborative network of like-minded social changemakers.
Westpac Scholars Trust CEO Amy Lyden says the fellowship, which has so far been awarded to 80 people since 2015, has been a game changer for recipients, allowing them to invest time and energy into opportunities that were otherwise out of reach.
“Past recipients have undertaken short courses at Stanford, Harvard and the London School of Economics; some have completed internships with world leading organisations having impact in their social impact area; and others have used it as a door-opener to meetings with highly respected global social innovators,” Lyden says. “These are all invaluable experiences and connections that will last a lifetime.”
For Cronin, who leveraged the fellowship to improve his strategic business acumen by undertaking intensive short-courses at both Harvard University in the US and Melbourne Business School at home, he says the experience has made him “a more strategic and thoughtful leader”, ultimately benefiting his organisation as much as himself.
“I approach things differently and have a much broader world view,” says Cronin, who was also inspired and supported by his new network of Westpac Social Change Fellows to launch a podcast series, ‘What’s Your Cause’, in which he explores the stories of people who’ve found their purpose and are making a difference.
“I definitely found my village. My group (of peer Fellows) are just the most incredible people who I share with and learn from all the time. It is just so energising; it opens the mind and lights the fire. I always leave with new perspectives and connections.
“The leadership programs have also helped me to change the value I placed on myself, my work and my leadership and made me a more ambitious and confident social change maker.”
While he urges interested change makers to apply for the Westpac Social Change Fellowship, he warns that it’s important to do it when the timing is right.
“The fellowship does take some thought, time and commitment so, you need to do it at a time that works for both you and your organisation,” he says.
“But you will learn along the way and if you are ultimately awarded a fellowship it will have such a positive impact on you and your work into the future.”
Applications for the 2024 Westpac Social Change Fellowships are open until 10 August 2023.
Published 2 August 2022