Urban Seed part 2: Working on the margins in suburbia

~ DESTINATION NINE: NORLANE ~

Urban Seed seeks to connect wherever there is need, and Geelong’s Norlane is what they have found

pics-745As our exploratory trip of experiencing intentional communities nears its end, I am thankful that things worked out the way they have in terms of travel planning. Our last couple of communities are both very short stopovers, and while this leaves us with little more than a superficial glance into the lives of those who have often sweat blood and tears to be a part of their unique lifestyle, it comes at the right time for us when our information/road-weary selves are willing to forego “immersive experience” for “highlight version”. We are the first to admit that we feel that we are missing an opportunity with these last two groups, but perhaps it was the failure in our planning of doing too much for too long. Regardless, even experiencing a couple of days at a place like Urban Seed’s Norlane community in Geelong gives us 1000 times more value than simply reading about it.

pics-750If you have been reading previous blog entries of mine, you’d know about our (also) short visit to Urban Seed city outfit in Melbourne’s CBD. There, the focus was on working within a difficult urban space to support homeless folks doing it tough. In Geelong, Norlane is that type of infamous suburb that all cities have, where much of the crime takes place and the rest of the city’s inhabitants likely take efforts to avoid. Being a Christ-centred faith community, Urban Seed’s natural place to exist in this place on the margin of society, living in amongst the Norlane families who have experienced generational poverty and have given up feeling included in “normal” society.

IMG_5649

The young and exuberant Urban Seeders of Norlane

pics-757The Norlane crew is a young bunch who occupy an old Baptist church as well as the attached hall and house. Moreso than the Melbourne group, they make me feel rather old! With everyone floating around their 20-somethings, it still never fails to impress me how people at their age have taken on such “mature” tasks like volunteering without pay to care for others, raising families in very challenging environments (and seemingly succeeding), managing difficult situations with violent locals and crime issues, plus counselling and supporting a wide cross-section of people including those with mental and physical disabilities. Like my own life, I still see one’s 20s as a time to explore, mess around and not be too serious, getting my act together once I hit my 30s. And by 30s, I really mean 40s.

pics-786

pics-780

Anyway, I digress… the space that the Norlaners occupy is an encouraging community gathering place, very loosely holding onto its “church” look and feel in favour of something that allows anyone from the community – faith-based or not – to feel comfortable and welcome. Groups stage meetings here, there’s a weekly food exchange (the “People’s Pantry” where locals pay a nominal semi-annual fee to stock up on donated food) pics-747plus lots of sharing feasting opportunities where many people from the community come for a free feed and a chat. Like in the CBD location, all “staff” are live-in volunteers who are 1,2 or 3-year internships, with the four people (I almost called them “kids”…gosh, I am getting old) currently residing in the intern house managing the programs and reaching out to the community when they can. Many of the programs revolve around food, and wherever possible, the intern group – Steve, Cherie, Sarah and David – coordinate the meals, etc. while bringing community members in as much as possible to “own” the administering of the event, again eliminating the “hand-out” mentality. Beyond the interns there is Simon and Kaylene pics-752who would be the other “official” Urban Seed staff (for lack of a better word as they are encouraging the lines being blurred between them and there rest of the community) who are the “elders” of Norlane’s outfit (in their 30’s I suspect, but the term elders is not meant to be disrespectful as they come in with considerable knowledge and wisdom of how to do and not to do community based on their own lengthy experiments).

Many other households contribute a great deal to the community hub as they gain acceptance with existing residents, plus – most encouragingly – former Urban Seed interns who finished their residency but felt compelled to continue the work they were part of despite being a fairly challenged neighbourhood in terms of crime, poverty and violence. Interns Sarah and David grimly regaled us in the various unsavoury encounters the community have been victim to such as: two of the interns’ cars being stolen, the continual (even mid-day) risk of physical attack when pics-758walking to the train station, the marking of houses with dogs in the yards so that they might steal them, shops that could no longer service the area after being repeatedly robbed, and so on. On my second afternoon there, I was walking the dog (keeping him close!) and two plain-clothed police (I presume? They had guns) came busting out of a yard straight towards me before veering a few metres to my left to leap onto a young lad in baggy trousers who was promptly handcuffed and shoved into an unmarked car. There was lots of yelling and other people beating a hasty retreat from the house I was now in front of as Kito and I continued along, agog at the front-row-seat activity before us. Not something we had come across in the comparatively closed communities we had been visiting to date! Despite all this, we were also told of encouraging changes within the community since they’ve been there, and a sense that they are helping bridge the divide between different groups of people here.

pics-744

pics-768

pics-781There is something appealing about being a part of a close-knit community who are trying to do something good and important to truly improve the lives of people who have had a pretty shit time of it and need a glimmer of hope to get them through life. On top of it for them, their unified Christian faith further binds them close as they journey together. I would struggle being part of this potentially powerful experience as the downside for me is the “social worker” aspect of people care for which I am not interested or cut out for, plus their spirituality isn’t where I am personally at, something I imagine that would be fairly integral to both this particular community and their ability to fight through the challenges they face. In that regard, I am thankful, humbled and awed by people like the Norlane Urban Seeders, who embody the servant-hearted characteristics of Jesus, plus epic fortitude, patience, grace and good-humour. I will continue to do my part in different ways to hopefully have a positive impact on this world, and I am glad there’s folks like the Urban Seeders to play their vital role!

Find out more about Urban Seed at their website.

pics-735

pics-777

Advertisements

Working on the margins of society

~ DESTINATION FOUR: MELBOURNE ~

Living amongst the poor with some rather nice folks

As with all of this trip so far, my expectations of the people or communities we are about to meet tends to be fairly different than the way it actually is. Never in a bad way though; I guess I am either coming into this with strangely low assumptions (possibly based on my recent negative feelings towards some of the human race) or the people we are meeting truly are exceeding the standards for even the most decent folks! Or perhaps we’ve struck it lucky…or maybe a combination of the three 🙂

The only personal and direct comparison I have to living on the margins with people on the street is the Waiters Union experience as I have mentioned in a previous post. Baptist PlaceIn that experience, members of that community rubbed up against the mentally ill, homeless and other people cast aside by society and worked in that space by sharing meals, starting complimentary businesses and projects, doing creative work and finding ways to walk alongside them and meeting them where they are at. Not surprisingly, the crew at Urban Seed in Melbourne’s CBD are doing many of the same activities. Always surprisingly though is just how much generosity, grace, humbleness and genuine hospitality is apparent through all its members, especially (with no condescension intended) given they are such a young group.

Heidi originally heard about Urban Seed about 15 years ago while my prior knowledge of them was counted in days. Despite celebrating 20 years of service this year, many people that we have spoken to within the city and even ones providing similar services have not heard of them. This low-profile is likely a deliberate approach: it’s not about being flashy (and there’s no budget for that anyway) but simply doing life at the ground level (or even the basement 😉 ) with those in need, particularly the homeless, the damaged and the unwanted members of society. They have a residential internship community consisting mostly of a small volunteer corps who are dedicated to “practising the discipline of hospitality, by inviting others into the home they had built in the church.” Urban Seed says that “everyone needs a place to belong” but with a high staff turnover rate where pretty much no one exists from most of the past 20 years, it is easy to see that offering hospitality and a sense of belonging to those on the margins is not a task for the feint of heart.

Credo cafe

Woodsy (blue shirt) offering lunch

One colourful character named Woodsy has been here for 15 years and would have been around during the “heroin years” as several people have called it, when ODing became a regular occurrence. We first came across Woodsy the moment we entered the Credo Cafe space (which is entered off of Baptist Lane at the back of Collins Street Baptist church) as he was running lunch prep for Tuesday’s weekly “free lunch”. This is how Heidi and I were introduced to the group of random plus live-in volunteers who keep Urban Seed’s numerous programs running day after day. Having been provided with a loose schedule of regular activities with which to attend and essentially shadow the live-ins here, first up for us was helping with Credo’s well-known lunch; it isn’t quite a soup kitchen but certainly provides much-needed meals to folks doing it hard on the streets of Melbourne’s CBD. It was a great introduction to Credo on a number of levels: we got to see the relaxed and friendly nature of the volunteers as they both did their usual chores but also how we were seamlessly brought into the fold; we immediately met the regular Credo diners and spent time hearing their stories; and we enjoyed a generous free meal (Indian curry, grainy bread, drinks and dessert) with leftovers being offered to any of the 30 guests who wanted to take away a container with them.

On our busy first day, we went from the Cafe to an informative meeting with Stephen Said, Urban Seed’s friendly Engagement Manager who answered a lot of our general questions. It reminded us further of how tight this relational work community is as both Heidi and Stephen had a lot of overlapping work and personal contacts despite Urban Seed backyardnever meeting each other before.  An administrative meeting followed that which allowed us to glean some interesting info about the inner workings of the Credo team and the challenges they face with things like homeless folks getting territorial when overstaying their welcome in the Credo “backyard” (the lane behind the church) plus financial concerns, scheduling and other mechanics of living in community.

As with our other stops on this trip so far, there is a lot to absorb and it while we have been gobbling up all this valuable material that our hosts have graciously been providing, it makes for a tired little brain. Luckily there was some available space in one of the apartments of the church office/residence tower for us to crash as some residents were away that week. Our room on the 7th floor was decked out with a PS3 and weight-lifting equipment which initially belied my vision that it would be more monastic given the Christ-centred nature of our hosts. A bit 18th century thinking on my behalf perhaps though I was surprised to see some first-person-shooter games on hand! I guess everyone needs some way to release tensions in this challenging environment!

Last Supper

The rest of our spacious apartment housed Rachel and Scott who were oft absent due to study/work and illness, but our neighbors, Tim and Beth, on the 9th floor were quick to invite us up for dinner the first night. Throughout this trip I have been continually impressed by the hospitable nature of our hosts, and Credo’s group were no different. But it is not just hospitality at work here: it is genuine, open and non-judgemental conversation with good listeners. On top of that, Tim and Beth (plus Jono and Michael the following night) were 20 years my junior yet embodied a mature presence and impressive capability for patient, honest and welcoming companionship. It would be easy to be workmates or friends with people who are so used to thoughtfully engaging with any and everyone. I felt like I could learn a lot from folks like these.

Other highlights from our short visit were: a walk around the area streets with some year 9 students, a writing class with local folks of all backgrounds and a men’s shed morning. The first was a suggestion by Stephen; he thought we’d enjoy the awareness-raising educational walk that Evan year ninesEvan – a non-resident Urban Seeder – does with year 9’s. Apparently they have a program organised with 3/4 of all Victorian schools to do these exposure tours where the kids are invited to examine their own biases and stereotypes to do with homelessness. Learning things like that only 5% of all of the 25,000 homeless in Victoria actually live on the street but those 5% are truly lacking any support system beyond what is offered by government and groups like Urban Seed. Evan was pretty savvy to the thinking of this age group, engaged them effectively and had them all listening carefully by the end of the tour.

Next up was the writing class where we met with a eclectic mix of folks who had been involved in a series of artistic classes with Brigitte, the partner of Evan. She had guided the group through painting and now was writing with photography next month. I was floored by the talent of the 3 older folks as they reeled off fine pieces of literature in our 5-minute timed assignments which reminded me that there are a wealth of stories to be told from people on the streets and in the community-at-large that often never get heard. men shedOn the final morning, there was a Men’s Shed sort of activity where a suburban house and adjoining church hall had organised to have Urban Seeders come in to use a garage full of tools and timber to do wood-building projects. Jono (8th floor) and I took the train out to Ascot Vale and met Woodsy who was the only other person to come this week. There was a mix-up with wood supply which resulted in Jono and I wandering the streets in search of a wood pallet, but luckily my pallet-sniffing senses were still keen from my Holden Hill days and I found us a nice one. We promptly put together a wood crate to be used as part of a table, and were wrapped by lunch.

Jono & Woodsy working

Jono & Woodsy completeIn such a brief stay we managed to experience a microcosm of life in the CBD which, on one hand, seems really inconsequential, but due to the richness of the people involved was surprisingly engaging and educational. I can only imagine what living here for weeks or months would be like (scared to think that I would likely not be cut out for it), but it would have to be something that you would remember the rest of your life. I can’t say that it’s my type of community dream, but I greatly admire the commitment, patience, resilience and devotion of the crew here as they do something very special in the name of their faith and humanity.

Check out Heidi’s take on the visit to Urban Seed.

Lost in Asia

Just a short message to say that I haven’t been deliberately slack at keeping the ol’ blog up to date, but I’ve been writing in my other blog during the past month and a bit as I’ve been prepping for and traveling in SE Asia for the documentary I’ve been filming. The film is called Street Dreams and deals with the problems of human trafficking and the child sex trade due to poverty. We’ve just got back and there are many things I can write in here which directly correspond to my interests in the environment, climate and sustainability so I’ll be sure to get to that soon when I’ve had a chance to proces what I’ve seen and experienced on the trip! So, Stay Tuned! 🙂

Human trafficking and the flesh trade

As a determined proponent for ethical living, I try to do my part in a couple of ways: charitable monthly donations to various groups but also in film-making, my career and passion.

For a couple of years, the film-making didn’t have a particular focus; I was just interested in the medium and wanted to tell stories. I’ve gradually become more visually oriented and am just as keen to shoot the story as to tell it. But the focus of the content has become clearer as I’ve been working more with care-givers, support agencies, churches and disadvantaged people; I see that I am making films about compassion. And empowerment. And vulnerability, empathy, caring, people-over-profits, hope and love. It’s very encouraging to have your eyes opened to ALL the people of this world, not just my immediate community or country, as there are so many amazing stories and people out there. There’s a lot of challenging and often sad stuff that comes with that, but in every struggle, there’s a voice to be heard, someone who has something important to share, and I feel like it’s my responsibility to be listening carefully.

Ethical living in the respect of how we live here (in Australia, in the western world) often comes down to how we spend our money and the footprint that we are leaving on this planet. However, sometimes ethical living needs to be more about the welfare of people afar due to the inequities and injustices that are being done to them as a result of things that aren’t as obvious. Two of those things is human trafficking and international flesh trading. This has become the topic of a documentary that my film partner Jason and I want to shoot for our company Red Earth Films. The film is going to be called Street Dreams.

There are literally millions of children and women (mostly) who are virtually (and sometimes, literally) enslaved as workers in many parts of the world, and often this “work” is in the sex industry. The primary reason for wanted to provide greater exposure for this fact in our film is less because of what they are doing, but how they’ve come to be there. Through an endless cycle of poverty and abuse, these women are forced as children to enter a world where they are prostituting themselves to support their often broken family, broken due to prior abuse but not perpetuated from this line of work selling sex to violent and abusive customers. Often these women (or girls) were raped early on, then are shamed in their community and so feel compelled to, if nothing else, support their family financially as they are now outed for religious or strict cultural reasons. This is very briefly covering only a small part of the problem as there are also the issues of international exploitation, corrupt and seedy lawmakers, unethical and amoral behavior, outdated and unfair male dominance and so much more.

However, our film aims to fuel hope for these girls. They don’t need to feel shame and resort to the sex trade. Nor must they feel that this will go on forever; with small NGOs and individuals out helping girls become educated, trained in other areas and having their self-confidence restored, there is a great deal of action on the ground that provides a reason for hopefulness. We aim to explore the people who are providing this hopeful light as well as exploring what personal dreams and ambitions the girls have as they go down the road to potential rehabilitation.Seeing them overcome the inequities of their world and rise above it would be an amazing thing to see and capture in our story.

We’re very excited about this project and are currently fundraising to be able to visit South-East Asia to shoot the film in a couple of months. If this sounds interesting to you, please visit our website for more info. We feel it’s an important story to tell and everyone is better off when injustices like this are exposed and action is taken.