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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Discovering a lot of common ground

~ DESTINATION FIVE: SEYMOUR ~

Serenity, companionship and social change

What an interesting trip this has been! We’re so very fortunate to have been welcomed into some beautiful communities, with memories that will stick with us for a long time. When we hit our first highlight spots early on, I though that maybe we’d be tailing off a bit from there. But then along comes Commonground, and the goal posts get moved again. CG logoWith lots of laughs, freely offered information, engaging backgrounds, varying journeys, open minds, good work ethics, shared ethos, and different reasons for ending up in this community, our week here with these great people was delightful and, frankly, difficult to leave.

Going into this experience, we already knew about how Commonground had been around since the mid-80’s and were more than just an intentional community, so we felt confident that we’d see a well-established place that couldn’t have lasted this long without having a solid foundation. Interestingly, whereas everywhere else we’d visited so far had an obvious spirituality at its core, Commonground is instead centred around social change. However, there was a palpable “spirit” to this place which transcended a prescribed doctrine.

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What makes them different is that the intentional community aspect – while integral to the whole – forms one part of a system of elements that help bring about social change in our world. Briefly, their three aims as an organisation are:

  • To provide a conference and retreat venue for the social change movement at the Commonground property
  • To provide collaborative workplace education and training to help people work effectively together for social change
  • To develop a vibrant Intentional Community of people living and working together at Commonground.

On their website, they talk about the early days of why the community was started: “We often talked late into the night about everything from economics and its relationship to global

Kate and Phil, two of the original founding members

Kate and Phil, two of the original founding members

poverty and injustices, the grossly unequal sharing of the worlds resources, the nuclear family, women’s issues, indigenous issues and the state of planet Earth!”  Given their wide range of skills and backgrounds, they began to shape their focus: “At some level we did not want to just keep fighting against the structures and problems we saw.  We felt it must be possible to create other ways for us humans to live more collaboratively on the planet.”  Being that they wanted this community to be built on on ongoing movement and not just individual owner/share collective, they opted to be a non-for-profit to ensure that the community continued well past the original owners’ lifetimes there. Two of the original members we hung out with most while there were Phil and Kate; 30 years on and they both seem keen on keeping the original plan on track and intact.

Wedge backyard

Kasia in kitchenThe property at Commonground is set up with numerous buildings, the main one being “The Wedge” (pictured above) where we stayed and which also houses the conference centre and guest accommodation. There are currently about 6 people who live full/part-time at The Wedge with another 7 at other hand-built homes around the 95-acre property. On a given day, nearly everyone living on-site will pass through the Wedge to cook or share a meal, do some work, have a chat or rest. The cooking roster involves everyone and all dinners are shared so the dining room ended up being a great place to catch up on the day and keep the Commonground family close. We never felt uncomfortable being brought into this fold as everyone was quick to engage in conversation, answer our questions or help us out in some way. Heidi and I were given a room in the conference quarters (and later moved when a group rolled in); the whole Wedge building is filled with a myriad of mud-brick walled bedrooms and bathrooms, each with their own character and outlook to the uninterrupted bushland surrounding it. Wedge wallsWhile not built entirely for off-grid living (no solar due to prohibitive cost when it was built, and the need for reliable power during conferences; one outdoor composting toilet but rainwater and dam water within), the innovative acquisition of building materials and recycled pieces that make up the building coupled with a reuse & repair philosophy and zero-waste gardening makes for a very sustainable contribution to the community.

 

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Dinner is always a shared experience filled with great chats, catching up from the day and amazing (mostly vegan!) food

Carl with produce

Carl with some fresh garden produce

Even though we had eyes on Commonground for the intentional living angle, we were visiting as working holidaymakers and were given extracurricular tasks on a daily basis to help out the local residents who might not get to them as often. Our tasks tended towards food-related and preserves as a few items were ready to be harvested. Picking, cutting, juicing and bottling was the core of our labour, lettucebut being that the kitchen is a cross-roads that everyone passes though, it was a good spot for interaction and conversation. To our delight, all this food prep meant we were able to take advantage of the extensive gardens kept up largely by Brian and Carl, with a green-grocer level of variety to choose from! There’s nothing nicer than creating an entire meal out of ingredients pulled from the ground as we did for our lunches many days. Brian had also been keeping bees for the past couple of years, so delicious fresh honey was also always available.

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Brian beehives2I was beginning to think that places like Commonground were an amazing secret with their balance of low-intensity work life, bountiful social interactions, beneficial child-rearing opportunity with co-parenting, constant fresh and healthy foods, low-enviro-impact lifestyle and serenity only an hour out from Melbourne. But I think the word is getting out indirectly through things like their near-weekly groups that use the facilities as a group-work facility, the representation they have in Melbourne, the connection with local town Seymour and the recently-minted boutique music festival which brings in a limited number of punters who are as interested in the workshops as in the music.

Not everyone is rushing to be part of this intentional community despite these inroads, but they seem to get a regular stream of devoted workers/members which continue to keep things afloat. Still, Kate and Phil told us about how they are currently tweaking some of the core membership attributes to ensure that the community lives on well past their own ability to live here which might entice more folks. Kasia and HeidiCommonground takes a certain type of attitude to be part of: living with a close-knit group plus a willingness to hold lightly to money insofar that you are working to contribute to the health of the community but you can’t just walk away with a lump sum if you decide to leave. In my current state of mind, this seems ok to me: with a one-time membership cost of $100, a very modest $30 weekly contribution to the food and bill kitty and 10 hours of expected weekly work for the community in exchange for comfortable on-site accommodation, delicious freshly-grown food, the responsibility of cooking for the household only once a week and the rest of the time spent doing your own work or learning new skills with some of the many projects on the property….well, it seems to me like a great deal. To cap it off, the people you’re living and working with are exceptional, friendly and like-minded folks. To say that we aren’t tempted by what Commonground offers would be an understatement. But this lifestyle still doesn’t seem to be a likelihood for many in mainstream society and I think it all comes down to assets: we cannot acquire anything at Commonground and thus all your work there won’t help you buy anything “in the real world”. Again, I’m not bothered by this, as long as you are willing to concede to living the rest of your life in this or a similar community. Of course, there is time to bank up savings and then move on but I see this type of community as one that you don’t want to leave because it provides you with most of the things we really desire out of life…things you can’t buy.

Mike and Heidi with NgaluThere are heaps of things I could talk about from our week at Commonground like excess cantaloupe (we spent hours making cake, juice and sorbet), the creation and naming of cooch grass beer (Carl came up with “Cooch Hooch”), Kasia’s obsession with psycho-drama to help sell items around the property (none of us could really figure out what a psycho-drama was), Greg’s deftly-placed one-liners at meal times and talk about his recently purchased cigar-box guitar, Phil’s wry sense of humour and helpful direction, Ed’s direct-questioning and foul-mouthed hilarity, Izzy & Carl’s foozball fixation and much more. Overall, it was such a rich week of enjoyment, learning and experiencing community that we are forced to once again re-think what we want out of a community and what could be a good fit for us, even in a shorter term. As usual with this trip, things are getting very exciting!

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As usual, Heidi’s take on Commonground is filled with some beautiful thoughts and a unique perspective from mine. Make sure you have a look.

 

Lifestyle Report – as of Nov 2013

This is my fourth Report (usually once/twice a year) as a way of assessing my successes, targets, improvements and areas I need to be more vigilant with when it comes to simple, ethical, environmentally sustainable and community living.

It might not be an interesting entry to read but it’s a way to keep myself accountable and constantly improving my lifestyle.

I’ve highlighted positive changes in green and backwards steps red. So, as of today:

ETHICAL/SUSTAINABLE LIVING

• grocery shopping (with % of how often I do it)
— observing a vegan lifestyle (due to my work and my beliefs, I allow myself some leeway but am committed to greatly reducing or eliminating meat and dairy everywhere possible (90%)
— local green grocer for veg (75%)
— leftover bread free at end of baker business day (0% – though eating less bread in general);
— skip-dipping/dumpster diving (0% – slack but they are hard to find and I’m not really looking)
— major supermarket for all else (20% – Coles/Woolies, 70% – Foodland (local);
— Fair Trade where possible (tea, chocolate, recent clothing)
— organic where possible/affordable (25% – food, soap & shampoo)
— use Ethical Guide to boycott bad companies (50% – need more vigilance here);
— boycott GMO foods (70% where possible)
— boycott food with known cruel processes (90% where known)
— food miles, locally produced (50%)
— meat consumption (0% of meals)
— dairy consumption (5-10%)
— toilet paper from Who Gives A Crap (50% of proceeds go to developing countries with poor sanitation to help built toilets) (100%)

• grow own food (10% – tomatoes, eggplant, herbs)

• household shopping: I only buy new from store if I can’t get from op shop or build myself;
— purchased new in past year:
—– furniture (0%)
—– clothes (10%)
—–accessories (15%)
—– car (0%)

• home energy:
— electricity:
—– solar/renewable = no
—– aircon/heating (15%)
—– computer (off at night)
—– fridge (2/5 star rating)
—– dryer (0%);
— water:
—– rainwater tank (0% – no longer have one)
—– grey water for garden (15% – washing machine only)
—– shower avg. duration (5 mins)
—– garden (10%)
—– dishwasher (0%)
—– washing machine (top loader 2/5 star rating)

• waste:
— food scraps (100% goes to compost);
— wasted food (5%);
— recyclables like glass, paper, aluminium cans (95% to recycle bin, 5% kept for food/household storage);
— wasted paper (minimal use of printer, kitchen & recycled toilet paper)
— wood (90% saved for building material); haven’t built much now that I have what I need!
— white goods, electronics, equipment (0%)

Areas to Improve: fewer food miles; support local; buy organic if it makes sense & affordable; grow more of our own food; continue to consume less energy & town water. As it gets hotter, it is tempting to use aircon but we generally don’t succumb until about 35 degrees or more.

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SIMPLE LIVING
• build most of my own furniture (lounge daybeds, coffee table, office desk, outdoor tables & seats)
• other furnishings have been donated (bed, futon, tv & DVD) or secondhand (kitchen table & chairs, office chair, rug);
• buy nothing that isn’t essential to the household or work
• work less, spend more time connecting with friends & family; (has been a very busy past 3 years. Trying to find that work-life balance again)
• spend money on essentials, friends, charities;

Areas to Improve: connect more with real (not virtual) people

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ENVIRONMENTAL
• approx. annual carbon footprint (avg. based on lifestyle as of today): 4.5 tonnes of CO2 (Aus avg. 16 tonnes; world avg. 4 tonnes). This is not including my poor flight behavior below 😦
• car usage per month – approx 400kms ; mileage (approx 10kms/L)
• bus instead of drive (20%)
• ride/walk/skate instead of motor transport (10% – 15min walk to shops)
• return flights in past year – domestic (2), international (2); Unfortunately, the past couple of years have been baaad. This year was a flight for personal and one trip for business.

Areas to Improve: take fewer flights; walk/skate/bus more rather than car; use less electricity; aim for 4 tonnes/yr CO2 including travel

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COMMUNITY
• I now live with my wife so no more commuting to see one another; most friends are the same distance or closer now though
• intentional community living (share house or close living) = no
• share property or resources with community (some household items, driving, food with my wife’s best friend; borrow from other friends occasionally)
• collect hard rubbish from neighbourhood
• engage in conversation or help with mentally/physically challenged people in neighbourhood (0%)
• give to charities (monthly to: 3 x global aid, 2 x animal, 2 x activism organisation, 1 x community fund )
• volunteer with some friends’ and charitable projects
• community gatherings for shared weekly meals and social activities

Areas to Improve: aim to achieve closer and more intentional community; share more resources; be more accepting of minority/disadvantaged; give more to charities; get more involved with meaningful & helpful projects

NOV 2013 SUMMARY: overall, doing the right things still but still not socialising much due to workload. Some areas I can still be a bit more green. Would love to get more friends to jump onboard different aspects of sustainable, ethical or green living but am still trying to take the approach of “be the change you want to see in the world” however it is not always easy not to promote/preach, be judgmental or not be hypocritical. Involving myself in a great deal more research, protests and campaigns and becoming more politically aware. Taking a strong stance against animal cruelty and using social media to regularly drop hints to friends/the public. Trying not to become overwhelmed or too despondent about the current state of the world and others’ apathy to change!

Swirly lifey stuff

I’m on the eve of my tenth move in 2 years, weary at the thought in principle but on further reflection, relishing the idea that I have very little “stuff” to actually move. What a change!

As recent as 2 months ago, I had to haul things I had in storage at a friend’s place in Brisbane over to another friend’s place (bless their hearts for being so kind to make room for my crap) which took a 1 1/2 ton truck and about 10 hours of my time to load and unload. This is of course stuff that I am not using, just towing about from one location to the next with consideration of using it at some point. Meanwhile, I have been successfully living my life for the past year and a half with none of it. Sure, I miss the odd thing like when I say “oh, I have a Breville in storage; would be good to have a toastie right now” or “my golf clubs are in storage,” but these things happen so infrequently as to not recall thinking of them moments later. So when I thought “oh here we go again, another bloomin’ move (substitute “bloomin” with a more colourful term), I was pleasantly surprised to find when I really thought about it, I have about 4 or 5 boxes of stuff, clothes and 4 or 5 items of furniture and that’s it. Easy. Yay!

Interestingly, I’m possibly moving out with my girlfriend’s friend (my beautiful Heidi is old-fashioned so we cannot live together yet and thus the living with her friend 🙂 ) who is very much a simple-living-eco-friendly-sustainability-loving-community-oriented person like I have become, which is a new experience for me. Perusing potential dwellings with someone who heads out to the backyard first to see where the veggie patch might go before looking at the house itself is different but refreshing; I like her priorities! After many years of looking at things through the standard lazy commercialised-living lens as many other people do, I’m truly starting to consider things like: hoping for rainwater tanks and solar panels on the property; how passive heating/cooling will work effectively in the house; what fruit trees exist on the land and how much space is there for growing veggies; ensuring there is opportunity for community gatherings and sharing meals with people; and making sure that shops are walkable/rideable to conserve fuel. Whereby I was quite happy to live alone until recently, I’m now reveling in the opportunity to live with someone else and develop a greater sense of community; something I’ve spoken about but not really put into practice yet. It’s quite exciting!

I’ll update when I find a new place and we’ll see how many of these new thoughts have been put into practice.

All of this moving comes amidst a push for funding on my human trafficking film which we’re starting to work on. My feelings about the environment and climate change became blurred when I was away looking at people dying or screwing up their lives from poverty, but I’ll save that for my next blog entry. G’night! 🙂

Green Smart Pots

I was in South Australia’s McLaren Vale wine-growing region recently and met a lovely gentleman and olive farmer named Tony who sold us some tasty homemade olive oil and then proceeded to show us some of his organic veggies. He had this amazing veggie patch with beautiful, healthy herbs and veggies all growing in these plastic tubs. He mentioned a business that his uncle had started called Green Smart Pots which were what we were observing here which have a clever self-watering system especially designed for Australia’s strict water restrictions. Little “wicks” draw the water up from the base and keep the plants healthy without over or under-watering them. This sort of thing has been around for awhile, but these were excellent designs that we could see working beautifully with our own eyes.

This is something I have been putting off due to being in a rental house situation and not wanting to alter things too much. That, and also not wanting to put a lot of effort into a garden only to leave one day and not be able to take it with me. This system definitely solves both problems and gives people with even the most modest amount of space a way to grow their own food and steal back from the big grocery stores the expensive, chemical-covered, food-mile laden and generally poor excuse for fresh veggies and herbs that they peddle!