A community based social enterprise building momentum with young people and resettled refugees.
In lush hinterland regions, the permaculture you see is often back-to-the-land-ers, escaping the big smoke to build a mud-brick houses and self-sufficiency. In built-up areas it’s a community of active backyard gardeners, permablitzing their way through the burbs. In more conservative, rural areas you may find a quiet pocket of reformed big ag-ers overseeing islands of healthy soil and healthy chickens.
Permaculture in the shadow of the steelworks in Wollongong is different to in other regions because it’s become primarily a mechanism for social change. In the more disadvantaged suburbs of Wollongong, NSW, permaculture has found its place as a tool for community resilience.
Green Connect is a social enterprise that works in resource recovery and chemical free food growing to create jobs for resettled refugees and young people. It’s a means of creating positive change for the planet and for individuals with limited gateways to employment. It is managed by the Port Kembla Community Project, an umbrella organisation for community development in Wollongong’s southern suburbs.
An innovative project, which Green Connect is having remarkable success with, is Urban Grown, a chemical free community-based farm. The Port Kembla Community Project established Urban Grown. This followed the success of Elemental Permaculture’s Living Classroom Project in the local area. After establishing a successful living classroom at Warrawong High School, the school provided land and the NSW Department of Family and Community Services provided funding, partnering with the Port Kembla Community Project to establish a farm to grow chemical free food and create jobs.
Green Connect began its management of the farm following this set-up, and on a purely voluntary basis and with very limited resources. The farm’s success over the past year can be attributed to the sheer hard work of the Green Connect team, the long-standing volunteer base of the Port Kembla Community Project, and strong community support. Green Connect has other resource recovery projects and is currently working to close the loop on waste and food. In early 2015 it will establish a pick-up service for food waste, compost this waste at the farm, and use this compost to grow food.
Green Connect Farm Manager Callum Champagne emphasises the importance of a strong core of committed people to the success of any social enterprise. These people are committed to outcomes for the community and accept the model, which inevitably straddles the line between driving toward economic sustainability and caring for people and planet. Further to this, in Champagne’s eyes, a social enterprise such as Green Connect must be a grass roots effort with strong support of the immediate community. A bottom up approach means those close to core issues of the community are the ones acting on them. Cal even goes so far as to say he’s glad Green Connect’s management of the farm didn’t start with a lot of resources. It has meant they needed to be immediately accountable for every action and have had no time to coast on large amounts of grant money. The team has made every dollar of their limited budget count, and have begun to make real ground on the profit motive. The farms productivity has increased to the point where it can now employ a farm manager (Callum), a farm hand, and three school students on a part time basis. These positions are supplemented by a strong group of core volunteers.
The farm rests on formerly neglected school land, which includes a creek, infested with blackberries and lantana, hiding dumped vehicles and the unknown. The farm currently occupies the South-facing slope of the gully, with plans to expand to the coveted North slope in the coming year. Green Connect recently launched its weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Veg Box program that enables the farm to sell produce direct to consumers on a subscription basis. Another way that Green Connect will be sharing its produce is through a series of community food days that will include working bees and cooking classes to engage the local community in healthful and sustainable food practices. The community food days will look like a down to earth version of hip (and expensive) farm-to-table events being held in various locales in recent years. These will be a positive way to engage locals including recently resettled refugee families from places like Burma, Iran and across North-West Africa.
The farm is a working model of the permaculture fair share ethic. It shows how people from a wide variety of backgrounds and skill levels can come together with the goal of having enough for all. In this case it is about sharing opportunity as well as the delicious food.
While Urban Grown is still in its early stages the ground that has been covered by Green Connect shows the potential of what a social enterprise can be. In addition to the farm, last year Green Connect employed 12 young people and 99 people from a refugee background and kept 85% of the waste they managed out of landfill.
If you live in the Wollongong area and would like to volunteer your time, expertise or something else to Green Connect visit www.green-connect.com.au/#!get-involved