Jen Ringbauer, Rahamim Ecology Centre – Bathurst, a centre that goes about caring for our common home – Earth
The idea sprang from a meeting with our wonderful intern, Juliet – run a Permaculture Design Certificate to teach refugees and asylum seekers about sustainable living in Australia. Incorporating gardening, farming, community building and connection with local community, we approached the funding body, the Mercy Foundation, who jumped at the idea. As well as the practical aspects of permaculture, we were to address issues of Earth’s degradation and social justice.
We decided to locate the course in Footscray, Victoria, and looked for some mentoring to help design and inform the project. Who better than Rowe Morrow, a woman rich with experience teaching permaculture to refugees? Recently returned from Myanmar, Turkey and Greece, Rowe spent two days and many phone calls helping us to design the best course possible. To help in our efforts, Rowe gathered around her a group of people who also had permaculture teaching experience in refugee camps or experience with refugees in Australia.
I felt at this point my learning was very rich and revealing in the area of people’s suffering and the suffering of Earth – but it was just the beginning. I was humbled by the whole experience of sharing and teaching permaculture with new-comers to Australia, and women from a refuge, as well as some local Melbournians who were hoping to start some exciting new projects. It was a group rich with experience in many cultures, climates and communities.
We were able to gather a group of students who were interested in the content and philosophy of permaculture. Besides Melbourne, the students came from Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Some wanted to connect with local community, some to improve gardening skills and others to learn to design for community and gardening for a lower ecological impact.
One of the challenges of the course was that rather than having one or two languages other than English we potentially had four or five. We had to select the students for whom we could supply a translator.
We ran the course in Footscray at a convent that is about to undergo a huge transformation to a community hub for learning, connecting and meeting. It was the perfect place to change grass into an edible landscape – with sheet mulching, herb spiralling and compost creation. One of the students’ final design project was for the space filled with a food forest, outdoor learning space, bees and espaliered fruit trees in the hope of future workshops for the community. I look forward to seeing the progress of this project.
My favourite teaching area was the outside classroom under the kurrajong tree. It seemed that this cultivar of kurrajong grew pencils from its roots, as every time we went out there, we found another handful of pencils – probably left there by the students who came over regularly for their slice of gardening action!
We catered morning tea and lunch using locally sourced, waste-free and package-free food. We were sometimes up late each night cooking meals for the next day. To be all inclusive we catered vegan, halal and gluten-free as per the learning community’s needs. We were showered with loquats for the duration of the course from a tree on “the farm”. We learned many ways to eat and cook with these bountiful fruits.
We gratefully accepted offers from local permaculture educators to help with the course. It was important to the design of the course that local connections were made with permaculture practitioners. To help with local connections Pat Long, Kat Lavers, Emily Hui, Clare Coleman and Kirsty Bishop-Fox helped with various units and site visits. Kat generously offered a visit to her home to see how much food can be grown in a small space plus other ideas. Other site visits included C.E.R.E.S., Flemington and Kensington Community gardens. We were able to connect with the wider community around the convent with a community day of learning about waste free cooking, a quick re-design of the front garden and then working bee with a shared lunch.
How do you assess the success of a PDC? I think the success of my first and subsequent teachings are still coming to fruition. The students all met their personal goals that they set on the very first day. They all proved that they understood and could utilise permaculture principles and ethics. I think the real success was seeing the furrows on the brows of the students disappear throughout the three-week course – changing to beautiful smiles and open faces created by community building and acceptance.
Although our organisation is not in the position to repeat this programme, I would jump at the opportunity to do it again. It is part of my journey into sacred activism – a way to be with Earth and Earth’s communities at this time of great distress.