Nurturing our commons

Working at the grassroots with communities is a very powerful way to significantly reduce consumption, worker exploitation, environmental destruction and regenerate land and relationships.

By Sarah Davis
Friday, March 13, 2015

I love what I do. I work with communities at the grassroots, 'Transition Town' style.

My realisation came during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis when I felt disturbed by receiving Kevin Rudd’s ‘gift’ of $900 to go shopping for more ‘stuff’. I found ‘The Story of Stuff’ video and I now view wealth in terms of how healthy the ‘solidarity economy’ is — starting with our local ‘commons’.

In Victoria, we are fortunate to have Neighbourhood Houses — although the changing demographics mean many in our communities do not tend to know about, or appreciate, how amazing Neighbourhood Houses are and can be. After some demographic research and doorknocking, I have planted myself in these commons.

For the 2015 Sustainable Living Festival, I created an event at SPAN Community House in Thornbury to showcase existing courses and activities and to launch ‘Sustainable Sundays at SPAN’ — an incubator for skills sharing and new program development.

At this event, a local punk rock musician played the old piano to entice people down the hall to the new Resilience Library and workshop, families played tennis and made moss balls with edible weeds, and recently arrived Indian neighbours cooked lunch that we ate while admiring art or discussing our creative writing pieces. It was special that our future carpentry teacher showcased their hand crafted wooden puppets and local gardeners taught us how to make compost and grow food from cuttings in the community garden. The day ended as relaxed as it started with tai chi by a master trainer and a taste of the radical permaculture Doing It Ourselves Choir to come.

Neighbourhood houses were first established during the women's liberation movement. Many women were living in new estates and feeling isolated, but at the same time, freed up to develop their education, self-expression, creativity and community contributions in inexpensive, welcoming and supportive places. This legacy continues. The Neighbourhood House sector values align with my own — a community development approach of ‘doing with, rather than doing for’ that ‘starts from the assumption that communities have existing strengths and assets'. From an initial 12 Neighbourhood Houses in the 1970s, established through charitable organisations, gifts from wills and later through government funding, the sector now has 400 houses. 

I feel that it is time for another liberation movement — this time from long hours of work and stress based on scarcity thinking, so that we can be free to be more active citizens with time for our health, relationships and sharing of the abundance we have. Existing community infrastructure makes it easier to work together.

As a downshifter with more time for community, I am finding so many personal and environmental benefits from growing food, lowering energy use like the Greener Houses and sharing skills, tools and resources. Heading into Global Financial Crisis 2.0 and in post-peak oil territory, I feel more equipped to weather the coming storms with my community. Whatever happens, this is just a more fulfilling and regenerative way to live.

We need a new generation of people to nurture our Neighbourhood Houses and enable us all to live by our community values.

Where are the Neighbourhood Houses and other commons in your area? Commons are only tragic when there is no one to nurture them.