CERES - Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies is an award winning, not-for-profit, sustainability centre located on 4.5 hectares on the Merri Creek in East Brunswick, Melbourne. flowful meets… talks with the CEO Cinnamon and Communication Manager Sieta at Merri Table, an organic restaurant located within CERES. We chat about CERES' role in the neighborhood, the importance of financial independence and the need to constantly renew and adapt while keeping the main values. Read the full interview here.
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- community space
- sustainable cities
- urban lifestyle
- social enterprise
- harmony with nature and people
- organic vegetables
- sustainable farming
- low-impact living
- environmental education
- beyond sustainability
- deep ecology
Information about CERES - Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies:
- Website: ceres.org.au
Music is by Andrew Healy:
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Read the full interview here:
Hi, I am Karla and this is flowful meets…, a podcast that gives a platform to all wonderful people, projects, organisations and enterprises out there that contribute in whatever way to better world. We talk about how easy it is to contribute to a change but we don’t sugarcoat the challenges you have to face. On flowful meets… people share how to learn from mistakes and how they keep motivated.
Today, flowful meets… Cinnamon and Sieta from CERES, a Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies. CERES is a not-for-profit, sustainability centre located on 4.5 hectares on the Merri Creek in East Brunswick, Melbourne. Unlike all other projects we’ve visited so far, CERES is super established and they do a lot! They run extensive environmental education programs, urban agriculture projects, green technology demonstrations and CERES runs a collection of social enterprises.
Cinnamon: CERES has been in this location for 35 years and today CERES is a 4,5 hectare community space and park in a northern area of Melbourne, Australia. On this side here in East Brunswick we provide a place where people can come together to connect with each other and connect with the earth. And we encourage that in three main ways. So there is the place and the facilities in the park where the community groups and individuals can use to further their sustainability interests or their spiritual interests or their community interests. We run a large education and training program for schools and adults, people with special needs and through that we share sustainability practices and ideas. And we also run a collection of social enterprises and those enterprises deliver sustainability outcomes in themselves and also provide the funds to maintain the park which is open and free to the public
In order to be financially sustainable CERES runs several of social enterprises including a market, grocery, café, community kitchen, organic online supermarket and my favorite, a permaculture and bushfood nursery.
Cinnamon: 2 kilometers north of CERES we take care of an area, a piece of land that has been a market garden since the arrival of Europeans and Chinese in Melbourne.
Sieta: It’s been about 150 years. It continues to be a market garden for through different generations. We have had the Chinese market gardeners there, before then we believe the Wurundjeri the local indigenous people also. It was a fertile land and next to the river and they will also gathered at this place so it is been quite a significant place. So after the Chinese it was the Italian market gardeners and now we are the caretakers.
Cinnamon: We now have some young farmers who are growing food there. And a lot of that food is then moved across to our warehouse which is in another part of CERES in the inner north of Melbourne. In the warehouse we take that food and we also buy food from organic farmers in the broader outside of the city.
People order online and we deliver. So we move quite a lot of organic food through our warehouse, both fresh produced and also grocery items and household items. So that is an important social enterprise for us, our biggest single business.
Melbourne isn’t the only place where CERES is active. With their international outreach program they are linking the local community to friends and partner organizations around the world.
Sieta: We also have an area called CERES GLOBAL, which is quite a small part of us as a business. But they reach out to a whole bunch of different organizations in a whole lot different countries across the world. They’ve recently been going to Cuba, China, India, for many years, Samoa… There is heaps, I cannot remember them anymore. It used to be just India and we also have a relationship with the community in East Arnhem Land up in the Northern Territory, an indigenous community there and they run trips there.
It used to be more about young people going volunteering. Now it is much more about we say making friendships and actually I have been on a few of these trips. On one to India and I feel like particular in terms of sustainable technologies countries like India have far overtaken Australia. So actually we go and learn a lot from these organizations. It is definitely an exchange and we now we take groups of university students. On a project in India, we have been taken some IT for Social Impact students and some, we call them tradies in Australia, people learning building techniques things like that, so. So this is quite an interesting program.
Before CERES set up the site on the Merri Creek, indigenous Wurundjeri people lived on the land. Along with the European invasion, the gold rush and the growth of Melbourne city came challenges for the land. After being a bluestone quarry for many years, the site was turned into a landfill. In 1960, the landfill was capped and the site became wasteland for many years. Water became polluted and the trees and wildlife disappeared.
Sieta: So every tree you can see here have been planted by the community since 1982. There are a few different stories about the founding of CERES, you know all this things there’s is never just one story. But the story that I like to tell and I’ve read a lot about is a “Work for the Dole" scheme, which is an unemployment scheme. People looking for work for themselves and they wanted work that is more meaningful than they were able to find. They wanted kind of little alternative ways of living even in the early days, but really it was founded around unemployment. And so they asked the council if they could have some land; so the local council still owns this land. It was a slightly different council back then, but... the council couldn’t do much with this, because of its status as a former landfill side and because of the powerlines and so they gave the land to this first group of people and they started growing vegetables and they started their recycling scheme and started experimenting with alternative technology.
Cinnamon: I think we have a couple of different sorts of myths, if you like, about how the founding of CERES actually occurred. For some people it can be quite an utopian sort of vision about community members coming together and this thing magically happening. And we wrote about that in a newsletter and one of the people who was actually involved in the founding said actually it was really hard, because we had to lobby state government and lobby the local government and you know keep on it for years and took ages and it was actually an odyssey.
It wasn’t just this sort of magical thing. I can imagine that in the time in the 1980s probably the world would have been more open to having something like this in a way or they would have been fewer barriers. But at the same time it still would have been quite a lot of work
CERES is a place for community-based learning and action focusing on 5 domains: environmental, social, economic, cultural and spiritual. But above all that, CERES aims to reconnect people to each other and the earth.
Cinnamon: The fundamental drivers haven't really changed. As Sieta said it was about job creation and sustainability and education. So those two purposes were in our original constitution and they’re still there. Maybe the drivers have broadened and we are actually now starting to talk about a much deeper purpose, which is about the spiritual connection to the place and to the community and that wasn't talked about in the beginning. But I think, you know, what’s a reason here from the Earth and from the land and from the community really does have that reason for being.
Sieta: We had a period of rapid growth. I have been here 7 years and just when I started it was the start of this real rapid growth period. We had a big philanthropic donation that enabled us to build these buildings here and so it was a sudden vast change to the land with this built environment and all of those social enterprises, that probably wouldn't call itself social enterprises 7 years ago. In a rapid growth like that, I think it is quite tricky to maintain your visions through that. We had a bit of a financial crisis in 2011 from which we have now largely recovered from but during this period there was a lot of focus on financial sustainability and actually I think it was quite freeing our position when 95% to 96% self-funded throughout our social enterprises and our educational services. So we are not reliant on government funding on the whole. So I think our visions have changed a bit like that because previously we would have applied for grants, funding, donations that would have been the focus about income streams whereas now we want our income streams to come from ourselves. I wonder, just thinking out loud if that’s how we’re now able to speak more about this new vision that Cinnamon recently articulated, which is we exist to help people fall in love with the earth again and I wonder if we were looking for grants and funding outside from CERES we might not be able to say something so hippie sounding as that.
And guess what? Flowful loves to hear that hippie sound! Reconnecting with nature is something that I and Lars are practicing almost every day - thanks to our life here at Gaia Ashram. But how can you implement that spiritual approach in an urban environment and within an organizational structure?
Sieta: We are still figuring that one out. But it has been very much something that I personally have been interested in and Cinnamon too; in our lives generally and it sort of is coalescing in our work at CERES. I have a connection with an organization in California who has a leadership program around spiritual ecology for younger people. I struggle to explain what spiritual ecology means but it is kind of what it says on the tin: it is kind of spiritual and ecology (laughing). I guess where science meets sacred. Our approach at CERES is very much about that. It is about people having a deep inner connection to land and to each other; whatever that is. It is different things for different people. And how that can inspire you, motivate you to look after the earth and each other. But it also includes science: knowledge, understanding, ecology.
But unofficially since we started CERES we have been doing this work. People come in to our site at CERES: we have all kind of spiritual groups that meet here, yoga classes, we’ve got a sweat lodge, qigong classes, everything. I’m just looking for ways to more consciously connect those two things in my own life and luckily I am able to do that through CERES and explore it.
CERES spiritual approach is pretty much inspired by Joanna Macy. Joanna Macy is a deep ecologist and system thinker who characterizes three types of environmental change: holding action, which is stopping the destruction of things on the earth, structural change, which is demonstrating news ways of living and shifting consciousness which is changing our relationship with the earth. As CERES isn’t a campaigning organization, one can place CERES work in the second and third category of Joanna Macy’s work. For CERES, it is about reimagining our relationship with each other and the Earth and remembering our deep and radical interconnectedness.
Cinnamon: I hope that CERES inspires that in people whether it’s deliberately through the types of programs that Sieta described and groups that use our site for various spiritual practices or whether it is more settled and people walk in through the gates and they have a different experience; a reality as a result of being in our environment rather than being out there where things are grey and concrete and straight on and hard-boiled. I am hoping that we are offering a softer more receptive more open place where the land can be felt and heard and where people can be felt and heard and connected.
Sieta: Reconnection is important. I think we used to be connected as societies and cultures all around the world and indigenous people have maintained that connection largely. I think that is what’s important in a way of reconnection. It is not about creating something new; it feels like less of a step to remember something that we used to know than to create something new. I don't think it is that big a leap actually. I think it is harder in an urban environment. People don't grow up with nature, like I grew up going camping and I’m happy in the dirt, I like being outside. When I look around people growing up in the city and kids around here they just don't have access to those spaces. But I do think that you can access it through animals like having a dog or a cat or whatever. You connect to that wild nature. At CERES there is a huge opportunity, because we have that land and people are flocking to CERES and the more it is becoming densified around that area the more they wanna come and just be at CERES and connect which each other and the Earth.
In the 1980s the area around CERES was a quite low socio-economic area with light industry along the creek.
Cinnamon: The other thing that significantly changed since the 1980s is the demographics of the area, the residential area surrounding CERES. So given that we are only five kilometers from the CBD of Melbourne, we are in an area that as Sieta said, in the 1980s was a high non-English speaking, high unemployment due to a lot of light industry closing down and moving out of the area. The fact that this was a rubbish dump in that light industrial area in the inner north of Melbourne, this was sort of characteristic at that time. Now, 35 years later, this part of Melbourne has gentrified, densified and is continuing that trend massively. Property prices have significantly changed. We now have a professional, educated, relatively wealthy community around us. And in some ways that wasn't the community that CERES was established to serve in the first instance. But actually that community is now serving CERES and enabling our onsite enterprises to thrive. Because that community wants organic food and wants plants for their garden and wants coffees on the weekend and as a result of that we are able to generate income to make the park available to the wider community of Melbourne and even to the wider internationally community, because we don't charge entry fees for people to come and see the park. So yeah, it is just interesting our relationship with our immediate neighbors and how that has enabled us to grow.
We talked with Cinnamon and Sieta about extrinsic and intrinsic values and how those can be reinforced. Just like us, CERES believes that values like universalism and relationship with the earth can be encouraged by spreading good news instead of apocalyptic stories.
Cinnamon: So I think CERES role is to continue to reinforce those value sets around benevolence and universalism and to continue to validate those values. I think those values are kind of soft, soft isn’t the right word but they are more favorable and gentle and subtle and they can easily just get squashed and pushed aside by mainstream culture that is interested in 3-dimensional reality.
Sieta: Even within the environmental movement we had pressure to have a sign up saying ‘we are in an environmental emergency’ should be the first thing people see when they come into CERES. I think that taps into people’s extrinsic values. I feel unsafe now, I don't think that works either, making people panic. People already know that and they try to deny it and shut down. Just tapping into these intrinsic values more and it is through community and each other as well. Just being at CERES together with you friends and having a cup of tea.
Cinnamon: Having conversations like this and continuing to talk about what is important in whatever opportunity that is. Whether it is across the counter at the nursery or through an education program or over a cup of tea.
But life isn’t always good news. In 2011, CERES was facing a financial crisis.
Cinnamon: There are a number of strategies that we’ve put in place to manage that. So firstly we did some emergency fundraising to cover short term need. Then we did some cost reduction which actually meant unfortunately asking some people to leave. That was hard because obviously we always need more resources and more people doing things but we had to contract a little bit financially and then we really went set out to learn about how to run business properly or more deliberately and to validate the role of social enterprise within an organization like CERES. So previously we’ve had a tension or confusion between are we a charity that is seeking lots of external support from governments, philanthropy and cooperate organizations or are we a business where we are trying to run and based self-sustaining. We would have conversations like the program x isn't making money but that’s okay because doing all of this good in the world, social and environmental work. Then the conversation would stop. We would continue to offer great programs that weren’t making money. I think in 2012 and 2013 we really worked hard on understanding our business model and the business model for each of the enterprises and units within CERES and understanding how they fit into the bigger organization and business model for the whole thing and that really helped the whole management team (this are 18 people) understand there place in the picture and to know that certain parts of the organization are just really there to make money. They are aligned with our overall mission but their primary purpose within the organization is to generate revenue whereas others are there to service the need of some particular community need. That work was really transformative because it validated the role of economic activities within an organization like this.
Sieta: Plus diversity has been one of our strength as well even throughout the financial crisis. If we didn’t do all this different things we wouldn't have so many things to draw on to help us through those times. But we are also founded on innovation. Innovation is tricky because it makes you wanna do more newer, better things... And it’s also risky because it might not work out that is what innovation is about. We don't have a lot of financial capacity to take those risks. Yet we also still have a really strong desire to be innovative. We’ve recently been reflecting on what does it really mean to innovate. What kind of social innovations can we drive?
Besides thinking of social innovations, CERES follows a holistic approach and they are working on being sustainable in every department.
Cinnamon: Over the time CERES is grown and we now have so many visitors and so many things going on the side that our electricity consumption has increased. So we recently had an energy audit done and we are generating about 15% of the electricity that we use on site. The board has set a target of being zero emissions by 2025 and one milestone on the way is 40% reduction by 2020. So we are currently working out how to do that.
Sieta: Even if we did cover all our available surfaces with solar panels the estimate that I saw that we only get to 60%. So how do we get the extra 40% reduction and storage? At the moment storage is not affordable for us and reduction is hard. But that is what we’re really pushing at the moment as well. We’ve got a new carbon budget policy to guide internal staff actions, culture, everything that we are doing. We have I don't know how many commercial kitchens… 5 commercial kitchens, that means heating, cooling, refrigeration is a big one. It will drive innovation again at CERES. Because we gonna have to make those changes to meet our targets.
Cinnamon: Sometimes those decisions required do we have a freezer with icy-poles or do we not because the freezer uses energy but our customers like icy-poles. Whose needs, you know. This is just a micro decision but it is characteristics.
Sieta: And there is bigger decisions about veganism, for example. It has been a hot topic for quite a long time. Because we have a lot of farmers here as well who talk about how in regenerative farming animals have to be involved. Can you ethically source meat and dairy, can you not? Is it more environmental is it not environmental? The science is not necessarily clear. There is a whole lot of ethical reasons not to eat meet. How does this apply into our decision making process?
Usually, flowful meets… way smaller organizations that aren’t well established yet. We’ve grabbed the chance to ask Cinnamon and Sieta what makes a stable organization.
Sieta: I think really understanding finances is important. The reasons why I like spiritual ecologies is where two things meet and I think that applies to a lot of different areas. You can have all the best intentions in the world but if you are running a business you need to understand the business and the current economic system within we are operating. You can’t just hope for the best. I once met on a CERES global trip to India Vandana Shiva, who does a lot of work around organic farming in India. I had what I thought was a really good question, I was like you speak really eloquently about the science and the sacreds, how do you match these two things up and she is just an enormous brain superpower and she looked at me ‘well, they are not separated. You are dichotomizing these vs. that and it’s just that they are not different from each other. Oh really good...
We are really impressed by CERES’ way of developing things further and their way of thinking. But even though CERES is well established we realized that there’s one common thing no matter how small or big the organization or the project is.
Cinnamon: I think the change is all in us. Every single one of us needs to connect internally, that’s it!
We had an amazing and inspiring day at CERES that taught us a lot. Well, and we also had awesome food! Thanks so much Cinnamon and Sieta for taking your time and sharing CERES’ vision and values! For us, their theory of change is just as simple as brilliant!
As people in urban settings don’t really have the opportunity and spaces to connect with nature, with each other and their inner self, we often lack spaces for environmental grassroots movements, sustainable businesses and environmental education. CERES vision is exactly built on that: to help people fall in love with the earth again. But they do more than just providing the site where people can come together, connect with each other and reconnect with the earth. CERES creates opportunities where community groups and individuals can further their interest in sustainability, their spiritual practice or their community interests. By giving a framework for a bunch of sustainable businesses and social enterprises they not only provide sustainable and organic produce for Melbourne- they also create a solid financial foundation for their work.
Whenever you’re in Melbourne you should definitely visit this lovely place and get a little bit closer to Mother Earth! Check out their diverse program on www.ceres.org.au and follow them on facebook, Instagram, twitter and all these things- where you can also find us, flowful!
You can find all links in the show notes below and on our website www.flowful.org. On our website you can also find out what we do, and who we are and what is in our minds.
If you like what CERES does and what we do please share this episode and spread the word.
Music is by beautiful soul Andrew Healy.
Thanks for listening! Be flowful!