Meneka Premkumar is living her values

Meneka and her daughter Indira at The Common Good Store                                  Photo by Robin Bowra

When Meneka Premkumar and her husband John Currey opened an organic grocery store around the corner from my house five years ago, it was met with a mixture of curiosity and bemusement. I remember a neighbour saying to me, “That store won’t last.”

Five years on, The Common Good is an integral part of the local community. I love the fact I can wander in, pick something up, and Meneka will be able to tell me where it comes from and who makes or grows it. I also like the way the store and everything in it invites you to consider the impact of our consumption choices.

 Over a pot of tea, Meneka explained how her passion for ethical living turned from an interest into a way of life.

My journey – personally and professionally – is the intersection of the ethics in food, consumption, lifestyle and living. I don’t believe there are these perfect silos in our lives. I think it just becomes how you live and the conviction of what you believe in, more than a business idea or a passion.

It started when I was about 21 and I had my first experience with a naturopath.I used to suffer from eczema on my hands and had seen lots of GPs and tried different treatments. I thought, I’ll give the naturopath a go. She gave me a whole host of different creams and it stopped. I thought, there’s some validity in that. That experience started me on alternative medicine and from there, that’s where the interest in food began.

That was the beginning of my journey to understanding the correlation between food and health. With an inquiring mind, I started thinking, where am I getting my food? What’s in it? What is organic? I realised that making better food choices is about ethics and the willingness to understand how has your food got there? Who was hurt or not hurt in getting this food in front of me? That translates to the clothes I’m wearing, the car I’m driving, where I bank and my superannuation. But it’s not overnight, it’s a journey to arrive there.

When John and I decided to put our ethics where our mouth is, we had already started breaking up with supermarkets. We were procuring most of our food from farmers markets, independent stores or IGAs.  We lived in Richmond at the time and didn’t have any independent stores in our community, so I had to drive to other suburbs to shop. One day, I was driving to Fairfield, and Indira, who was only eight months old, was having a crying fit in the back. I was stressed, and I remember thinking, why can’t I walk to a shop and get what I need? It was a light bulb moment. I thought, I’m going to look into seeing why there’s no organic grocery store in my own community.

Our business and the nature of it is an extension of us, which is why it’s in our own community. It’s the least amount of money I have earned, but the most fulfilled we’ve been. It’s been a slow burn. There’s a generation of people who are used to supermarkets, these hyper maniac places with bright lights where there’s isles and isles of things, and you are made to believe it’s really cheap and you need more of the same thing because ten is cheaper. I think they influence people very negatively, and changing that trajectory is really challenging.

 When I opened my store, the people who first came in and really supported me were the university kids who lived across the road. My parents’ generation romanticised supermarkets, but people who are in their late teens, early 20s, don’t have those positive and romantic notions about supermarkets. There’s a lot that can be improved in young people who are 18 to 25, but what you can’t fault them on is their level of empathy and awareness, and that makes them different and far more mobilised to change things.

 I’ve learned having a business model isn’t enough. I think the authenticity of our store is why its lasted.  While 80% of what we sell can be got elsewhere, what you won’t get is the transparency of what I’m doing with the money you are giving me to buy those products, the back story and the genuine sense of community, because it’s my own neighbourhood.

One of the motivations of the store has been to inspire other people to open identical stores in their own communities. John and I would like to open another store, but we don’t want to franchise it or own many. I have always said to others, if this is something you want to do, come and talk to us and we will open whatever doors we can. I hope what the business says, more than anything else, is that it’s possible to replicate this and inject a sense of community into your own neighbourhood.

 To learn more, visit https://www.commongoodstore.com.au or Instragram thecommongoodstore.

© Matilda Bowra 2018

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Jo Murray is connecting her community

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Jo Murray welcoming people to the Surf Coast Repair Cafe                        photo by Charlotte Bowra

I met Jo through my old friend Sue Guinness. Jo and Sue got together about 20 years ago and since then, I’ve followed their personal journeys with interest.  Both left jobs in Melbourne, embarked on a sea-change and are very active in their local community at Fairhaven on Victoria’s Surf Coast.

Living by the sea has created opportunities for my environmentally conscious friends to be involved in conservation initiatives. Jo cultivates an enormous vegetable patch, is a member of the Community Garden and volunteers at the Tip Shop. With Sue’s support, she recently started a Repair Café.  I spoke with Jo about why she focuses on building awareness and practical initiatives in her community.

I love the outdoors. I was born in Launceston and spent the first nine years there and was lucky enough to have all of my grandparents in Launceston. We had, and still have, a block of land 18 miles out of Launceston that my grandparents bought.  It is a very tranquil, peaceful place on a river. We used to go there a lot on weekends. When we moved to Melbourne, I used to go there every Christmas and school holidays. I still go there to this day at least once or twice a year. I love the fact it’s a simple cottage and there’s not a lot to do; you just slow down, read and relax and spend time with family.

I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school. People were choosing to be nurses and teachers, or lawyers and doctors. We were all really sporty and someone said, ‘I’m going to do Physical Education’ and I thought, That’s a good idea. I taught for eight years and always organised all the sporting events and teams. Then I started organising the interschool sports and camps and found what I really enjoyed was organising events. I decided to do a Graduate Diploma in Business at Deakin University in Sport Management. I studied for two years with the aim of leaving teaching and getting into the event management industry.

Through my work, I learnt the value of volunteers. My first job after teaching was with a national sporting organisation. Then I joined a sports management company that ran events and managed athletes. I ended up at the Grand Prix and was there for the first six formula one events. That’s where I learnt how sport depends so much on volunteers. If all the sporting events had to pay people do to all the jobs that needed to be done, they wouldn’t exist.

I have always had great role models. Dad always volunteered at golf and school fairs, my grandmother was very involved in her bowls club and my mum’s parents were founding members of the National Trust in Tasmania. At school, I coached and umpired hockey and continued this at club level for many years. I also joined committees at my tennis club. These days, my sport volunteering is focussed around golf and local events.

I think building community is really important. A couple of our Repair Café volunteers are new to the area and they see this as a way of meeting people. When you see someone down the street who has repaired something for you, that creates connections. That’s the whole reason I joined the Community Garden about six and a half years ago. From the minute they had a stand at the local market, I wanted to be involved. I didn’t want a plot, because we have a huge garden at home. I wanted to get involved because it is a great way of connecting people and building community.

 Movements like Repair Cafes and Community Gardens have relied on people seeing the ideas and saying, ‘Let’s start these up in our own community.’ We can’t go on filling up landfill and digging more resources out of the ground. I think the best way to change that thinking is to bring national projects like Community Gardens, Plastic Free July or Repair Cafes to a local level. With something like the plastic bag free moment, it’s not something the shire can say ‘We want to make the shire plastic bag free,’ the whole community has to get on board. It’s about people going out to the rest of the community and saying, ‘We’d like to do this, what do you think?’ and getting other people involved. It’s got to be from the grass roots.

The Repair Café is about sharing skills and empowering people. These days, people don’t know how to fix things. Our hedge trimmer broke down. It only cost $79 and it was three years old, so even if I could have found somewhere to have it repaired, it would not have been worth the expense. We ended up taking it to the Melbourne Repair Café (Inner West) in Yarraville where we met this lovely volunteer, James. He unscrewed the plastic casing, straightened the cord out and jiggled a couple of levers, plugged it into the power and it worked. He got me to put it back together again so next time it stops working, I’ll be confident to repair it myself.

It’s about leading by example and educating others. My next thing is to focus on advocating for sustainable actions, starting small via our Community Garden with about 100 members. If we can raise awareness on one action each month, just focus on one thing and get that working, then work on another and then another, hopefully we can bring about permanent changes. Once others see how easy it is, then hopefully they will start making some of the changes too.

Visit Surf Coast Repair Café for more information.

© Matilda Bowra 2017

Katie Spearritt is challenging the status quo

Whether you are a middle-aged man branded as ‘male, pale and stale’ or a young woman pigeon holed as ‘too young and pretty,’ many of us have felt we’ve been put in a box at some stage in our lives.

I’ve experienced many instances where I felt judged or overlooked because of my age or gender. I found it infuriating, demoralising and downright depressing. As a mother of two daughters, I’m hoping with all my heart they will be valued for who they are and what they can contribute.

Fortunately, there are people like Dr Katie Spearritt working to create a better work environment for everyone.  For the last 25 years, Katie has been working in a collaborative, but quietly determined way to encourage us to look at the world through a different lens.

She started her quest for change in the 1990s when equal opportunity was regarded as a women’s issue. Katie, who is the CEO of consulting firm Diversity Partners, believes the drive for innovation and good decision making is now opening doors to exciting developments in diversity and inclusion.

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Katie Spearritt in her backyard                               Photo by Nish Paranavitana

Equity, fairness and the importance of education were such strong tenets when I was growing up. I’m the youngest of four children and my early years were spent in northern Queensland. We moved every couple of years until I was seven because my dad was a high school principal. We were based in Brisbane after that. Both my parents were teachers and held strong values about social justice and equity. Discussions around the dinner table were about what we were learning, politics and how to promote education so people could have opportunities to develop themselves.

History became my thing. I was fascinated by what we could learn from history to inform how we live now. During my Bachelor of Arts at Queensland University, I developed a love of English and History and particularly enjoyed tutorials with Ray Evans, a university lecturer teaching Indigenous studies, Australian history and the earliest courses on gender relations. Ray was an important influence in those early days. He was passionate about the lack of justice for Indigenous people and the fact women were not acknowledged in Australian history.  He supervised my honours thesis which was the first history about Queensland women from 1850 to 1900.

I had a big ah ha moment when I was 23. I got a job as a junior communications specialist with BHP (now BHP Billiton). It opened up the corporate world that had been something of a mystery to me. I worked at BHP for two years and as much as it was the iconic company, I was struck by the lack of diversity, although that was not a word I would have used. You would look up and there were no women. There were certain people who got ahead and certain people who didn’t. It seemed such a laid out path for Anglo men to get into leadership positions. You went to Newcastle Boys High and then the steel works.

I didn’t feel comfortable and was floundering with what am I going to do when I grow up? I stumbled across an article in Time magazine about the Affirmative Action Act and thought, “I don’t see this stuff, where’s this change happening?” I decided to go back to academia and do a PhD looking at the history of the Affirmative Action Act 10 years on. It included a historical review of equal employment efforts in Australia and internationally, as well as case studies with two companies – Hewlett Packard and BHP Petroleum. When I finished, Hewlett Packard asked me to work with them to apply some of the learnings.

Hewlett Packard opened my eyes to the fact that if you put people first, they underpin the profit and the business. I learnt so much about the values of a culture and how values can become part of a company’s DNA. It was a very embryonic but exciting period to be working in diversity. Eventually I left Hewlett Packard and broadened my experience with stints at Coles Myers and NAB before starting my own business.

The focus on different thinking approaches and innovation is creating a much more open mind set to have meaningful discussions about gender and cultural diversity, as well as other dimensions of diversity such as disability and sexual orientation. If you are not open to different thinking and different ways of approaching things, then you end up doing ‘same old same old’ and commercially that’s such a danger. There’s a lot of evidence when you have more gender-balanced and culturally diverse leadership teams, companies perform better. That’s because people are expecting different views because of their different backgrounds. Unconscious bias is very relevant in terms of decision making in companies. It’s about getting people to recognise there are biases, such as affinity biases, the preference to work with people like ourselves, confirmation bias, how we like to have our views confirmed, that reduce the quality of decisions.

There are all these ingrained assumptions in business where people take the status quo for granted. For example, I question the emphasis in some male-dominated industries where people regularly ‘network’ via dinners and drinks outside work hours.  But then people say to me, “That’s how we do business.” I think that’s how you did business when it was all blokes. If you put a woman into that team, or an employee who doesn’t drink, or a single parent, or an introverted person, how inclusive is it?

I’m a fan of bit by bit change where you start the ripple effect. I believe you need to start conversations, encourage people to see things in different ways and look at different ways of working. That ripples out to the point where it becomes more acceptable and easier to make a bigger change. I just chip away each day at practices that don’t seem inclusive and help people to see there’s another way. And that other way is usually much better for overall performance.

I’m very hopeful about the future. I think diversity is becoming more mainstream and hope over time we will see much greater diversity and quite different voices in government, organisations, business and education. Once you see more diversity, I hope people will question, “Are the ways we did it last year still relevant? Have the ways we’ve done it in the past potentially excluded some people? Are there voices we have potentially not heard?”

Visit http://www.diversitypartners.com.au/to learn more.

© Matilda Bowra 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Juliet Le Feuvre is a water warrior

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Juliet relaxing in her backyard with her dog Tessa                                      Photo by Charlotte Bowra

I met Juliet Le Feuvre, Healthy Rivers Campaigner Manager for Environment Victoria, a few years ago and was stuck by her depth of knowledge and deep commitment to improving natural resource management. 

After initially meeting Juliet in the city, I was surprised to bump into her walking her dog in a local park. We discovered we live round the corner from each other and both like walking our dogs early in the morning. This created opportunities for unplanned, highly enjoyable chats which have kept me up-to-date with the happenings at Environment Victoria. But I’ve always wanted to know why she choose to dedicate nearly 30 years of her life to the environment movement? I was delighted when she agreed to share her story.

Nature is what feeds me and replenishes me. I have always loved nature and being outdoors, particularly near water. Water is the start of life, it’s really precious stuff, particularly somewhere like Australia which is a very dry place. I find the contrast between the dry landscapes and beautiful aquatic environments astonishing. I find it truly amazing we have wetlands at all.

The thing that struck me when I moved from Britain to Australia in my 30s was how much untouched bush there was. It was amazing to see you had areas that were not protected that could be protected. There were opportunities which were not available in Europe where there were hardly any wild places left. It was the late 80s and it was a very exciting time in the environment movement. The Hawke Government was doing a lot of world heritage work, there was a feeling conservation was possible. I’d never experienced that before.

My interest in Australian rivers was triggered by a camping trip when the youngest of my three children was two years old.  We went to Hattah Lakes up near Mildura for our first family camping holiday. Our campsite was on the lake shore in a beautiful spot under the red gums. The water in the lake kept rising. We had this row of sticks which we moved every day as the water came higher. The campground was gradually going under water and it was not raining, there was no flooding in Victoria and I wondered, “What’s going on here?” Eventually I realized the water was coming down from a flood event hundreds of kilometres away in NSW. This was a pretty unfamiliar type of river system. In Europe, rivers don’t work like that.

I never imagined I would build a career as a rivers campaigner in my 50s. I’ve had a pretty unconventional career path. After I studied zoology at Cambridge, I had all sorts of jobs from teaching to working on a farm and home decorating. When I arrived in Australia, I started volunteering for environment organisations. While I was volunteering at the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), I got involved in the campaign to halt the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Northern Territory. It was a full on period with blockade buses going up and people getting arrested. It was all new to me. I hung around as a volunteer at ACF, made myself indispensable and eventually they gave me a job.

The most difficult part of my current role is persuading people that just because a river has water in it, doesn’t mean it’s in good health. In Australia, without man-made intervention, our rivers would either be in flood or virtually dried up, there is not a lot of in between. What we’ve done with all the dams is make a lot of in between. People don’t understand, they think if it’s got water in it, it’s fine.  If it weren’t for the dams, the Murray River would be dry right now and there wouldn’t be anything the matter with that.

I find the crunch I’ve identified between climate change and population growth truly scary.  There is less water coming in to our rivers and more demand for water going out. You have two really strong pressures colliding and the jam in the sandwich is the natural environment. I am really concerned, but I don’t think it’s hopeless. If we are smart enough and we care enough and we put a bit more money into it, we can come up with the solutions.

Businesses are now facing community pressure to make positive change and this is creating opportunities. The traditional environment movement path is to jump up and down and say “You are damaging the environment,” until something changes, but that’s not necessarily going to happen. You need more elements in the mix so we are forging new and different partnerships to create change and build a level of support for the environment the politicians can’t ignore.

Visit Environment Victoria for more information.

© Matilda Bowra 2016