Changemaker profile: Shani Graham

By Kari McGregor

Each issue of SHIFT magazine features a changemaker profile. Issue #1 of SHIFT featured The Resistor. Coming up are: The Communicator, The Investigator, The Networker, and The Nurturer. This issue features The Builder.

Inspired by Shani Graham’s recent TEDx talk titled Take a street and build a community, Kari McGregor met with the sustainability guru, co-founder of Ecoburbia and spearhead of the Hulbert Street Sustainability Fiesta to get some insight into what it takes to build community.


The Community Builder: Shani Graham

Shani Graham and her partner Tim Darby have become well known in Fremantle, Western Australia, as ‘sustainability gurus’. Their well-deserved title has its humble roots in peak oil blues and a decision to get practical with a Living Smart course. Having grasped the unpalatable realities of the looming end of the oil era and impending food insecurity, the couple arrived at a crossroads when Shani’s mounting work stress and Tim’s work-related physical injuries signalled the need for a sea-change.

The decision to stay in the Fremantle suburbs instead of running away to the peaceful hills of Bellingen with dreams of an ecovillage required some chewing over. With Tim keen on the idea of self-sufficient homesteading, and Shani concerned about the long-term viability of an isolated location, a compromise was reached: the couple opted for the security of suburban community. According to Shani, when it comes to sustainability, community is integral – without it there is only the facade of sustainability.

Take a street, and build a community

Shani describes her former home of Hulbert Street in Fremantle as fertile ground, with its already high uptake of technical sustainability measures such as solar panels and rainwater tanks. But resilience in the face of economic contraction and the descent from peak oil requires something more: the ability to work together. This knowledge, coupled with the fact that self-sufficiency is an unrealistic goal for most, led Shani to the conclusion that community answers many of the sustainability questions left unanswered by self-sufficiency. I asked Shani what she did to kick-start her Hulbert Street community.

I didn’t present it as that. I don’t think I was even aware of it as that at the beginning; I was just thinking: what can people do together? And if we join together early on, then maybe when things get tougher this is going to make it easier. And that’s actually what happened.

Many people say they want to be part of a community, but when push comes to shove participation is often lacking. Shani zeroes in on the issue of finding common ground. She comments that it is often the case that when people come together to form intentional communities they tend to focus on their differences and tear into one another politically.

So, my theory on this is that those people joined together because they believe that they have a common belief. And they do have a common belief. And they go in thinking that they’re not going to have to argue about anything, any of those core beliefs. But nobody has the same core beliefs. And when you believe that you have things in common and that conflict happens, it really, really hurts. Now, in Hulbert Street, you’d never dream you’d have things in common with the people around you, so there’s no assumption that you’d have beliefs in common. And so when you do find things in common you rejoice! So instead of being upset about the things you don’t have in common, you’re able to rejoice about what you do have.

Shani takes delight in the small surprises that her community offers. Despite the fact that most people in Hulbert Street didn’t seem particularly interested in sustainability, what she discovered was truly heartwarming. Ranging from a gentleman across the street with an enviable olive-preserving recipe to the guy up the road whose alarmingly water-intensive rose garden and verdant lawn disguise the fact that hidden away round the back is the biggest veggie patch you’ve ever seen – these people are the hidden gems of suburbia.

Running away to the hills and joining an intentional community is not a move that is available to everyone, but your own street is as good a starting point for community as any in Shani’s eyes. Community is essentially embedded in place, whether that means connection to the surrounding nature, stories of connection to the land, or simply a connection to the street in which you live.

Recipe for success

I asked Shani what she would point to as the key steps she and Tim took to build their community for those who would like to replicate their success. Shani describes the journey of Hulbert Street from a quiet niche of suburbia to a sustainability hub with an annual fiesta attracting thousands of people each year, but then warns against trying to replicate the Hulbert Street model. A lot of people are looking for a recipe. They see success and they want to replicate it. They think there must be a formula they have to follow, but ultimately each community needs to find their own way.

You can’t replicate what we did. It’s not like I can say “start with a Living Smart course”. I was having a coffee with someone recently who was saying “I want to start community in my street”, and I said “this is what we did”, and he said “I don’t want to start with a Living Smart course”. This is my point. What is it you want to start with? So, what he’s done now is he’s held four or five tomato bottling days – it’s tomato season over here – and he’s got 40% of the street to come along, so they’re now starting to talk to each other in the street, starting to work together.

Shani advises just starting with something you can do together. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a street party or a permablitz; it just has to be something you can do together.

I don’t care what you do, but everybody wants to have that connection. There isn’t a single person who goes “oh no, I wouldn’t want to be involved in that.” Some people might say “I wouldn’t want it every day, and I wouldn’t want meetings in my lounge room”, but I’ve never met anyone who’s gone “nah, that’s not for me and I wouldn’t like to have it” – so you’ve got a captive audience.

Shani describes her vision for Hulbert Street in the future – a realistic future in which, despite economic crisis and the impacts of peak oil, the community is hanging in there on the thread of mutual support. She speaks of the power of visioning the future, but not setting rigid plans and trying to assume control.

Now, I have no doubt that the reason I took that track was because I worked for the education department for a long time, and I was sick to death of writing visions and strategic plans, and I was majorly sick of committees. So, we ran a fiesta for seven and a half thousand with just two meetings. There were 250 volunteers, and a lot of them had never even met each other. We had one meeting with ideas, straight after the fiesta while it’s still fresh, and we had one meeting after we put in the application, and we asked “who wants to do that? Nobody? OK we’ll leave it for another year. Who wants to do this? I do. OK, how much money do you want?” And so, I don’t know if that style is the ideal, but it’s worked.

During the opening ceremony of the Hulbert Street Fiesta one year the organizers allocated anyone who had donated money a very short slot each to say a few words. The major donors elected not to speak, but the politicians who had donated a little each were keen, so Shani asked them to say just two things: First, what inspired you about the fiesta? And second, what are you going to do?

The first two politicians got up and we got the policy spiel (I think they’re told by the party “every time you get the opportunity to speak you need to say this”), and so I ended up, for both of them, saying, “that wasn’t two things, you have to finish now”, which was extremely rude. And the third politician, who’s our local Greens senator, Scott Ludlum, stood up and said “what inspired me about this thing is the government had nothing to do with it, and what I’m gonna do, is I’m gonna get a plant on my way home and I’m gonna grow parsley on my apartment windowsill.” He really got the point that that was what we’re on about.

Individual action

Many critics and commentators claim that individual action isn’t worth focusing on due to its small impact. Shani has various responses to such critique. Although a nebulous notion, there is the ripple in the pond effect. The cumulative effect of behavior change is more concrete: when someone makes a change and begins to think of themselves as ‘green’, they take on this identity, and go on to make more such changes. Then there is the empowerment people feel as a result of making changes in their own lives, which enables them to feel confident in broadening their circle of influence. In her final, and most profound response, Shani talks about Africa’s first ever Nobel Peace Prize-winning woman, Wangari Maathi, and her story of the hummingbird:

She tells the story of a jungle, and in the jungle there’s this massive fire. The fire is so big that there’s nothing anyone can do about it. So all the animals are huddled in this one little corner that’s safe, and they’re saying “there’s nothing we can do; that fire’s too big.” But there’s this little hummingbird that goes to the lake, picks up a bit of water in her beak, and she takes it and she drops it on the fire. Then she flies back to the lake, and she picks up another little bit of water and drops it on the fire. And you get to this point in the story and everyone thinks all the animals are gonna join in, but it doesn’t happen. They don’t join in. they just say to the hummingbird “What are you doing? Even if we all joined in there is nothing we can do about this fire”. And the hummingbird says “what am I doing? I’m doing the best I can”.

There are lots of different answers to that question, but that last one is the reason I do it.       

Circle of influence

To be effective, a change-maker needs to not only focus on issues of concern, but also to identify and navigate their circle of influence. Where your circle of influence lies is not really the point. The point is to work within it as effectively as possible. With great humility, Shani quotes an audience member from a presentation she delivered: “your story is 50% inspiration, and 50% useless”. Not everyone has the same circle of influence, so whatever you tell them works for you may seem useless to them. In this way people often don’t see that what others are doing is valuable.

I loved him saying that because it made me think about what was going on, and what was going on wasn’t useless!

With their circle of influence clear, Shani and Tim don’t go to rallies, and don’t sign petitions unless they are hand-written. Instead, they have set to work on Ecoburbia, their new quarter-acre block on the edge of suburbia where the previous owners had ripped out every green living thing growing there. Their goal? To share space, grow food and provide for people, and foster community. Living in a renovation nightmare with chooks and goats everywhere is just part of the fun.

We want to have as many people living on the block as though it were subdivided. But have them in smaller accommodation so we can provide all their veggies, all their eggs, all their milk, and all their honey. And a proportion of their fruit, meat and cheese. So that’s the goal. How close to that we’ll come, who knows? A big part of our business at the moment is actually documenting that. I don’t just want people to see how it is in the end. I want them to see the dirt and grime.

Ecoburbia is a work in progress and Shani is committed to rolling out that narrative. People are often daunted by the enormity of the task of creating sustainable living spaces. It is helpful to be able to see the work in progress, to see how it all comes together. People are inspired by Ecoburbia, it seems, because it is so tangible, so real; they can see it unfolding in real time. Breaking the work down into its components enables people to see what they themselves are capable of and how to take the first steps.

But ultimately, when quizzed about the most rewarding aspect of her work as a sustainability guru – what would lead her to recommend this pathway to others – Shani’s response is simple: it’s all about the people. All about the community.

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