Focusing more on parenting for the environment

By a riverI’m about to start shifting the focus of my work (and blogging) from community engagement and community development to parenting and families. I’m also going to be focusing more on environmental sustainability by having a particularly focus on parenting for the environment.

Over the last five years or so my work at the Family Action Centre has focused on working with communities. We’ve shaped my work so that communities have been a clear emphasis in my teaching, research and community involvement. The Family Action Centre, however, is going through some significant changes including establishing the discipline of family studies (and offering Australian’s first Master of Family Studies), and becoming more integrated into the mainstream structures of the University of Newcastle (where we are based). While we recognise the importance of community engagement and community development, in the short term, I need to focus more clearly on families.

Much of my work hasn’t really been strongly associated with families and it is time to change this. At one level it is a shame because we have just finished aligning all my work around working with communities. At the same time, this change of direction opens up exciting possibilities. For quite a while I have wanted to focus more on environmental sustainability and while there has been potential to do research around Transition Streets and Transition Newcastle, the link between the Family Action Centre and community engagement in environmental sustainability has been somewhat tenuous.

Exploring how families attempt to raise children who are environmentally sustainable (and possibly how children influence their parents to be more sustainable) is directly relevant to family studies and would be quite consistent with our new direction.

I’m thus planning to start interviewing parents (both mothers and fathers) about how they try to live sustainably as a family and how they try to raise their children to be more environmentally sustainable. There are lots of other exciting possibilities. As well as one-on-one interviews, there is the possibility of focus groups or forums on parenting and sustainability, we could have a group of parents who meet every couple of months to share their experiences and to try new things, I could tap into blogs like Little Eco Footprints and Honeycomb Kids, and I’m sure there are other possibilities.

This change of focus will mean letting go of things I have been working towards, but at the same time, it opens up exciting possibilities. I will keep blogging about working with communities, but there will be a greater focus on families and parenting.

Watch this space!

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. Parenting for a better world
  2. What is Kids’ Vegies on the Verge?
  3. Being a father
  4. A 10 year old’s birthday party
Posted in Family Action Centre | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Teachers phoning parents

(Photo by Johnathan Lyman)

(Photo by Johnathan Lyman)

Imagine the difference to school-family relationships if teachers made a phone call to all families at least once a year, not when there were problems, but just to help build connections. I first heard this idea a number of years ago at a workshop on communicating with your school community and, since then, I have heard from a range of teachers who do this on a regular basis.

Some schools, mainly primary schools, expect the classroom teachers (not specialist teachers) to ring families at least once a term to chat about positive things their child is doing in class. In other primary schools the classroom teachers ring families just in term 1 so that the teacher and parents can start building a connection.

It is less common in high schools, but it can still happen. In one school, the families of students are rung in the first term of their high school career. The students are divided between all teachers who teach year 7 (in NSW) and each teacher has to ring a few parents. The aim is to help build a connection between the school and the families, and to discover if the families have any particular concerns or questions.

I initially wondered about the workload and whether it was worth the effort. I’ve found, however, that teachers are generally positive about making the phone calls. They say that it helps create a positive relationship between the school and families, it can help break down barriers (partly because parents expect a phone call home to be negative), it encourages parents to be involved in the classroom or school, and it helps if problems arise later in the year.

Community engagement often works best when time is taken to build relationships and this is a great example.

Have you tried this or had the school ring you (not just when there was a problem)? What do you think?

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. Making parents feel welcome in schools
  2. Community engagement in turning around schools
  3. Family and community engagement by schools
  4. 6 keys to community engagement in schools
  5. A World Cafe in a school – a step-by-step description
Posted in Community engagement, Schools | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

A day of climate action in 162 countries

Last weekend saw rallies around the world call for action on climate change. There were 2646 events in 162 countries.

The momentum is building but unfortunately it takes time. I would love to see Australia hosting rallies the size of the nuclear disarmament ones in the mid 80’s where 100,000s were in the street calling for change. I’m sure it will come.

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. A Global Day of Climate Action – 21 September 2014
  2. The Renewable Energy Target
  3. A statistically representative climate change debate
  4. 10 ways to reduce your consumption
  5. Consumption and the Transition movement


Posted in Community engagement, Environmental sustainability, Videos | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Global Day of Climate Action – 21 September 2014



Today is a Global Day of Climate Action! Millions of people around the world will be calling for urgent action to address climate change. We clearly need leaders who take climate change seriously and who will inspire urgent action.

Unfortunately in Australia, the Federal Government has made Australia the first country in the world to abolish a price on carbon, it has abolished the Climate Commission (an independent body established to advise the Government on the science and economics of carbon pricing), attempted to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Renewable Energy Agency (but was blocked in the senate) and is planning to abolish or wind back the Renewable Energy Target (after establishing a review headed by somebody skeptical that climate change is being caused by humans). (For more on the Abbott Government record on the environment see this article by The Guardian.)

Around the world we seem to be putting short-term economic considerations before the long-term interests of the environment. It is an incredibly short-sighted approach. You can find out more about events around the world at

Please add your voice!

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. The Renewable Energy Target
  2. A statistically representative climate change debate
  3. What is the Transition Streets Challenge?
  4. 10 ways to reduce your consumption
  5. Consumption and the Transition movement


Posted in Environmental sustainability, Videos | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Blue Men: Message to Humanity

Humour can be powerful in getting across a message. This short video is entertaining but also has an important message. I particularly like the line “Please take a moment to locate this planet’s emergency exits. As you can see, there aren’t any.”

Humanity, there are no emergency exits!

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at the following videos (all of which are entertaining while addressing an important issue):

  1. A statistically representative climate change debate
  2. What is organic?
  3. Ron Finley: A guerilla gardener in South Central LA
  4. Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!
  5. The Meatrix
Posted in Environmental sustainability, Videos | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Food month(s) for our Transition Streets group

Famers market visitTransition Streets addresses five broad areas: energy, water, food, transport and consumption & waste. Food has clearly been the topic that has caught the interest of our group the most. We normally spend a month on each topic, but we’ve spent two interesting months discussing food. There is so much too talk about including:

  • How do we make decisions about what to buy? (E.g., is it better to buy imported organic tomatoes or locally grown non-organic ones?)
  • Where do we shop?
  • How do we minimise food waste?
  • What do we consider important for a healthy diet?
  • How can we encourage our children to eat well?

Some of our group decided to ride our bikes to our local farmers market. Some of us (like Cathy and I) shop there regularly, while some of us had only been a couple of times. As we wandered around we discussed where were good places to buy our fruit and vegetables.

There are a wide range of options at the market just in terms of fruit and vegetables. Some are certified organic, some are “chemical free”, some are locally grown using conventional means and some just go to the commercial fruit and vegetable market and have produce you would find in any local green grocer. When Cathy and I shop we think about the nature of the pesticides and fertilisers used (we prefer organic and chemical free), the food miles (we try to buy locally grown), the amount of packaging (we avoid plastic) and the cost (we don’t mind paying a bit more but generally avoid really expensive foods). Because we go regularly, we now know where we will do most of our shopping, and are familiar with some of the stall-holders.

It can be quite a social event. This time we had morning tea (they have some great dumplings, popcorn and macaroons to name a few) and wandered around slowly. We often run into people we know and have a chat. It’s such a different experience to going to a supermarket (although in cold, windy or wet weather it can be a bit miserable).

As an aside, the downside is that farmers markets are putting extra pressure on local green grocers. We buy much less from our local shop because we are growing more and buying from the farmers market. I suspect that many of the people who shop at the markets would be more likely to buy from a green grocer rather than a supermarket, so the markets could be taking business away from green grocers.

Cooking afternoonOur Transition Streets group has also decided to have regular cooking afternoons. At our first one, four households learnt how to make sourkraut (fermented cabbage) and made a huge pot of tomato chutney. Interestingly the chutney recipe was one that Cathy and I enjoyed 20 years ago. When we made it this time, it was WAY to salty – how our eating habits have changed. We’ve had to make some more with no salt to reduce its salt levels. Next time we will reduce the salt by about 90%!

We are going to learn how to preserve fruit and vegies, make sour dough, find a better chutney recipe and explore ways of using the produce we grow. Coming together with friends helps make a potential chore in to an enjoyable pastime.

One of the strengths of Transition Streets is that it makes these types of activities more likely. Because we are creating relationships in the street in the context of environmental sustainability, we tend to have conversations about sustainability and share our ideas and experiences. Taking part in Transition Streets is certainly helping us to create closer relationships with our neighbours and to continue making small, but significant changes, to our way of life.

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. What is the Transition Streets Challenge?
  2. What is Kids’ Vegies on the Verge?
  3. Take a street and build a community
  4. Ron Finley: A guerilla gardener in South Central LA
  5. An edible town?
Posted in Community engagement, Transition Newcastle | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Reflections on using conversations in a course on community engagement

FSF 2012-34 smallIn the undergraduate online community engagement elective I teach, I introduce students to strengths-based approaches (e.g., asset-based community-driven development and appreciative inquiry). To encourage them to think about the difference between deficit-based questions and strengths-based questions, I ask students to have a conversation with two people. I ask them to ask one person about:

  1. What they think is wrong with their community?
  2. What are the major needs of their community?
  3. What could be done to address these needs?

I ask them to ask the other person about:

  1. What they think are the strengths of their community?
  2. A time they felt their community was at its best?
  3. What they value most about their community?
  4. How they think they could help improve their community?

While I like this as an exercise it doesn’t really help them see the difference between the two approaches. They only speak to two people so there are many other variables in play, and so some students find that the deficit-based questions work better. Most students end thinking that it would be best to combine both sets of questions.

If this was a face-to-face class (and all students attended the classes), we could explore this much further but the online nature of the class makes this difficult. Despite it having limitations in demonstrating the advantages of a strengths-based approach, I think it still highlights four useful principles.

The questions we ask can have a big influence on the responses we receive. This means that we need to think very carefully about the types of questions we ask.

Most of the students realise that the questions had a large influence on how people responded. Of course people’s personalities, experience of their community, mood, etc., also had a major influence, but the questions we ask are very important (as is demonstrated in the following short clip from “Yes Prime Minster”).

As Kral (1989) suggests

If we ask people to look for deficits, they will usually find them, and their view of situations will be coloured by this. If we ask people to look for successes, they will usually find them, and their view of situations will be coloured by this.

We can create very different pictures of the same community depending on whether we focus on the deficits or the strengths. (See for example A story of two communities).

Community engagement aims to address issues affecting the well-being of communities (Department of Sustainability and Environment, 2005). This means that we need to do more than just identify the strengths of communities.

Clearly it is not helpful to only consider the strengths of communities and to ignore the challenges and problems in a community. Strengths-based approaches to working with communities do not look at them through rose-coloured glasses. We work with communities in order to help improve them and so we need to discover what needs to change.

In a strengths-based approach our focus may be on the strengths and resources of a community, but we don’t ignore problems.

Many of the students comment on the value of combining both sets of questions. To be honest, I would be very unlikely to use the first set of questions, even though I agree it is important to explore how communities can be improved and the issues faced by community members. One of the problems with the first set of questions is that they can encourage people to look for somebody else to blame. Quite often the problems are seen as the fault of the government, the economy, (other) parents etc.

As one students commented:

The person I interviewed with the negatively geared questions very much took the position that the local and state government were the reasons that the community was not having its needs met. He identified a lack of community activities for young people being a significant issue, as he lives in a semi- rural area where the majority of residents have a low socioeconomic status. He felt that the lack of government support in creating programs has led to the high crime rates which have negatively affected his community. He also felt disillusioned about participating in the improvement of his community as when his family had petitioned in the past for increased bus services (it is currently impossible to get to the local TAFE using public transport) and no one took their concerns seriously.

The second set of questions tend to encourage people to think about how they can help improve things. Of course this isn’t always the case, but there is a tendency for this to happen.

As the students point out, the advantage with the first set of questions is that they helped identify the needs of the community and what could be improved, and some people were passionately engaged in the discussion. I think we can ask questions about what needs to change in the community in a more positive, future oriented way. By looking forward rather than backwards, we are more likely to promote change and growth. To explore some of the challenges faced by a community, but in a more positive way, we might ask questions like:

  1. What are some of the challenges facing your community and how does the community respond? (Notice the word “challenges” which suggests things can be overcome and that people are encouraged to think about how the community can respond.)
  2. Imagine it is 10 years in the future and your community has just won an award for being the best community in Australia. What would be different? (This essentially explores what is wrong with the community, but does it in a way that encourages a focus on how things can be improved rather than stopping at what is wrong.)
  3. If you could improve one thing about your community, what would it be? (Again the focus is on how things can improve rather than what is wrong.)

Another question I like in World Café’s (which involve more discussion and interaction) is “What time is it for Newcastle?” (or wherever). This question does allow people to explore what needs to change, but it also invites positive responses.

I really like the acronym HOPE which is sometimes used in strengths-based approaches: Helping Other Possibilities Emerge. If we just focus on what is wrong with a community, there is a risk that people will feel powerless to create change. We want to make sure that we ask questions in ways that help other possibilities emerge.

Communities are not homogenous, and different people can have very different experiences of the same community. This means that we need to ensure that we obtain a range of perspectives and think about whose voices are missing.

Sometimes the different responses to questions were largely due to the types of questions asked, but at other times people had quite different experiences of the same community and/or their personalities had a large influence on the responses received. Some people are naturally positive and even when asked about what was wrong with the community they quickly started talking about what they liked about their community. Other people tend to be more negative and even when asked about the strengths of their communities quickly moved on to what was wrong with it.

Sometimes students spoke to two people from the same community and received quite different impressions. Sometimes this could have been due to the questions asked, but at times it was because the people had very different experiences of the same community. As one students suggested:

I noticed that even though the two people came from the same suburb they had encountered very different experiences within the community.

It is thus important when working with communities that we hear from a range of perspectives and experiences. I believe that community engagement should be a principled approach, and so believe it is important to think about whose interests are being served in our work, and argue we have an ethical responsibility to protect the interests of marginalised sections of the community and to consider whose voices are being missed in our conversations. We need to actively seek input from a range of perspectives, particularly marginalised ones.

Our assumptions about people and communities can easily be mistaken. This means that we need to check out our perceptions, be careful of making assumptions, and not make sweeping statements.

At times students were surprised by the responses they received or how people reacted to the questions. Other students made quite broad generalisations or sweeping statements based on their two conversations. For example a student who interviewed a young person and an older person suggested that the interview showed that young people are less connected to the community than older people.

It is important that we keep an open mind, that we don’t rush to conclusions and that we don’t make generalisations based on limited evidence.


I think the students gain a great deal from having conversations with people about their communities and will continue to ask them to do it. I think it is time, however, to change the questions and to use it to explore the strengths of communities and the different experiences of people within their community rather than hoping it will demonstrate the advantages of strengths-based approaches.

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1.  What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  2. What is Appreciative Inquiry?
  3. A story of two communities
  4. A World Cafe in a school – a step-by-step description
  5. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement


Department of Sustainability and Environment. (2005). Effective Engagement: building relationships with community and other stakeholders. Book 1: An introduction to engagement. East Melbourne: Victorian Government Department of Sustainability and Environment.

Kral, R. (1989). Strategies that work: Techniques for solutions in the schools. Milwaukee, WI: Brieg Family Therapy Center.

Posted in Community engagement, Community work, Strengths-based approaches & ABCD, Teaching & facilitation | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Renewable Energy Target

Wind farm (Photo by Nachoman-au)

Wind farm (Photo by Nachoman-au)

Australia is the only country in world to have removed a price carbon and we are now going to slash support for renewable energy.

Dick Warburton, has just completed a review for the Government of the renewable energy target that recommends an immediate closure, or a massive scaling back, of the (up to now) bipartisan 41,000GWh target.

It was incredible that the Government thought it appropriate to appoint Warburton as the chairperson for such an important review when he is sceptical that climate change is being caused by humans. In an interview in February this year, Warburton said:

I am not a denier, nor a sceptic actually, of climate change per se. What I am sceptical is the claims that man-made carbon dioxide is the major cause of global warming. I’m not a denier of that, but I am sceptical of that claim.

In an interview with James Glenday on ABC AM yesterday morning, Warburton was asked “Did your own scepticism about man-made climate change influence this report or its findings at all?” He replied:

Look, my position there James is well known. People know that and you’ve just explained it. But it had no bearing on this report at all. It has no bearing on the terms of reference, it’s not in the terms of reference at all, and there’s no mention of that or effect of that in the report itself. It had no bearing on the report.

Who is he kidding? Even though the Government excluded climate change from the terms of reference (despite climate change being the reason the target was established in the first place) of course climate change has a major bearing on the report. We need a renewable energy target because we need to transition from fossil fuels. We need to encourage research and development in clean energy so that we reduce the human impact on climate change, and we need to support an essential emerging industry. Unfortunately Warburton, despite the scientific consensus, is sceptical about the human impact on climate change, and thus doesn’t see the need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

When Warburton was asked if he thought there was “any point at all in having a renewable energy target?” his response suggests that he doesn’t grasp the importance of clean energy. Warburton argues:

We don’t believe that there needs to be a large scale of renewables being made into the market at a time when there is so much supply.

Energy consumption has been decreasing in Australia since 2010, for a wide range of reasons and people have been making conscious decisions to help reduce energy use. If there is so much supply at the moment, it’s because we have been successful in conserving energy and we should use it as an opportunity to continue reducing our reliance on damaging fossil fuels.

The Renewable Energy Target has been successful in reducing carbon emission and promoting clean energy but the review is threatening to slow down the progress we are making. The recommendations in the review essentially help to prolong the life of the fossil fuel industry at the expense of the renewable energy industry. Which industry would you prefer to support?

As Alan Pears from RMIT University suggests:

The reality is that our electricity future will be very different from our past. Many disruptive technologies and business models are emerging that are undermining the economics of our existing energy system. We also face accelerating climate change. So we really face a question of whether we continue to prop up the existing industry or actively support the emerging energy solutions of energy efficiency, storage, renewable energy and smart management of energy, even if it involves some short-term costs. Would you prefer to go back to landline phones instead of your mobile?

The Prime Minister knew what he was doing when he put Warburton in charge of the review and he has got the result he wanted. We can only hope that public support for clean energy will prevent the recommendations being accepted.

If you want to email your local federal member to express your support for the target, Solar Citizen helps you to do it here.

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. A statistically representative climate change debate
  2. What is the Transition Streets Challenge?
  3. 10 ways to reduce your consumption
  4. Our love affair with the car.
  5. Consumption and the Transition movement
Posted in Environmental sustainability | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Bottom-up community development

Preparing the ground

“You cannot waltz into a community and fix the world…. no matter how well you can dance” (Melinda Jurd, a speech pathology student doing an elective on community engagement).

I love this quote and I think it is so true. A key idea behind asset-based community-driven development (ABCD) is building communities from the inside out. As community workers, our role is to help the community identify their strengths and potential, help them build relationships and listen to, and build on, the aspirations and priorities of community members.  Rather than adopting a top-down approach with us as the experts, we need to be skilled at bottom-up approaches.

In the LinkedIn Community Engagement discussion board, Dan Duncan recently argued that:

People do not need programs to improve their lives. Programs are an artificial construct developed in the dance between grantors and grantees to help nonprofits re-package themselves to ensure continued funding. What people need are an increasing number of positive relationships and activities to help them become producers of their own and their community’s well-being. The best work nonprofits can do is to help the people they serve build relationships, especially in the neighborhood or community were they live and work to remove barriers so the people they serve have a real opportunity to become producers and not just program recipients. We need everyone’s gifts to build strong communities not more programs.

I don’t agree that programs are always bad and that they are only ways for nonprofits to maintain funding, but I do agree with most of what he says. At times communities do need external support and resources, but as much as possible we should build on what they already have.  We want to be led by the community, we want to help them remove external and internal barriers, and we want to encourage relationship building.

Bergdall (2003) suggests that:

Effective catalysts from outside of the community don’t do anything directly for people. They encourage people to do things are their own. ABCD emphasises that one leads best by stepping back. Communities drive their own development; catalysts facilitate the process. This implies a number of practical activities that are far easier to talk about than to do (p. 3).

Our emphasis should be on horizontal community engagement (building relationships between community members) rather than vertical community engagement (having the community involved with our organisation and our priorities).

It can be difficult keeping the focus on the community and not taking the lead in what happens, but to me that is the sign of an effective community worker.

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  2. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  3. Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen! (Video)
  4. Jim Diers: Seven principles of asset-based community-driven development (Video)
  5. What is Kids’ Vegies on the Verge?


Bergdall, T. (2003). Reflections on the catalytic role of an outsider in ‘Asset Based Community Development’ (ABCD). Available from

Posted in Community engagement, Community work, Strengths-based approaches & ABCD | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Yarn bombing by kid guerrilla knitters

Yarn bombing 1Yarn bombing 2Knitting is not just for grandmas. Some children (with the help of a couple of adults) in our street recently did some yarn bombing – using knitting and crocheting as a form of graffiti. They’ve started decorating a small bridge over a drain near our place and have plans to do more.

When one of our neighbours suggested the idea, the kids didn’t really have a clear idea of what was involved but were happy to give it a go. They didn’t really do all that much knitting before their first attempt, but since they did the bridge over the weekend, my daughters have been madly knitting so they can try another project! Other people in the street are also likely to join in.

Decorating everyday objects brings a smile to people’s faces and encourages us to re-look at our environment. There are some great examples of much more ambitious projects at

In the hope of encouraging other people to contribute, the kids left a sign inviting other people to finish “dressing” the bridge. We’re looking forward to seeing if anybody takes up the offer – I suspect they will.

Yarn bombing signThe yarn bombing grew out of the connections in the street that have been strengthened by the Kids’ Vegies on the Verge and our local Transition Streets group. It demonstrates that horizontal community engagement (community engagement with neighbours) can be infectious. As people build connections with each other, more possibilities emerge. One of the great things is that, this time, it wasn’t initiated by Cathy. I’m sure it won’t be the last unsuspected thing to sprout from the garden!

Yarn bombing 3If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. What is Kids’ Vegies on the Verge?
  2. What is the Transition Streets Challenge?
  3. Take a street and build a community
  4. Parenting for a better world
  5. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
Posted in Community engagement, Kids' Vegies on the Verge | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments