As lecturer at the University of Newcastle’s Family Action Centre, Dr Graeme Stuart inspires students to build on the strengths of communities in their work. Graeme also brings his passion for community engagement into his daily life – through volunteer work with Transition Newcastle – a local group committed to fostering sustainable and resilient communities.
We talked to Graeme about his work, including his blog Sustaining Community Engagement.
Tell us about your background, including what drew you into your area of interest?
I was actually born in South Korea and lived there until we returned to mum and dad’s home town of Melbourne when I was seven. Cathy (my partner) and I moved to Newcastle in 1988 after working our way around Australia for 18 months.
I’m passionate about creating just, environmentally sustainable, resilient communities. Maybe I’m a bit of a slow learner but I remain an optimistic idealist. I still believe that when we respond to the potential and good in people that all sorts of possibilities emerge and I’m continually inspired by what individuals and communities can achieve when they work together. My current work at the University’s Family Action Centre allows me to try to inspire students to build on the strengths of communities, to support organisations who are working with marginalised communities and to explore strengths-based work with communities.
What’s been the most unexpected aspect of your work so far?
When I started at the Family Action Centre as a community worker supporting permanent residents of caravan parks, I certainly didn’t expect that ten years later I would be working in an academic position. I also wouldn’t have believed that I would develop and teach online courses on community engagement. I still find it ironic: teaching community engagement without meeting anyone!
Running a five day workshop on strengths-based practice at Standley Chasm (in 38° heat) for people working with remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities would have to be right up there too.
You have a blog about sustaining community engagement. Can you tell us a little about how that came about? How can others get involved?
I describe my blog as “Reflections on strengths-based approaches to community engagement and environmental sustainability with occasional diversions into parenting and life in general.” I started the blog as a way of sharing interesting resources with students and practitioners. I also use it to reflect on my work (both my paid work with the Family Action Centre and my voluntary work with Transition Newcastle), document the progress of Kids’ Vegies on the Verge and foster my writing.
I love it when people share their experiences in comments through the blog. It’s great hearing about all the amazing things that happen in our communities. Everybody is also welcome to come along to our Transition Newcastle events!
What’s been your proudest achievement to date?
Last year Transition Newcastle was highly commended (runner-up) at the NSW Sustainable City Awards for the Transition Streets Challenge – a street level program bringing people together to explore ways of reducing their environmental impact while building a more connected neighbourhood. Despite only having $2600 for the whole program, we wrote a detailed workbook with information, resources and ideas for action addressing water, energy, food, transport and waste/consumption; created fun, thought provoking challenges raising awareness about environmental issues; and trialled the program in five Newcastle streets. Around 1800 volunteer hours went into creating and running the pilot, and it was great to see the way in which the streets came together.
What do you hope will be achieved by what you are doing and what did you achieve or realise personally?
I hope to encourage people to be passionate about working with communities in an inclusive, collaborative manner. So much can be achieved when we build on the strengths of communities and tap into the passions of individuals. As a society we desperately need to re-evaluate our priorities. When we live in a world where the 85 richest people own as much as the poorest 3.5 billion, when our politicians and business leaders seems incapable of addressing climate change and the depletion of resources, and when our economic systems relies on continual economic growth in a finite world; it’s time for a rethink. I hope I can contribute to the people exploring, and creating, alternative futures.
What would be your dream project?
I love the combination of action and reflection in action research so I’d love to be involved in a large scale action research project exploring how Newcastle can become more environmentally sustainable and more resilient. How will we grow our food? What will transport be like in the region? How can we share our resources more? How can we build connections between neighbours? I am sure that at the heart of such a major transformation will be strong, local communities.
Do you draw on any people or resources for inspiration?
I draw inspiration from a range of people and groups. The Asset-Based Community Development Institute and the Coady International Institute have a range of resources on strengths-based approaches to working with communities.
Recently I’ve been inspired by Cathy and our daughters through Kids’ Vegies on the Verge – a vegetable garden they started for kids in our street. It’s been amazing watching how it has transformed relationships in the street.
What’s your favourite Newcastle neighbourhood and why?
I’m very happy in Lambton. We’re in easy walking distance of local state schools, we’re a block away from Lambton Park and the swimming pool, I get good exercise walking to work, and we can ride to the Farmers Market. My father lives in flat in our backyard (or we live in his front yard as he claims) which means we have the benefits of extended family close at hand. Since starting Kids’ Vegies on the Verge, we now know our neighbours much better and our girls have made a whole lot of new friends.
What do you look forward to doing most in Newcastle in summer?
Riding into the foreshore via Throsby Creek with the family.
Getting together with friends over dinner
Where and what was the last greatest meal you had in Newcastle?
Dinner and an ABBA tribute show at Lizotte’s. What a wonderful restaurant and music venue.
Best place to getaway to?
Camping with friends in a bush setting by a river.
Your #1 Newcastle insiders tip?
Visit the Newcastle City Farmers Market on a Sunday.
Can you name a local hero?
I’ve always found David Jack an inspiration. I first met him when he was running the school at the Worimi Juvenile Detention Centre and later worked on a project with him when he was principal at Hamilton Public School. His enthusiasm, hard work and commitment to community engagement are infectious and he certainly makes a huge difference to the communities he works with.
Do you know someone in our region making a difference? Let us know! email@example.com