The rollercoaster ride of a new initiative
I'm really excited about being a social reporter. Since starting Transition Dartmouth Park in September, I've been reading the TN site a lot, especially when I get stuck and I'm not sure what to do next and have found it very helpful.
Recently I've been quite hooked on the stories - they're a different kind of support, the experiences of people who are going through the same things, encountering similar dilemmas, and make me feel part of the wider Transition community. I hope in sharing the ups, downs and stories of our initiative I can do the same for others, and also let off a bit of steam now and then!
My first Transition encounter was a 'foraging for all seasons' course, two and a half years ago, run by Transition Belsize. It was the same weekend as the COP 15 summit in Copenhagen, and in a former life as a full-on activist I would have been mobilising people to go there and would probably have spent the weekend on the streets being tear-gassed by police. But a job, a small child and a house move made it just impossible and I realised I needed to try and find a way to create change locally, in a way that had an immediate and concrete impact on the lives of myself and my son. My three year old son Luca had asked me where vegetables came from and if he could help the farmer grow them. A google search revealed Transition Belsize and although it felt like a cop-out (no pun intended!) to spend the day wandering Hampstead Heath and cooking while the fate of the planet hung in the balance, the four days of foraging (one per season over a year) was a life-transforming experience. The world leaders failed to agree on a way forward, but after a life approaching things politically I found my first real connection with nature. The days spent observing plants through the seasons have since informed my understanding of permaculture and food growing.
I went on to start a local food production project for Transition Belsize - learning and teaching others to cook wild and gathered food. This has had a wonderful impact on Luca's childhood, on the time he and I spend together, and how much he has learnt about plants and growing. Now nearly six, he knows more about foraging and food growing than many adults and will tell people he meets about elderflowers and nettle pesto.
After around eighteen months with Belsize I started Transition Dartmouth Park (the other side of Hampstead Heath, where I live). It took a long time to build the confidence to do this, and while thinking about it I tried to observe my area, the geography, community hubs in kind of a permaculture planning way. I think having been part of another initiative and seeing what worked and what didn't, over the last couple of years, has helped inform our new intiative. We've also felt the support of being in a part of North London where we're surrounded by other Transition groups - Kentish Town, Tufnell Park, Finsbury Park and most recently Highgate.
I started Dartmouth Park last September with my neighbour Lyn. We have kids at the same school across the road and share a communal garden on our council estate. We both wanted to start growing food and get our neighbours involved, and I persuaded her that our neighbourhood needed a Transition group.
Nine months on we have a great core group and some strong partnerships with key community hubs - our local community centre, the primary school PTA, and links with several TRAs and growing groups.
Dartmouth Park is a village-like area in the borough of Camden and home to around 8000 people. The area has a large contingent of families with young children, a high number of single parents, and also a large population of over 60's. Getting a good range of generations involved has been a key aim and I'm pleased to say our core group is representative of this - while around half of us have primary age children, there are also a number of older people who have been active in the community for many years. We've been careful to try and schedule events at different times of the day and week to include people who work and those with children, and kids are welcome at all of our meetings and events. We've also tried to vary the kinds of events and activities we do for the same reason and to use child friendly spaces (and not too many pubs!) Our awareness raising strategy so far has been to try and start projects straight away, in spaces which are community hubs, so people 'bump into' Transition in action, in the course of their daily routines, rather than having to come to us.
Story so far
It feels like we're going really fast - in only nine months we have started new food growing projects at our community centre (in a garden that was disused for 30 years!) and on my estate, held an Introduction to Permaculture course, and have just matched our first two lots of first 'garden sharers'. The Whittington hospital approached us to start growing food there - we're working with Transition Highgate and a group of enthusiastic hospital staff to collaboratively design the space and start a gardening club. In the future we hope to plant a forest garden on a second plot of land on the hospital site.
We have monthly craft and DIY sessions - so far on knitting, sewing and making plant labels. We've started an after school gardening club with Brookfield primary school, and have pressed apples in the playground, made seed bombs at their jumble sale, and held an assembly on waste. A local secondary school have recently approached us and we're exploring how to work with them on container growing with the students. What was exciting for me was when the deputy head said 'food growing is just the way in - then we'll Transition the school'(!)
Highs and lows
The high points for me so far were: 'Mission Compost' when we had 5 tonnes of free municipal compost delivered to a local building site, and against the odds more than 30 people showed up to help us shift it to our food projects, the two local schools and other local gardening groups in just one morning. It was quite unintentionally the most visible thing we've done - with cars stopping in the street to ask what on earth we were up to! And seeing the previously disused community centre garden transformed into a sunny space full of people, salad and runner beans. And my son's best friend who only eats ham sandwiches and hates fruit joining the school gardening club - it remains to be seen whether he'll actually eat any of the strawberries they've planted.
The least successful thing so far has been trying to get neighbours on our estate involved in food growing, despite many attempts. But they are generally supportive and pleased that the garden is becoming a nicer place to be and I'm still hopeful.
I do worry that the whole thing is going to collapse, that the amazing goodwill and positivity so far has just been the initial momentum that many TIs experience when they start. Lyn - after doing great work networking and helping with events in the initial phase, has stepped back from coordination, unable to give any more time. But although we are doing a lot, most core group members are only involved in one project and we try to draw in people from the spaces we're working in, in order to make what we're doing more sustainable. This has been a deliberate strategy and time will tell if it works.
Transition is taking a lot of my time too - I was prepared for this, but I work full time (as a climate and oil campaigner for Greenpeace), travel a lot and have a young child, and sometimes wonder how long I can keep going. But I also really need it. I love my job and the changes I can make through my work are bigger than what I can do locally, but these are necesarily long term and sometimes feel abstract. And although work is creative and interesting, after days of phone conferences, blank hotel rooms and Eurostar terminals, I need to connect with the planet not just save it from a distance. When I walk down the street and chat with people whose names I didn't previously know, spend time growing food with people who a few months ago were strangers, I feel the sense of community I have always desired.
I'll leave you with my favourite inspiring pop song - 'Don't Stop Believing' by Glee: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WxPyUzWSPA
Images: 1. Planting edible hedges with children on my estate (Feb) 2. Luca advertising seed bomb making at his school jumble sale (March) 3. The first session of our school gardening club (April) 4. Potluck lunch and container growing workshop in our community centre food growing space last weekend 5. In our community centre garden