With A Little Help From My Mentors: Homegrown Sustainability Initiatives

Friday, June 2, 2017

Gwendoline and Azain Raban have started an Initiatives of Change programme pairing mentors with individuals who are developing projects for a better ecological future. Ruby Nelson-Will reports back after an inspiring chat:

Gwendoline and Azain have been involved throughout their careers in the sustainability industry – Azain as a programme officer at a humanitarian organization and Gwendoline at an environmental consultancy firm. In July 2016, they attended the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security in Switzerland together, and were seized by a vision of empowering future leaders for sustainability.

On their return home to Melbourne, the pair did some market research. ‘There were plenty of mentoring programmes available in career-specific fields or for youth, but nothing specific to environmental projects,’ said Gwendoline.

Teaming up with Initiatives of Change (IofC) Australia was a natural fit: In 2016, IofC was auspicing a series of ‘Next Step Experiments’ that were trialing a number of small-scale initiatives as a way of testing out new directions. Together Gwendoline and Azain began to develop the idea as a programme, based on the vision ‘to empower young leaders in the environment and sustainability fields who wish to create impact through innovative ideas and projects.’

The Sustainable Impact Mentoring (SIM) programme was launched in February 2017 with its first intake of six participants. The programme applies the ‘Human-Centred Design’ methodology, which applies a creative approach to problem solving that places people’s needs at the centre of the design process. Participants attend three workshops with their mentors and relevant resource persons to develop and then implement their ideas, based on the three-phase cycle of Human-Centred Design. In the first workshop, during the ‘inspiration’ phase, participants present their ideas to the project group and immerse themselves in their target communities to develop an understanding of people’s needs and gain feedback on their ideas. The next workshop focuses on theideation’ phase as the participants regroup to make sense of their findings and further define their projects. The final phase is ‘implementation.’

Gwendoline noted that, ‘Most of the projects changed after community interaction during the inspiration phase, due to participants’ further research and their increased insight into the community’s needs.’ The ideas developed included bringing sustainable businesses together through an environmental ‘hub’ space, discouraging the use of plastic bags in stores, and linking an environmental art exhibition with themes of faith and peace.

Amir, one of the project participants, is currently majoring in Sustainability as part of his Bachelor’s degree. His original idea focused on pollination and bees, then changed to look at the use of fertilizers, before he realized that these projects were too large to execute. Now he is looking to inspire and educate young people through creating a zine - a small-scale publication - that will encourage people to make sustainable choices in their own lives. Being part of the SIM programme has offered him the space and structure to be able to explore his ideas and ultimately find an achievable project to implement in the community.

Alan, who worked on restoring Christchurch’s water systems after the 2011 earthquake, has developed electronic location tags that can be ‘read’ onsite via a smartphone to show maps of surrounding manholes, stormwater pits and underground infrastructure. The system supports rapid response to water leaks, overflows, and other problems. As information about hidden infrastructure is available to maintenance workers around the clock, the technology reduces local authorities’ response time to dealing with emergencies, and helps improve maintenance of urban water systems, with resulting benefits for people and the environment.

Reflecting on his personal journey, Alan, who has worked in the wastewater industry for over 30 years said, ‘I started at the bottom of the chain and worked my way up the ladder to supervisor and then project manager. Eventually I realized the same problem [of getting information about underground pipes to enable timely repairs] affected everyone. There had to be a better way.’ Involvement in the SIM programme has enabled Alan to kick-start his idea and gain crucial feedback and encouragement from his mentor and others involved in the programme.

Terry began exploring the idea of developing an ‘environmental hub’ workspace to help new social enterprises and start-ups get off the ground. After he went out into community and spent some time in a co-working studio space, he realized that it was an oversaturated market and his idea needed to be further refined. Eventually he took the decision not to pursue the original idea. Nevertheless, he said, he valued the opportunity of discussing his ideas with others to help ‘give them shape’, and felt he had gained some personal development and validation through talking with like-minded people, spending some time with his mentor and attending the workshops. ‘Taking a step back and letting the process be organic and continually evolve really helped me gain perspective,’ he said.

Participants noted that the main driving factor for becoming involved in the SIM programme was to extend their network by gaining the opportunity to create strong affiliations and community connections. For some, their project may result in the launch of a new business, and for others, such as Maria, the goal is to open an exhibition that will bring together different spiritual groups within the community for World Peace Day in September 2017. She commented, ‘I found it very helpful to have a mentor - or “coach” as I called him - whom I could regularly talk to and who would help keep me on track.’

‘Everybody is passionate about something,’ said Gwendoline. ‘What we are trying to do is unlock the potential in these future leaders and empower them to make a difference in their local communities.’

Mentors give their time as volunteers on the programme; most are individuals who have already made a substantial contribution to sustainability in their fields of work, and are able to share from their experience. Azain, programme co-founder, and IofC Australia council member Paul Ntoumos, an IT consultant, both took part as mentors in the first cycle. Other mentors were Peter Baynard-Smith, CEO of Engineers Without Borders, Anil Bhatta, founder of Clean Energy Solutions, Dean Thompson, manager of food security and natural resources at World Vision Australia, and Kevisato Sanyü, previously a community campaigner at The Wilderness Society.

Participants will be presenting their progress at a public showcase in June (see below for details). They also have had the opportunity to apply to present their projects as part of the Emerging Leaders Programme of the Caux Dialogue on Land and Security, one of a series of annual conferences that take place in Caux, Switzerland, over the Northern Hemisphere summer. This time around, one participant from the first cycle of Sustainable Impact Mentoring has successfully applied to present at Caux. Kristian’s project is developing semi-portable solar technology that will allow solar power to be generated on unused land, then removed later if the land is required for other purposes. The project aims to reduce the land impacts associated with large solar plants.

For many of the projects, this isn’t the last you’ll see of them. While some projects are achievable within the 5-month project cycle period with SIM, others will be just getting started, and there will be many more to come. SIM project cycles are planned to run annually, and – eventually – more frequently and in more locations around Australia.

For more information about the SIM programme, see the project website:

Image Credits : Pixabay