Blue Mountains Launches Australia’s First Pluriversity

Published by Jack on

The Blue Mountains has long told the story of how its young people are forced to leave the Mountains to study and work, primarily because there haven’t been enough opportunities for them there. But that story may now be about to change! Led by The Big Fix, a broad coalition of government, community groups, organisations and businesses are collaborating to launch Australia’s first Pluriversity – a move which many hope will even begin to attract more young people to the area.

According to Lis Bastian, founder of The Big Fix Inc: “The Pluriversity is a creative way to involve the whole community in providing the education so many of our young people need, especially in those confusing years soon after leaving school.” As Lis points out, while some know exactly what they want to do with their lives, many don’t have a clue. A Pluriversity can offer them a range of life and work experiences, exposure to many cultures, and an opportunity to spend time with diverse mentors exploring what the meaningful jobs of the future might be. “There are jobs that haven’t been thought of yet,” says Lis. “And what better way to vision the way forward than to bring together young people, our business community and organisations, and our inspiring community of artists and designers to brainstorm how young people can create the work they need to live fulfilling and rewarding lives in that future.”

But a Pluriversity isn’t just focused on work opportunities. It’s also focused on learning how to live well, how to pick up the life skills not taught by school and university, and how to connect to both community and our land. With a learning-by-doing approach that will be flexible and affordable, the not-for-profit Blue Mountains Pluriversity hopes to provide a rich and rewarding period of learning in young people’s lives, and a way for many skilled and creative local residents to share their skills to support young people too.

The pilot program for the Pluriversity is the Permaculture Design and Social Enterprise Project currently being trialled from November 2018 to June 2019. This free program for young people aged 16-24ish, has been funded by The Big Fix Inc, Blue Mountains City Council, Bendigo Bank and Sydney Water. For the first time a Permaculture Design Course has been integrated with training in developing a Social Enterprise, and is being followed by six months of mentoring to help young people establish an enterprise in the Blue Mountains. 

Participants include a home-schooled student, young people a few years out of school or just finishing university, and young people who haven’t yet found the right fit in either work or education.

One of the founding students of the Pluriversity, Annabel Pettit, has said: “The Pluriversity is exactly what the Mountains needs – I was so excited when Lis told me about it. It’s going to help add credibility to that really important and often unrecognised process of trying a whole range of totally diverse and  unrelated things before you decide to specialise in one particular area. Local education – I honestly don’t know what’s not to love about that! Already just through this first Youth Permaculture Course, I feel like we’re getting this glimpse into what education could look like beyond high school and uni – we’re learning so much in backyards, bushland and community gardens, and just having a whole heap of fun together in the process.”

Another student, Saskya Clarke, had worked in and then managed a ceramics studio in Sydney for 6 years. She commenced a Bachelor of Design at UNSW, focusing on spatial design, before taking a university break at the start of 2016. She was assaulted whilst travelling overseas and has spent the past two and a half years in recovery from PTSD, working through and navigating the anxiety, grief and depression this trauma triggered.

“As a young woman recovering from PTSD I feel empowered within the Pluriversity to explore the diverse nature of life which resides in and around us. The status quo does not support a holistic education and if personal suffering occurs it’s easy to fall between the gaps. This is my experience and sadly the experience of many others who live with a mental illness. Through being involved with Australia’s first pluralistic education system I have hope for a future where all beings can be nurtured within their communities and grow to their full potential.”

Amelie Vanderstock writes: “A principle of Permaculture that really spoke to me is ‘integrate, don’t segregate’. For me, this Pluriversity Permaculture Course is knitting together what can seem like eclectic passions for science, experimental design, pollinators, artmaking and community organising. As a PhD student in ‘science’ at Uni, it’s hard to find which ‘faculty’ I nest in. Is it biology? Sociology? Education? To address the systems-level issues we are facing, and to celebrate the diversity of experience, skills and interests in our communities, I think we need holistic, systems approaches to our knowledge production and change-making with our communities. With this approach as the soul of this course, I can’t contain my excitement to be one of the first seeds in the Pluriveristy – and can already feel the growth in this experience that I want to share through my teaching!”

Beyond this pilot, the Pluriversity is now gathering the mentors, tutors and work experience placements to offer a range of flexible learning opportunities next year.

According to Lis: “Young people will be able to select mentors, do workshops or courses, try short or long work experience opportunities to build up a work record on their CV, or create events and other learning opportunities that help them learn-by-doing.”

Painter Brooke Sanderson is looking forward to connecting with an artist mentor next year: “University has become an ever-increasing financial commitment and can often feel segregated from the real world. I’m excited to be given the opportunity to connect with a mentor who is passionate in their field of expertise and can take an integrated approach to learning.”

In the current program, young people have already built a food garden at Blue Mountains Food Services, complete with compost bay, pond, herb spiral and vegetable beds. All materials were donated by the community and the produce will be used in the Ben Roberts Cafe, which will now also compost all its vegetable scraps there. They are also designing the Co-housing Project being developed in Hazelbrook, and collaborating to design social enterprises that meet the needs of the Blue Mountains community. The program helps them to develop community-building skills and a whole systems approach to finding solutions for the many challenges ahead.

The alliance of community organisations supporting this pilot project includes The Big Fix, Blue Mountains Permaculture Institute, Blue Mountains City Council, Blue Mountains Food Services and the Ben Roberts Cafe, Blue Mountains Food Co-op, Lyttleton Stores, Mountains Youth Services Team (MYST), Platform Youth Services, The Children’s Garden Project, Blacktown Youth College and Katoomba High School.

Partners for the program being developed in early 2019 include Mtns Made (Blue Mountains Economic Enterprise), Varuna the Writers House, Penrith Performing and Visual Arts Ltd and the Rotary Club of Blackheath.

The Big Fix is now keen to hear from potential mentors in any field, organisations and businesses willing to offer work experience opportunities, and anyone wishing to share job opportunities with young people. 

Lis also sees the Pluriversity creating jobs for many others keen to get involved in training and providing diverse and rewarding experiences. “It takes a whole community to help a young person reach their full potential,” suggests Lis, just as the phone rings and yet another person makes contact to offer their support.

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