My writing encompasses seemingly diverse genres of academic writing on rural policy, regional development and transformative community engagement and personal poems. I write to develop an authentic mother tongue connecting people and the landscapes they inhabit. My focus is rural lifestyle and the interdependence of urban and rural communities. Publications include poems in rural women’s and rural newsletters (1987-94), family collections: 60 ahead A timely collection (2012) Occasional poems (2014), articles in rural education journals (1996-98) regional journals (1997-2000) chapters in rural social work and regional development texts (1999-2004) as well as a professional development manual (2000) and Study Circle kits on community engagement (1998, 2015).
By Helen Sheil
‘made from the burl of mountain grey gum, with women’s arms encircling the outside rims, it is a symbol for women in agriculture… the women who feed the world’
(The Weekly Times, 15th July 1998 [Alexander] p.40. Washington Conference)
The year 2019 marked the fifth annual Stories of influence, a gathering of storytellers sharing hidden histories in writing, song, film, walking books and performance at Lake Tyers. My motivation in organising these gatherings has origins in my own life story. The main characters are feminist educators, women who had a vision of how vibrant the world could be if those ‘others’ who were silent, had a voice. They set up programs where this occurred and organisations that welcomed involvement. For me, this liberating experience was not in well-funded institutions in Melbourne, but within the country town of Orbost, East Gippsland.
I welcome the publication of stories of the Gippsland Rural Women’s program. When I first went in search of these women’s contributions in libraries and public records, they were largely absent. While the stories related mostly to a time before the Internet became widely available, this was also a time when local records were discarded. But many remembered, and they shared letters, photos, reports and diaries that informed my search. There was much laughter accompanying the memories.
To put the story in context I begin with family and food
I always knew where food came from. I remember the cherry trees in the front yard at our suburban Ringwood house and the creek at the bottom of the road. I was born in 1952 and these cherry trees were remnants of orchards pulled out as houses were built. I was the youngest of six and my grandfather’s market garden fed our large family. Years later I realised my mother’s household money came from my Gran and elder brother and sister’s board. Dad had a few schemes connected with mining. For instance, a factory mixing diatomaceous earth with asbestos for insulation material. The whole process was involved, from digging, bagging and drying the clay to crushing and mixing. Mum worked alongside him but not for a wage.
Then some of the family moved to Scarsdale past Ballarat. Home became a draughty house in the middle of a paddock sheltered and shaded by cypress trees from cold winds off the Western Plains. Wanting my sisters to have employable skills, mum enrolled them at Ballarat Girl’s Secondary College. I followed.
School days were long, walking in early morning frost to catch the train by 7.30am to arrive at the Ballarat station where the wind always blasted through the grey brickwork. At school I was taught typing, cooking and dusting by women whose standards I rarely met. The books we read related little to my life being about other people, mainly men, in other countries. By regurgitating information, I became dux of the school.
However, when the deaconess asked me what I wanted to do when I left school, I was silent. I only knew about our family life and that didn’t appeal. The school went to year 11 (Form 5). Further education wasn’t a consideration for girls so in 1968, I began work in the office of Ballarat Orphanage for $16 a week. No one in our school or community had been to university.
A friend and I enrolled in night school and after two years, my matriculation results arrived in the mail while working one summer at Wye River Pub alongside more worldly university students. They encouraged me to catch the bus to Melbourne and apply for a place at LaTrobe University in Social Sciences in 1970. I was accepted and in time made friends, but there were few rural students especially from public schools.
I graduated in 1973 with a qualification but few skills and began working for Save the Children Fund’s After School program in Kensington. One holiday I naively took a bus load of children to a friend’s farm. It was a disaster. Children were frightened being out of the city and horrified that I would con them into thinking milk came from a cow’s teats. Vegetables growing in soil was beyond imagining. Dirt was the source of germs, not food.
Shocked, I joined the Kensington Women’s Group and together, we sought funding to purchase a property – a meeting place for women and children with a garden where we could grow and eat food. Unexpectedly, the Women’s Group getting the funding to purchase a house was greeted with opposition from the Catholic Church, Melbourne City Council and the Department of Human Services. We finally took ownership of a property in 1977 and ‘the house’ continues today as the Kensington Neighbourhood House. So, it wasn’t all bad. But working through these challenges was exhausting for everyone.
It wasn’t until I left Melbourne and came to live in Orbost in the 1980s that I experienced a different way of transforming community life based on connection. Rather than exhaustion and burnout, women chose to participate and became inspired, actively supported by each other and a vibrant network. Orbost had a reputation for being a divided community, with ‘greenies’ and ‘loggers’, newcomers and traditional farmers, townies and timber workers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents. There were exceptions, even romances across these divides but at times, divisions did lead to tension, discrimination and violence. Yet my stories of Orbost that I’ve shared in Australia and overseas are of co-operation and transformation.
By now I was a mother of two children and wanted the world to be a safe and nurturing place. Not only had I fallen in love with Robby, my husband, but also with the sweeping curves off the coast at Conran, the clear water estuary at Marlo, the forests on Mt Ellery, the waterfalls and rivers. To us, this was a beautiful, magical place. This was 1980 and East Gippsland had clean air and water, fish, abalone and crayfish straight from the ocean and fertile river flats. A great climate, whatever fruit and vegetables were planted grew, dairy cattle were sleek, goats and chickens were healthy and happy. The timber industry was in transition away from a focus on extraction and the TAFE college was diversifying into value added skills and conservation.
I was the Outreach worker for the Community College of TAFE in Orbost when feminist educator Helenė Brophy drove into the lives of Gippsland women in 1985. Helenė was employed for three months by McMillan Agricultural Studies to improve rural women’s access to tertiary education. To overcome barriers of distance, she invited women to meet in small groups in their own communities. She would come to us! I was one of 12 dubious Orbost women that first day. Helenė arrived, introduced herself and then asked us to think if there was something we were all interested in. Something that affected our lives. She didn’t stay long – just asked directions to Cabbage Tree Creek, smoked a fag and drove off.
Conversations began tentatively with one woman saying she wondered if chemicals sprayed by planes on vegetable crops grown on the Snowy River flats could be a factor in a recent miscarriage. A ‘me too’ moment emerged! Three of the 12 women had experienced miscarriages at different stages of their pregnancies, all at crop dusting time. All lived on the Snowy River flats. Other women’s families and animals had experienced diarrhea, skin sores and volatile behaviour. A dairy farm’s milk was rejected due to the high pesticide levels. Robby picked vegetables seasonally. Our common interest was understanding the effects of sprays and chemicals.
Next week, we all returned with stories and questions. Helenė asked if we knew what was in the chemicals. If not, who could we ask? We began to find out, then contributed to petitions requiring safer handling, use and disposal of chemicals. In time, legislation was passed requiring HAZARDOUS CHEMICAL labelling and other steps to minimise harm. In each of 35 groups involving 540 Gippsland women that became the Rural Women’s Program, this immediate and dynamic interaction occurred. Nothing was off limits. It changed all our lives. One of the women wrote:
Our appreciation of ourselves, as women and as people, grows from these experiences. Our confidence in ourselves, and our love for each other, is the sort of stuff you carry around in your heart for a lifetime. We draw on it like water from a well (Yawney, 1986:6)
This was so dramatically different to anything I’d experienced as education, I wondered if other people could do this. Maybe Helenė’s unique personality was the key? To find out, I enrolled in a Graduate Diploma in Adult Education at the University of South Australia. This one-year part-time course, due to life having other priorities, took six years to complete.
Jenni Mitchell, the networker from the Rural Women’s Network set up in 1986, was a regular visitor and keen observer of the Gippsland gatherings, festivals and conferences. The network newsletter had a policy of 70 per cent content written by rural women. This gave women a voice at a state level, not only to government but with other rural women. A poem I wrote in the form of a letter to Jenni despairing at the gap between what programs worked for rural women and the options available in tertiary education generated a lifetime of correspondence from other women who identified with my words.
Along with the Network Newsletter, the Rural Women’s Network organised regional gatherings, and established an Advisory Council involving rural and urban women’s organisations (Bailey et. al. 1996). They participated in Rural Affairs Cabinet Committee meetings. Regionally, Women and Agriculture groups were getting organised. By the 1990s, Gippsland dairy farmers impacted by changing European trade policies were struggling to feed their families. Mary Salce, a Gippsland dairy farmer who was frustrated with the lack of support from industry boards, began to talk to whoever would listen about holding an International Women and Agriculture Conference in Melbourne!
Support from the Rural Women’s Network, the Women and Agriculture organisations and individuals within industry boards resulted in the 1st International Women and Agriculture conference being held in Melbourne in 1994. A grand celebration with performance and a harvest feast at the National Gallery, saw women speaking at Melbourne University. This was women standing proudly, being recognised for their amazing contribution to the production of food, fibre, income, environmental stewardship and to their communities. But this exciting optimistic time was already changing.
Personally, 1992 was a year of sad endings and hopeful beginnings. Robby had died from bowel cancer years after being diagnosed and treating surgeons had begun what became a cycle of surgery, treatment, infection and recovery by drawing an X-cut – on his beautiful bushman’s body. Who can say when the sickness began, and our relationship fell apart? We had separated and come back together several times. In the last year, our fractious relationship gave way to a surprising calm considering the pain and challenges he was going through. It was an exhausting, humbling time.
An invitation to teach in the Diploma of Community Development at Yallourn TAFE appealed. I left East Gippsland forests moving to Mirboo North. It was a welcoming community and our fragile family began to feel at home. In 1993, my new partner, Neil and I bought a house opposite the Baths Road bush.
But 1992 was the year Premier Jeff Kennett was elected to the Victorian Parliament with an overwhelming majority. Centralised markets dominated public policies and communities like Mirboo North with under 3000 people were considered problematic. Many local families worked for the State Electricity Commission and with privatisation, lost their jobs. Local governments were sacked, neighbouring communities were forced to ‘choose’ which school and hospitals stayed open. Housing, health and welfare organisations doors were closed when the need was greatest. Neil and my jobs were terminated. It was a traumatic time and made no sense.
At Christmas gatherings I realised many people were suffering; it wasn’t just me. I was a community development worker. What did I know? While the Rural Women’s programs came to mind, I didn’t know how to initiate such an approach under current circumstances. Having time on my hands, I enrolled in a Masters by Research in the Faculty of Education at Monash University and began documenting Helenė’s records: the letters, testimonies, reports and newsletters she had generously handed over.
People were becoming organised. Concerned regional development workers set up the Centre for Rural Communities, based at Monash University in Churchill in 1995. Mary Salce incorporated the Gippsland Rural Women’s program and sought funding for Cultural and Community Leadership programs. Skill development in decision-making and planning co-operatively, both essential in managing change, was followed by developing an arts or cultural project within their local community… of benefit both to the women and their region (Salce 1997:1-2). It had similar profound impact to Helenė’s approach.
The memory of the project will last forever. The learning of new skills was mixed with fun and laughter. You end up doing things you never thought you would – radio interviews, conversations with politicians and government representatives, writing newspaper articles, public speaking. The learning experience is wonderful (Howe in Sheil 1997 s9.1).
Orbost women created the Mosaic Pathways Project in Forest Park featuring the Snowy River and aware of the 2nd International Conference on Women and Agriculture in Washington, they carved a bowl from a burl featuring women’s hands at each corner signifying women feeding the world. At the conference, a highlight was the Salute from Australia Luncheon, showcasing Australian produce. Dr Jill Long Thompson, United States Under-Secretary of State for Agriculture and Rural Development, was so impressed she organised a return visit to Gippsland in 1999.
This included a visit to Mirboo North. Held at the Grand Ridge Brewery (originally a co-operative), the school children sang and community members spoke of how taking over the Mirboo North Times newspaper, and a partnership with Bendigo Bank to fill the gap of three banks closing their doors, had returned hope to the community. Dr Thompson spoke of co-operative ventures regenerating regions.
By 1998, I had demystified what Helenė, Jenni and Mary did. By facilitating forums for groups marginalised by language, myths (lies) and legislation, people heard the reality of their lives, transforming perceptions and creating new opportunities. In educational terms, I designed a ‘Model of collaborative engagement for transformation towards rural sustainability’ (Sheil 1998) It had nine steps and was transferable across sectors. Now what?
Aboriginal Reconciliation study circles, a democratic adult education resource, was on track with our vision of investing skills and collaborative ways of working in rural communities. Funded by philanthropic groups, I produced a study circle kit incorporating the nine steps and featuring stories of co-operative ventures in finance, power generation, health services, agriculture and forest industries along with media and arts.
While the kit sold out, only four communities had skilled facilitators. However, in these communities, outcomes exceeded expectations, validating the approach. The skill and knowledge gap was in facilitation. Monash University accredited a post-graduate professional development program based on my research. Regional workers from diverse sectors enrolled in the course with outcomes impressing both employers and communities.
Documenting the theoretical underpinning along with practical skills, knowledge and the outcomes of this approach comprised my thesis. By 2002, I submitted my doctorate covering 15 years of this developmental journey. I was 50 and it was time for a break.
Spanish women were hosting the 3rd International Rural Women’s Conference in Madrid. Maybe I could attend. It would be my first trip to Europe and a chance to visit the Basque University and the Mondragon Co-operatives. An opportunity to hear of developments in the co-operative movement that began in 1943 when a Catholic priest with a social vision for the future of a bombed out economy and landscape, introduced apprentices to both the technical skills of creating needed goods and an organisation in which they had a voice and a vote (Mathews 1999, Whyte and Whyte 1988).
By good fortune, Itzira Urbertia at Melbourne’s Spanish Embassy, came from the Basque region. She offered to organise the visit and translate for interested Australian women! The visit was memorable. In the 15th Century building, we heard the history of the co-operative and of the current production of white goods with international outlets, while being followed around the complex by robotic ‘dogs’ with overtones of K-9. Co-operatives extended to childcare, supermarkets and banks, looking after members during recessions as well as prosperous times. Technically brilliant young designers expressed interest in the model of collaborative engagement originating from Australian rural women inviting me to contribute my text Growing and Learning in Rural Communities (Sheil 2000) to the international library. I had thoughts of a collaboration between Monash and the Basque University as we travelled to Madrid.
Despite the generous hospitality at the 3rd International Rural Women’s Conference, I was dismayed as speaker after speaker focused on international trade agreements and food quotas. In this huge auditorium where the 1760 women from 97 countries were linked by headsets providing simultaneous translation, where were the stories of the impact of these policies? Maybe I shouldn’t have come. Then I saw the bowl created by the Orbost women on a pedestal on the podium.
In the closing ceremony, the Conference Bowl was handed from the elegantly attired Spanish women to the South African women, hosts for the next conference. Dressed in gorgeous coloured robes and head scarves, the women held the bowl aloft. Gracă Machel (Mandela’s second wife), Chairperson of the Foundation for Community Development in South Africa, reminded the gathering that it was often village women who provide food for the family. While unable to be at the conference, they needed to be acknowledged and part of the discussion. She spoke of the link between globalisation and poverty, the patenting of seeds, the need for peace and stability, of caring for the environment, which is essential for health. Issues the Orbost women talked about. It was a proud moment and I stumbled past seated women down layers of tiers to take pictures to let the carvers: Ruth Hansen, Therese Shead, Trina Wilmot, Mary McDonald along with others who had created this icon of women feeding the world know the bowl was in good hands. I was delighted to be present.
I was awarded my PhD in 2003. It was a grand celebration. Helenė Brophy came, my children, now adults cheered, graduating students’ families cheered, my supervisors breathed a sigh of relief. They had supported my transition from being on the margins to creating a mainstream postgraduate course.
But by 2006, pressure to ‘internationalise’ the course, removing the practice led to its demise. Facing unemployment and a diagnosis for a long-term health issue, I left the University. My children had their own lives and friends told us of a quirky caravan park for sale in Nowa Nowa on the banks of the Boggy Creek. For the next 11 years, this became our home and the home of the Centre for Rural Communities. In partnership with the East Gippsland Network of Neighbourhood Houses, another study circle kit, Building community futures through co-operation (Sheil 2015) was written to better prepare communities and organisations for emergency situations, focusing on fire. It won awards and regional and international interest led Federation University to invest regional partnership funding employing me to re-write the course in 2015 but it did not eventuate.
Living in Nowa Nowa, caring for the catchment became an increasing focus. In 2015, the Centre for Rural Communities hosted a storytelling gathering showcasing untold stories, beginning by recording stories of this beautiful, vulnerable landscape. Gippsland has great writers and listeners have been inspired to set up water monitoring of Lake Tyers, the Living Bung Yarnda project, managed by Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust, as well as raised awareness of public recognition of massacre sites. The Stories of influence is now a Melbourne City of Literature regional partner and complements the artistic work of the FLOAT project, a floating art studio and communiversity
My daughter is a writer, living in Edinburgh and we visit the Scottish Poetry Centre where I’ve contributed Stories of the lake, a CD collection of poems by current day custodians. My son is a teacher and writer. I tell this story to give a glimpse of how liberating education can be and for my grandchildren: two wee boys in Edinburgh, Rafa and Finn and twin Gippsland girls Marlo and Ellery.