Alex Johnson grew up in Cootamundra (known as Coota), which is in the Riverina, NSW. She doesn’t have a favourite colour because she never could make up her mind. She is in her final year of a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies, (Sustainability) at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.
Growing up in Coota, Alex felt that she and her friends were different to the majority of other kids, because they were interested in the environment. But it was this uniqueness that led Alex and her friends on a journey of amazing adventures from their quiet hometown to the hustle and bustle of India. They were regular high school students, who were inspired and in turn become inspiring change makers. They have taken on their local council, won the support of their local community and given back meaning to the name ‘Cootamundra’, all due to their core work of rehabilitating wetland ecosystems in their home town. Because of her experiences, Alex is now focused on study, a career and a way of life she is really passionate about.
“While I was interested in environmental issues, because of the regional status of Coota, I don’t think I would have had the opportunities I’ve had or be doing my uni course if it wasn’t for OzGREEN.”
It all began when Alex was in Year 9 and OzGREEN came to town with the Murrumbidgee MyRIVER program.
Alex - Waterbird Dreaming
Alex loves the Australian bush, “Coota is a country town, so [where we live is] not far from the bush. As a child I loved making cubby houses [in the bush].” She loves Cootamundras’ indigenous heritage, “I think that the Aboriginal story behind Coota is really beautiful, I first learnt about it at primary school”; and most of all, she loves the birds that live around her home in town,“There are four ovals close [to where I live] that birds flock to when it rains, I think they are lovely.”
But, when Alex participated in OzGREEN’s MyRIVER Murrumbidgee program, in (2001) she was surprised to discover that her much loved environment actually wasn’t in great condition, “OzGREEN came to Coota High for a snap shot water testing day, I was in year 9. As a geography class we tested the water in a few sites in town. Later we compared our results with others who had done the same around the region at a congress in Griffth. Coota was the worst. This really shocked us.”
During the Griffith congress, OzGREEN talked about their partners in India, the Sankat Mochan Foundation, and the work they were doing on the campaign Swatcha Ganga (Clean Ganges). OzGREEN said that the students from the congress would have the chance to go to India with them. Excited by the opportunity, Alex and her friends Melissa, Jenna and Lucy returned to school and talked it over with their teacher. They decided they wanted to go and within 4 months had organised everything they needed including raising $4000 each. So, at 15 years of age Alex and the girls left their home town in regional Australia for 10 days in Varanasi, India.
“India was an incredible experience. The Indian people were not as financially well off as in Australia, which was one of the main things I saw, but they really care about their environment even though there are less resources available to look after it and it is in a far worse state. Also what struck me, was that the Indian people were really spritually connected with the environment around them and willing to do something.”
The girls returned home feeling inspired to act.“We came back with this idea of wanting to make a positive difference back home. We could have felt dis-empowered because we wanted to help our new Indian friends and it seemed impossible to improve the situation in India but, one of the concepts that came from the congress in India, was One World, One Water, so we thought that we could make a difference locally, to help the situation globally”
The challenge now, was how to turn the wish to make a difference into action. In 2003 OzGREEN held a Youth LEAD program in Wagga Wagga, which Alex and the girls participated in.
“Because I’d had the involvement in India, I was inspired and wanting to make a difference locally, but didn’t know how. I figured that [at Youth LEAD] I would get an action plan and meet new people.”
Alex, Melissa, Jenna and Lucy each worked on their own concerns and ideas, but eventually brought them together to form one major project.
“In the strategic questioning activity I started out talking about the bush, but narrowed my concerns down to the creek and the birds. Jenna, Mel and I worked on our ideas to do something on the local creek that had once been a system of wetlands. When they were building the town they drained the wetlands, but we had noticed that when it rained the sport fields would flood and birds would come. Lucy focused on [working with] Aboriginal people. So we joined the ideas together.”
Alex’s vision is for “A beautiful healthy creek that is part of the larger catchment.” She acknowledges that so much has been changed since white people settled that it can’t go back to what it once was, but the project aims to “rehabilitate the creek to return it to a healthy habitat for the animals and birds, make it a place that people of Coota can be proud of.”
At first the girls met with the same ‘slow start’ challenge that most of us are familiar with coming out of Youth LEAD. After a little while “off track”, they met with local aboriginal elder, Bob Glanville, who in turn introduced them to George Main who was then studying at ANU. George had grown up on a farm in Coota (he has since gone on to write a book about Cootamundra, called ‘Heartland, the Regeneration of Rural Place’). He loved their idea and helped them put together a proposal for Council. Unfortunately, the council at the time were not interested and gave no support to the girls “they were all old men and not very into environmental stuff!” says Alex.
Rejection from the Council was a major set back, but despite it, they pushed on. They held a meeting at Bob Glanville’s house, with other people interested in their project. This was the first of several years of monthly Muttama Creek Regeneration Group (MCRG) meetings at which their ideas were developed and means to do the work were figured out. “George did a lot of management, but decisions are made at meetings. Members of the group all have their equal say in the management plan.”
A few months down the track and there was a surprise turnaround. The Mayor came to a meeting! First up, he apologised to the girls and secondly he announced his support for their work! It seems they haven’t looked back since.
The first action of the group was a successful funding application based on the girls’ vision. They put the money towards work at the popular Apex Park, “the creek bed had to be de-silted, the pond made larger and trees planted. The council helped with some earth works and school groups helped with tree planting.” Other funding went towards hiring consultants who did a plan for the whole stretch of the creek in town including what work needed to be done and where, “we had to choose from two consultants, the consultant we picked is still involved today.”
In 2004 Alex, Jenna and Mel, attended the Albury Youth LEAD program, “Albury Youth LEAD was about meeting new people and being inspired to get back onto the project. Everyone heard about our project and thought it was great.” The girls developed a new action plan to get their school community more involved, some of the younger students that were part of this action are still participating now. During Year 12, 2005, Alex and Mel went on a second trip with OzGREEN, this time to Singapore for a Water Conference where they gave a presentation of their project. “Going to Singapore re-enforced my feelings about making a difference”.
These days, the girls have moved away from Coota for university and work. While Alex still participates as often as possible she acknowledges “that our job was to get the plan” which the MCRG are managing. They have been successful in gaining more grants and have employed a project manager. The Mayor still occassionally comes to meetings and engineers from the council join in regularly. Overall Alex is happy with the way things are going. “The biggest project the MCRG has managed is the building of a pond at Apex Park, which is at the John Rees Bridge on Wallendoon Street, near where I live. The project involved major earth works in the creation of the pond which is designed to be part of the small wetland the group hopes to one day see in this location, with the addition of more ponds in a ‘chain of ponds’ design. The Wallendoon Street project has involved many school and community groups in planting native vegetation, weed control and clean-up days. There are now lots of native plants, I’ve seen lots of native birds and even a turtle!”
Of course, there have been challenges along the way. Alex says that having a project manager has shifted the collaborative decision making approach of the group and that this is causing tension. She still feels that youth involvement in environmental projects, including their project, is a big challenge “Engaging school groups is really hard because the environment is not hugely important, its like you have to be different to be involved.”
Alex is also challenged with the sense of overwhelm that so many of us feel these days,
“When you become aware of situations it can be overwhelming, you feel hopeless, that there is nothing you can do, the situation is hopeless. I overcome this by focusing on the little change that I can do. The Truth Mandala [or Heart Circle, in the Youth LEAD workshop] allows you to feel the overwhelm and overcome it. You realise that it is ok to feel that way. OzGREEN show you that you don’t have to do everything but that you can do your bit.”
Representing her school at the MyRIVER Murrumbidgee Griffth Conference was the first of several big steps in focusing Alex on what she believes she can contribute to the world: “to look after the things that are really important to me, the Australian bush and wildlife,” as well as sparking a spiritual connection with her environment, “OzGREEN showed me that the spiritual connection I felt with the environment was fine and normal.”
She believes that learning strategic questioning and her trips to Asia were particularly significant. “I felt after India I couldn’t pretend that there weren’t problems anymore. I had to do something because I am able to. There are lots of different things, so many aid organisations helping people in need. I’d like to be involved in everything, but I need to focus on something otherwise I’d be overwhelmed. Strategic Questioning helps me to focus.”
Alex had once thought that she would probably like a career in teaching or journalism but has ended up studying for a Bachelor degree in Sustainability,“I picked the course because it is more than a career it is a purpose in life.”
“OzGREEN gave me the confidence to follow my dreams, they help you to realise what your dreams are and then follow them. They show you that your dreams matter, that they are just as important as the dreams of the guys in suits.”