When Frances O'Brien moved to Newcastle in 2018, she was surprised to find just how many activist groups there were operating around the Hunter. She had come from Sydney, with degrees in climate science and environmental law; an ecologist with an affinity for tackling "wicked problems".
"Wicked problems have no cut-and-dry solutions," O'Brien says, "There are so many factors feeding into them."
The changing climate is one such problem and like a magnet attracts iron filings, the nature of wicked problems attracts activism from all directions. O'Brien has been an activist for around 13 years. When she moved to Newcastle, getting involved in a local climate action group was a good way to meet new people while also addressing the cause.
"The thing about activists is that they are very passionate," she says. "And that is great because, with activism, you need people who are that passionate, but it can lead to conflict."
The same determination that can almost single-handedly rally a group of strangers to a cause with almost no outside support, can also be a source of tension, O'Brien explains. Opinions can vary and, in an environment where strong opinions are the norm, sometimes divisions can emerge.
O'Brien had arrived in a city where "so much was going on," but the countless groups all struggling with the same wicked problem were largely going at it alone, she says. It sparked an idea to bring together as many groups as possible in one place, where they could meet, exchange details and ideas, and perhaps see the common values that connected them.
O'Brien called it 'The Seeding'; it was not a solution to the wicked problem, but it was a place where something could get started.
"Can you say that anyone would disagree that we want clean water and clean air?" O'Brien says, "Everyone will have their own idea of how to get there, but if we bring it right back, there are a lot of shared values."
The first Seeding, held in 2019, was an open event but there were challenges. What worked for some groups, didn't work for others and the spirit of networking and cooperation was complicated. "It was a pilot," O'Brien says. "I was testing things to see what would and wouldn't work."
In 2020, and in light of the outbreak of coronavirus, the second Seeding has moved online. O'Brien has enlisted the help of more organisers and injected more structure into the event to try to ensure all groups have a chance to be heard. "It is incredibly important to have everyone respecting and understanding each other even if we don't necessarily want to do things the same way. The Seeding isn't just about coming up with campaign ideas, it's about human connection."
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