IMG_0248This piece of writing serves as a reflection of my experience completing the Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design in the Permaculture Association GB model.

To give it a framework I have used the four action learning questions:

What went well?

The Diploma came into my life at a time when I really needed it. I had been out of prison only a month or so and was trying to find my place in the world again after experiencing heavy state repression. I was unable to talk to 99% of my friends or anyone concerned with ‘animal welfare’ for the next 21 months of my life. I had completed my permaculture design course in prison and as such, had never met anyone into permaculture. I had never interacted with the permaculture movement.

Completing the diploma gave me an opportunity to connect with others, find meaning and purpose, re-design my life and heal.

Unlike Gaia University, which is hugely international and where face to face interaction with other associates is limited, the diploma has an established network of apprentices in the UK. There are annual ‘National Diploma Gatherings’, where sometimes over 100 apprentices get together. You can also meet people at other events and online.

The highlight of the diploma for me was cultivating this supportive ecosystem – developing nested networks of friends, comrades, associates who like a web of mycelia, all support each other, share information and help each other to grow.

I have had the privilege of meeting many incredibly inspiring, skilled and compassionate people.

The diploma gave me the impetus to document my work, and therefore create a portfolio of evidence of everything I was doing towards my goals. My website www.wildheartpermaculture.co.uk (transitioning now to www.emptycagesdesign.org) generated new opportunities, contacts and paid work. Being able to document your work in a unique way, has allowed me to create, and increasingly optimise my own niche. At the beginning of the Diploma I was scared of wearing my heart (and my politics) on my sleeve, in case I ‘put off’ potential clients, or triggered my probation officer! However, over time, I grew in confidence which allowed me to increasingly integrate my political worldviews, history and passions with permaculture.

Many people are intimidated by the freedom of the diploma. For me however, it supported me to thrive. I had found traditional educational models repressive and struggled with my kinaesthetic learning style to enjoy academic essays or laborious coursework that only a teacher reads. The diploma allowed me to gain the skills I needed in a way I wanted to.

I could follow my passions and follow the ‘desire lines’ of my personal and professional goals.

In terms of what went well, financially I was able to very skillfully manage my pathway. I was hugely supported by the Vegetarian Charity, who paid for the diploma (and PDC). I also accessed grant funding from the Prince’s Trust to do a RegenAG course and RHS horticulture course, amongst other grants. After volunteering with local charity, Somerset Community Food, for 6 months, a position became available and I got it. So I landed a well paid, part time job aligned with my ethics. Being at Brook End meant I could host design courses and events in exchange for free places. I used my skills as an organiser to organise workshops and events, where I could up-skill myself at the same time. Over the few years, I managed to increasingly develop my agroecological and design skillflexes. My Auntie Edna passed away when I was in prison and left me a couple of grand, which also opened many doors in terms of being able to buy books etc and not just be on the breadline like I had been historically.

Finally, there was Brook End. I came out of prison to a permaculture paradise. My mum had married again when I had left home, together they needed somewhere where they could look after my Step Dad’s elderly mother. She had the finance and they had the will. They found Brook End and built an annex for her. This beautiful land has become my home. After never growing up with access to land and after two years of being in a cage, this place impacted my soul in a way I cannot describe. It allowed me to see the cycles of nature every day, allowed me to gain real-life design experience and navigate the complexity of communal living. I could experiment and build relationships with plants. We could create the teaching tool and demonstration site that makes everything possible to achieve our family’s dreams and visions.

Above all, the diploma really did embody the design process for me. Now it feels completely natural to start from a survey, observation and work through the process before making decisions. Every part of my life is touched, from how my bedroom is laid out, to how I design campaign work. I have fallen in love with learning again and I feel more consciously able to interact with the world.

What was challenging?

For me, the diploma came at a challenging time of my life. My license conditions meant that I was extremely socially isolated for nearly 2 years. I had a constant fear of being re-called to prison. I was unable to talk to my closest friends, including my co-defendants. I was on benefit and didn’t think anyone would employ me. I had just gained a certificate in horticulture and permaculture design, however had no other qualifications except school level ones and I had dropped out of college. All my work experience was in care work and it was unlikely I would work in this area again with my criminal record.

At first I found interacting with the permaculture movement challenging. No one can disagree that it is an overwhelmingly middle class, white movement. I initially felt quite politically isolated. I found the ethics quite weak in terms of a framework. I found there to be little attention to power relationships, or the systemic root causes of social and ecological problems. I find a lot of lifestyle politics hard to swallow and the positive/everything is great attitude can sometimes really grate me!! My worldviews around animal agriculture have also made the permaculture movement incredibly challenging to interact with.

Over time, however, I have learnt to be less judgemental. I have accepted that the edge is where the action is, and remained open to what can be created where these two lines cross.

I have found some real allies and permacuturalists like Graham Burnett have been a continuing source of inspiration!

As a system, there were also a few challenges with the diploma in and of itself. In hindsight I wish I had received feedback after each design as a stand alone project. I found the feedback too little too late, and was unable to really stretch my edges as a designer because of this. The tutorial support I did have was definitely always valuable however. I found the design support events and peer feedback some of the most useful ways of accessing feedback to improve my design skills.

Finally there were the accreditation challenges! I feel like its taken me about two years to accredit! I would organise an accreditation event for about 6 months time, and then something would happen to either myself or my tutor Aranya. Once I’d lost that window, the diploma was then sent straight to the back of the to-do list.

I guess this was the biggest challenge of all – doing the huge amount of documentation necessary while trying to survive capitalism, be a good friend, grow food, organise and resist. Small and slow solutions kept me going and design by design I made it through!

Long term visions and goals

Nature is my learning pathway. There is so much to learn!! I will strive to keep learning from the land, being an observer and interacting with care and humility.

I want to continue to develop my design skills. Being a diploma tutor, means that I am committed to continuously documenting my design work. I am also still completing my MSc Political Agroecology with Gaia University.

I would like to now focus on tutoring and supporting more people to pro-actively engage with the diploma in the South West, perhaps organising more focused events and peer support.

I am planning to develop my new website so that it is more of a learning resource for apprentices and others interested in permaculture, agroecology etc. In terms of developing skills, you can see my MSc learning pathway design here. I would like to learn how to use computer software to improve the quality of my design work. There are also huge areas of permaculture that remain unchartered territory for me, such as natural building or energy systems. I know that my skill flexes around these will develop when needed (like when building a home for myself in the future at Brook End maybe!).

Overall, my long term vision is to support a thriving community of learners that are building a new world from the bottom up, one rooted in ethics, ecology and equality. Where design is an accessible toolkit to more than the privileged that supports communities to meet their needs in socially and ecologically just ways.

Next Achievable Steps

  • Complete my Tutor Portfolio on the Permaculture Association website.
  • Better advertise my tutoring and advising services.
  • Do my accreditation presentation at the National Diploma Gathering!