There aren’t many CEOs that wear a chicken t-shirt for their profile shot. But Cinnamon Evans does. She’s the CEO of CERES (Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies), an unassuming pocket of goodness tucked away in Melbourne’s northern suburbs that attracts over half a million visitors each year. And we got to hang out with the boss.
You don’t get to drive the CERES train, inspire hundreds of volunteers and manage 130 staff, towards its 40th year in operation, without folding together a humble, sharp-as-a-nettle and oh-so-passionate personality into somewhat of a secret sauce.
We sat down together for chai, a chat and a double-dose of inspiration.
It’s kind of hard to explain
If you’ve been to CERES in Melbourne’s suburb of Brunswick, you’ll know that it’s unique. A generic description is elusive, even for Cinnamon: “Every time I explain what CERES is, I do it differently because there’s no one simple explanation, and it depends who I’m talking to. The elevator pitch has always eluded me. On the face of it we’re a place. But we’re actually a lot more complex than that.
Our intention is to help people fall in love with the Earth again.
We do that in three main ways: First, we have the Park, which is available for the entire community to use in whatever way they want to use it.
Secondly, we run education and training programmes for students and adults, both at the Park and offsite.
And lastly we also run a collection of social enterprises that support people to live their everyday lives in a more sustainable way and generate revenue for CERES. It’s an integrated system and the overarching theme for the whole organisation is education and a relationship with the Earth.”
An old tip called home
CERES has been walking the talk of ‘falling in love with the Earth again’ from the very start. 36 years ago, the site was an unremarkable rubbish tip for domestic and industrial waste on the edge of the well-loved Merri Creek.
A group of committed local citizens persuaded the then Brunswick Council to give it over to them and converted it into the beginnings of modern-day CERES. This brought much-needed community connectedness for the local non-English speaking migrant community, many had lost their jobs through the closure of light industry in the neighbourhood. Their aim was to create employment and promote environmental living, two goals that Cinnamon proudly points out are, “still very much part of CERES’ DNA”.
Today CERES, with their huge team of passionate community-loving heroes, offers an extensive range of sustainability education programs. Their operations are diverse, including an organic market garden 2km away, community gardens, bee hives, chook sheds, a bike repair shed, a Saturday craft market, café, nursery, organic grocery, online food delivery service and lots of meeting rooms and outdoor spaces the community can enjoy.
Leading a mosaic
Cinnamon is the kind of person you feel comfortable with quickly. Gently spoken, she listens closely and smiles a lot. Like most C-suiters, her days are full of answering emails, phone calls and trouble-shooting: “My role as CEO is to intervene in the system either to help it evolve or to unblock any blocked bits. Because I certainly can’t be in charge of everything.” The cogs are kept turning with her management team in what she calls a “mosaic of relatively self-organising pieces”.
As she says, “All organisations have their quirks and difficulties, that’s the nature of human beings working together in groups. I’m very lucky that I get to work with a very beautiful and inspiring collection of humans.”
She points out one of the biggest challenges is the dual role of managing issues and promoting the organisation. “On the one hand, stuff that’s not working well ends up on my desk and one way or the other I need to deal with it. But then the other dimension of my role is to go out beyond our gates and at the same time and tell the world how awesome CERES is. But when you look under the bonnet it’s not always awesome.”
Know the ground you stand on
Women make up only about 16% of CEOs in Australia [Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Australian Government, 2018]. Cinnamon acknowledges that it can be tough going, “I’ve certainly faced adversity at times. I’ve made business decisions that weren’t popular and dealt with difficult financial situations – I’ve had to reorient the organisation financially.”
She says resilience is the key, explaining: “Resilience needs to come from a place that’s larger than you. I went through a period of really struggling and realised that unless I did something to support myself, to understand my contribution and support my energy in a larger context, then I would probably crash. And yoga has been profoundly important in my life too.”
Building on this, Cinnamon shares her experiences: “Know the ground that you stand on. For me that comes through a spiritual and nature connection. With that connection the everyday bother of the world just diminishes, it becomes a lot less serious. Know yourself and love yourself, and know the Earth.”
How to solve anything
Cinnamon continues, “Pretty much anything can be resolved if human beings can sit and discuss complicated and difficult things and have differences of opinion without blowing out. Having someone who can facilitate those conversations is critical, someone with a skill-set that is actually more than just ‘in the moment’, it’s about a whole set of micro-skills and values about how we relate to people and how we support people, how we have honest and open conversations. That skill-set has been the most valuable learning I have ever had in my life. Well, second most, after the yoga.”
She credits her skills to the teachings of The Groupwork Institute of Australia, “They’re just brilliant. I use these skills in every realm of my life, every day.”
The War on Waste is ok, but it’s not the main game
We asked Cinnamon about her view on waste:
“The War on Waste is really important and absolutely necessary, but in terms of the main game, it’s not the main game right now. The main game right now is climate. And I understand that waste links into climate and our consumption patterns and all of that … and plastic in the oceans is a disaster … and ‘Plastic Free July’ is great and I’m happy with all of that … but, actually, the main game IS climate.”
She cites the environmental activist and author Joanna Macy, who characterises 3 kinds of environmental action. The first is holding actions or stopping destruction, such as stopping Adani.
The second is structural change, how to change the way we live to be less impactful, like using less plastic. And the third is changing how we understand ourselves as being in relationship with the Earth.
Cinnamon explains, “We think about ourselves as separate from the Earth, but in fact we are profoundly, deeply and radically interconnected to the Earth. Unless we understand that and we reconnect with our love for the Earth and for each other then we’re not going to save ourselves as a species.”
It’s impossible to not will her to go on …
“This Earth is going to continue to orbit the sun for however long, a few billion years or so it would seem, but the question is, is it going to be a habitable place for human beings and at this point in time it doesn’t look good. We need to remember our connection, because unless we’re motivated to save ourselves, then we can forget it.”
The More Beautiful World
CERES resonates deeply with people. As Cinnamon says, it “taps into a deep longing that we all have. To quote Charles Eisenstein and the title of his book, ‘The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible’. CERES appeals to that aspect within all of us and our imaginations about how the world might be or how the future of humanity might be, or perhaps how it was in the past. The idea of CERES is about loving each other and loving the Earth, and that captures people’s imagination.”
If you haven’t been to CERES yet, or are overdue for a visit, you can find the details here.