WSR chats with Nicole Precel, the co-founder of Co-Ground, a charity dedicated to delivering community-led education and livelihood programs. She is also an award-winning journalist and documentary maker, and has worked for the BBC, Al Jazeera, SBS and The Age.
Saturn return: November 2013
Take us back to your Saturn return in November 2013 - what was happening in your life at that time?
It was the year that I won a Quill (Melbourne Press Club award), had a really difficult break up, and I was freelancing for SBS and working full time. It was a pretty crazy time.
The mixture of those things really changed the course of my life. Just before I turned 30 I went to Nepal with a friend, on a trek to Mt Everest base camp. There is something really incredible about going for long walks, especially if you are in a beautiful atmosphere. It is such an amazing time for introspection, that repetitive motion of stepping, one foot in front of the another, for hours and hours. That gave me a lot of clarity.
I met Andrew, my current partner around that time as well. It had been six months into our relationship when Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu. Andrew's Aunty and Uncle run an Eco resort in Vanuatu called Epi Island Guest House as well as being subsistence farmers, so we were really worried when the cyclone hit. They live not too far from some villages, which are very basic in terms of structure, they use coconut palms to build their homes. Coconuts are like the tree of life. They had a lot of damage so we organised a big fundraiser at The Toff and had a trivia night to raise funds for relief. We raised $12,000 through those events.
That's a huge amount of money. What did you decide to do with the funds you raised?
We initially wanted to donate it all to a charity, but we also wanted to account for every dollar spent, so we thought it would be better to speak directly to communities in Sara and find out exactly what they needed. The community decided to rebuild the primary school with the funds we raised.
After going there we decided we didn't want this to be a one-off, and neither did the Sara community, and our work organically developed into what Co-Ground is now. We have 30 volunteers in Melbourne and volunteers living in nine villages in Vanuatu. The communities that we are supporting are just as big a part of Co-Ground as we are; we work together for a shared outcome. This is really important because too often, people from Western culture are telling communities how to do things, but really, we don't think that's an effective model.
The communities run small fundraisers as well. They have organised a few festivals where someone will slaughter a cow and the money raised from buying that food will go to our projects.
Our third project is starting this month, which is building a third classroom and library. It was amazing seeing kids who were coming to the school to read books on non-school days. It made me feel like what we were doing was really worthwhile because there are a lot of kids who really wanted to learn. Obviously there are kids there who want to be fishermen or farmers and that's great as well, but making sure they have access to education, including access about health and safety and women's issues, is really important.
What's happening next for Co-Ground?
We are just about to launch a mobile cafe in Melbourne. Once the social enterprise is launched, 100% of the profits will go to support our programs. It will be based around Collingwood for the first few months. It should be open soon!
We also just won a $30,000 grant from JetStar, which we will use to launch Co-Ground in the Philippines. It will be led by the communities - the issues in Manila will be very different from a remote island in Vanuatu.
You are doing so much incredible work. Is working with Co-Ground your full-time job?
I actually work full-time as a video journalist at The Age. My passion is human rights and justice. The reason I got into journalism is because I believe that freedom of speech is really important - to have a functional democracy you need a press that holds those in power to account. Co-Ground is kind of an extension of my passion, it's making a difference in a different way.
You've got an amazing portfolio of talents. How did you get into video journalism?
I studied Arts Journalism at Monash Uni. I always loved writing and then I just fell in love with the ability to meet people and explore different worlds. Halfway through my course at Monash I got an internship at the BBC in London and I was there for two years. I was still studying while I was over there and when I came back I finished my degree.
What did you do at the BBC?
I worked on a weekly current affairs program called Inside Out London. I was doing research work and then I worked as a production assistant.
As a documentary filmmaker, what are some of the most fascinating stories you've reported on?
The most controversial documentary I made is about consensual adult incest in Australia, America and the UK. That was eye-opening. Genetic Sexual Attraction can occur with people who have been separated at birth and then meet as adults. When they meet, there is sometimes confusion about feelings; that want for love can sometimes turn into a romantic feeling. There were some people who just had these feelings and never acted on them, never spoke about them, but having the feelings were really damaging in itself. Then there were people who did act on them, people who ended up having children. One lady who we interviewed was 25 when she first met her father and she filmed the first two weeks of them meeting. So the footage went from being 'I'm meeting my father for the first time' to this romantic relationship. There was a lot of people who experienced GSA and wanted to speak about it because they thought there were other people out there feeling the same way, and they wanted them to know that they weren't alone.
Have you ever been in any unsafe or scary situations when filming?
There have been plenty of times when I've felt unsafe. Sometimes that's the nature of making documentaries or journalism. I was making a documentary in Aurukun, an indigenous community in far north Queensland and we went on a fishing trip with the Elders. It started off really lovely, the kids were playing, we had caught fish and were cooking it on the beach. Alcohol became involved, and tensions escalated. We were on a small dinghy on our way home when we ran out of gas and there were crocodiles in the water. One Elder had become quite emotional. We had to try and keep him from tipping the boat over. Luckily, we ended up getting a tow from another boat back to the shore. It was a heartbreaking situation.
How do you protect yourself from the stressful or upsetting nature of your work?
There are moments of incredible clarity and joy as well. There is a balance. You need to remember that nothing is helped by falling into a heap. I believe it is important that people are informed, and to create understanding. The more people know and understand what's going on - I hope - the more people will work towards righting injustices. Although maybe that's naive? It doesn't always happen that way, but you hope that it does.
If you could have the attention of the world for just one minute, what would you say?
Maybe Dr Seuss said it best - "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."
Photography / Julia Petricevic & Simone Ruggiero
Words / Nicole Precel
Location / Royal Botanical Gardens, Melbourne