It’s hard to sum up Jess Miller in just a few sentences. Here’s what I say when I try to explain to people who I’m interviewing: She’s pretty bloody awesome. She gets shit done. She’s somebody you need to know. Like, seriously.
Let me explain. In 2013, Jess was part of a team that fed 2,200 TEDx Sydney guests with food grown in their own backyards. From a bag of tomatoes grown on a balcony in Potts Point and transported to TEDx in a suitcase, to fresh meat and eggs donated by local NSW farms, everything was crowd farmed. With no idea what they were going to get, Jess and her team transformed the lot into a feast to feed two thousand people.
She’s worked on Garage Sale Trail, and Greenups, Sydney’s monthly sustainability drinks. She’s currently heading up 202020 Vision – a project to get 20% more trees in our cities by 2020. She consults as Goody Two Shoes, offering advice on how to build strong communities and connect with people in counterintuitive ways. She’s also a mum, and that’s not even the half of it.
This year, Jess is running for City of Sydney council as part of Clover Moore’s Independent team. With a background in grassroots community activism, Jess knows a lot about making big change on a very small budget. She’s also the kind of person we admire here at 107 – someone who steps so far outside the box, you almost forget it’s there. I spoke to her about how these skills can help on a city level, and why the community is her biggest support.
In 2013 you were a finalist for MTV Movement’s Millennial Leader campaign, hoping to shake things up and make Australian politics vibrant again. Here you are, three years later, campaigning to be a part of those politics. How did that come about?
Well three years later politics overall is still pretty crap – especially if you are young and/or in the creative industries.
I never really meant to get into politics. At school I wasn’t exactly School Captain material and at Uni I was too busy working or having fun – but more recently, I guess I’ve just become increasingly fed up and frustrated but also seen that the most interesting change is coming about at the local level.
Given your history in community and environmental activism, it seems pretty natural that you would run as an Independent. Why is independence important to you, both personally and in politics?
Independence is everything!
Here’s what we can thank party politics and ideology for: Kevin/Julia, Abbot/Turnbull, a WTF plebiscite on marriage equality, coral bleaching, Obeid dodginess, Nauru… It’s a mess.
I think when you are beholden to a specific ideology or set of rules the thinking becomes really limited – there’s little opportunity for collaboration, adaptation or innovation.
In the established parties, so much time and money is spent throwing pot shots at each other, playing into factions, dealing with egos, looking after ‘mates’- the result is that the decisions made and inevitably the people they are supposed to represent suffer as a consequence.
Our Independent Team are really diverse but connected by shared values – it may not mean that we always agree on everything all of the time, but it provides creative tension. It’s not so much about who is ‘right’ but instead how we can creatively and collaboratively figure out a way of doing things that is aligned to all of our values.
At the same time, being independent – whether politically, or perhaps as an artist – can be difficult. Where does your support come from?
The community. There isn’t a single interest that bankrolls our campaigns (certainly no $1000 per seat fundraiser a la Christine Forster). Instead, like the independent art or music scene a campaign like this is supported with many small donations of money, of artworks and things we can auction – but most importantly the support comes from people giving their time and energy to volunteer at booths, knock on doors, answer phones etc.
You are running alongside a diverse team, each with different ideas and areas of interest. Where do you see yourself fitting in?
It’s a really complementary team – and it’s nice when you’re a bit of a fan girl of the people you’re running alongside. I guess my job is to represent people who have a lot to offer to the City in terms of ideas, time and energy but perhaps not always the money or means to do it.
When I moved to Sydney 10 years ago as a 20 year old, I had no idea that the local council was a thing that could help me and allow me to contribute to my own community, and having learned that it is – I think it’s really important to let others know about all of the grants, artist spaces, sustainability initiatives and more.
You talk about learning to do a lot with very little – “making magic happen on the smell of a crusty muesli bar wrapper”. That’s something we know a lot about here at 107. Why is that important, even on such a large scale as the City of Sydney community?
In big cities like Sydney where housing affordability is such an issue and people are vying for resources, making interesting things happen with very little is becoming more difficult. I don’t want to see Sydney ‘Manhattenised’ – where playing and creating in the city is something that only a certain type of person can do. Places like 107 Projects and what I think are some of the most interesting parts of Sydney foster creative tension and a diversity of ideas that help construct the cultural fabric of the City.
Without support from council to access buildings, grant funding and providing opportunities for people to try new things out, Sydney would become a much, much duller* place to be – and all of my remaining Sydney friends would move to Melbourne. And I don’t want that, because it’s too cold there and I love this place.
*Interesting fact: There is a town in Oregon, USA called Boring, its sister city is Dull, in Scotland.
You’re pretty damn great at breaking the rules – doing these big, crazy projects that no-one would have ever thought possible. How do you approach a problem when everybody’s telling you it can’t be done?
Well in my brain I kind of think ‘oh shit, I said that aloud’.
Then I think of a League of their Own (possibly the most motivating film of all time), where Tom Hanks says “Girls can’t play baseball’, and I imagine myself as Kit (Lorrie Petty) who plays the little sister, and I’m like – watch me now.
Then I’m overcome by self-doubt and insecurity, and go to the Shakespeare or Cricketer’s Arms and tell a bunch of friends what I’m going to do to really make sure I’ve said it aloud and bribe myself into actually doing it.
They usually have some great suggestions, and then you just go and figure it out.
You’ve done a lot in your career. What is something that you are personally proud of?
Surviving the first year of having a small child, working full time and paying rent.
Anything you would have done differently?
Nope. Except maybe taken Joe Hockey’s advice 25 years before he gave it and asked my parents to ‘chip in’ to buy a property in say Newtown or something, but I would have been like five years old, and my parents still would have said no.
And lastly, what do you like to do in your down time (what little of it there must be!)?
Full-contact kickboxing and MMA. //
Can’t make it to vote on September 10? As of yesterday you can pop into Redfern Town Hall, St Barnabus Church or Sydney Town Hall to vote. Check out the times here.