The Dirt: Jess Miller

Jess Miller is a mover, shaker, change maker and self-confessed former “rat-bag activist.” In short, she’s a thoroughly interesting and inspiring character. Defining her and what she does isn’t easy – straight lines and boxes aren’t her thing. I caught up with Jess recently at the Sydenham Water Reservoir, a forgotten patch of green and graffiti amongst factories and flight paths, to find out more about this intriguing woman.

Jess grew up on a herb farm on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, her childhood environment clearly influencing her future career direction. “If you’ve been exposed as a kid to how wonderful the world is, and how beautiful and delicate its design is, it’s really difficult to un-know that,” she says. At high school she flirted with the idea of studying landscape architecture and art, and after a few years in Brazil she returned to Australia and enrolled in International Relations at the Australian National University in Canberra.

After finishing university, she moved to Sydney and got a job at Allen & Unwin publishing. “I lasted about three months!” she says. From there she started working with a bunch of environmental activist groups, doing permablitzes, locking herself to coal infrastructure in Newcastle, and learning how to communicate about environmental issues on a serious budget. They were her activism days, an important grounding for her current approach to creative problem solving and inspiring change.

“When I was younger, a lot of the non-violent direct action stuff was really just frustration and rage. It’s a very binary way of thinking about things, and is also incredibly exhausting. At the same time, it was a significant rite of passage. It’s important to put your heart on the line.”

“As I get older, though, I’ve found other ways of doing the same thing that aren’t as emotionally, physically, and mentally taxing. For me, its been about asking myself ‘does it have to be as binary? Does it have to be as forceful?

Is there another way I can trick people into doing what I want them to do?’”

What Jess Miller wants to coerce people to do is this: change the way they engage with the natural world, for the better. Her ideas around encouraging this are based on seduction not guilt, pleasure not fear. “Its got to be fun enough, amazing enough, or interesting enough to drag people away from Game of Thrones, because that’s what you’re competing against,” she says. “That’s why entertainment, art, food and beauty are such great frameworks for slipping environmental change into. If you can get people just doing the thing, on their own, in their own way, there’s no need to have a conversation that ends up being an argument about the facts.”

“Its one thing to go out and say to everybody ‘everybody should garden, the food system is under threat, we’re hitting peak food. It’s really scary shit.’ I know how scary it is, but if you lead with that conversation, people’s base instincts are always fight or flight. ‘It’s too hard, I’m going to go over here and do something else,’ or ‘don’t be ridiculous, you’re being melodramatic.’ It’s a bad approach,” she says.

So, how does Jess Miller make change happen? Well, firstly, she’s just one of those women who gets shit done. She’s a doer, not a talker, and her backlog of both self-initiated and commissioned projects reflect this.

On a day-to-day basis she works at brand, sustainability and innovation agency Republic of Everyone. Jess’s official title is Projects and Partnerships Lead, which isn’t particularly descriptive, but as she suggests, “It’s weird to know what to do with me sometimes.” She tells me she finds it easier to show people her projects, rather than try and explain what she does. I’ll follow her lead…

Back in 2012 Jess co-founded Grow It Local, an initiative to encourage backyard food farming in urban areas. It originally started in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, with support from Waverley Council. “We started off with this question: What if 5% of the food eaten within Waverley Council LGA came from that municipality? How could we find out what people feel about growing food, and where the growing opportunities are?” She says. Of course there was a bribe.

“The offer was this – grow something, anything, whether it’s a sprig of basil or a heap of lemons. You’ve got 12 weeks, we’ll give you some free seeds, we’ll help you out. If you succeed, bring whatever you’ve got, and swap it for a ticket to dinner. We’ll have spunky chefs, and they’ll turn it into a big communal feast.” The campaign worked, because, “who doesn’t want to go and have a free dinner, cooked by a great chef, where they’ve contributed some of the produce?”

Jess has also worked on Garage Sale Trail, and has been the food curator at TedX Sydney for the last three years. “I’m not really that much of a foodie,” she says. “I got into it through Grow it Local, and because I like ridiculous ideas.

As soon as someone says ‘nah, you can’t do that, that’s a bit crazy,’ I’m like ‘Boom, watch me now.’

Jess loved coming up with last year’s theme of Rebel Food – “It was meant to push people out of their comfort zone. It was bugs, feral goat, and that sort of stuff. That was really exciting for me.”

Jess’s current focus is leading 202020 Vision, a campaign to encourage 20% more trees in urban areas by 2020. Rather than running a traditional advertising campaign encouraging people to plant more trees, Jess and her team have approached the issues around urban canopy based on a collective impact model.

They’ve been talking to a range of people – from growers, landscape architects and urban designers, urban forestry experts, academics, industry groups, local and state governments, and developers – exploring the barriers to increasing trees in urban areas. From these conversations a series of projects are being developed to connect problems with solutions, and move closer to the project’s aim of 20% more trees in urban areas by 2020.

Lateral thinking is clearly Jess’s thing. She tells me about a 202020 Vision project she’s really passionate about – Living Memories. “Some people just really don’t like or understand trees,” Jess tells me. “One of the ways in which the 202020 vision community suggested we overcome this is through creating connections.” And what better way of connecting humans and plants than turning humans into fertilizer?! Melbourne based Warren Roberts of Living Legacy has found a way of transforming cremated human remains into soil conditioner for plants and Jess is into it.

“Currently, around 70% of people are cremated, but only around half of them have access to memorialisation, due to cost or other factors. The idea is to take the remains of the people and use them as fertilizer on a tree planted on public land,” Jess says. “It serves the multiple functions of giving people a connection to their memories of their loved ones close to where they live, as well as protects public land against incumbent development, and, it also provides really great fertilizer!”

Jess and I wind up our talk at a local café. I’m pretty overwhelmed by this woman – her energy, drive, and sparkly eyes. She makes me tired just hearing about all she’s up to. I’m curious, how does she manage her time, and how has she fitted all this stuff in to her 32 years? “Oh George,” she says, “It’s a permaculture principle. You know the one? Minimum inputs for maximum outputs. I’ve gotten better at working that out as I’ve gotten older.”

Older? Heavens. I can’t wait to see where Jess Miller is in 10 years. Watch this woman people, she’s going places.

Check out Jess’s website, Goody Two Shoes.