Yale Greenberg World Fellows Interview Series: Rebecca Sullivan

Featured image: World Fellow Rebecca Sullivan on the right.

By Abigail Grimes

Rebecca Sullivan is a grassroots activist and a regenerative farmer from Clare Valley, Australia. She is the founder of both the Granny Skills movement, an initiative that connects elderly people with opportunities to teach their valuable skills to younger generations, and Warndu, a brand that’s purpose is to regenerate culture, community, traditions, health and soil through indigenous knowledge, plants and botanicals by protecting culture through food. She is a 2019 Yale Greenberg World Fellow.

What’s your philosophy behind eating animal products?

Well, I’m a regenerative farmer, and the regenerative agricultural system is all about having animals in the system because they add to a system, and the system’s not full or whole without [them.] So whilst I don’t consume a lot of meat, I choose very, very carefully; I’ll only eat humane meat, ethical meat, organic meat—meat where I know where it’s come from, or I won’t partake in it at all. I don’t eat seafood because I don’t think seafood’s sustainable. I haven’t eaten seafood in about fifteen years. The ocean needs a break more than anything as far as I’m concerned. So that’s sort of my sticking point.  

There have been many times when I thought about being vegetarian, but really for me, I believe in balance and knowing where you come from. There’s just as many issues in […] choosing fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains as there is in choosing animals and … I think all people need to eat less meat for sure—one million percent. People need to have more respect for animals’ lives and eat all cuts of meat, not just pick the perfect ones, you know. But I think there’s room for everything and I think […] being a conscious consumer is more important and knowing where your food comes from than being any more particular

Both of your projects center a lot on the intersection between human health and environment sustainability. How do you ensure that you’re approaching these projects with an attitude of inclusion and intersectionality?

My projects are incredibly inclusive because the Granny Skills movement, in particular, is about living like our grandmothers’ generation by way of being frugal—and the word frugal right there suggests that we’re not wasting money [or] spending money … So for me financially, from a socioeconomic perspective, it’s very inclusive because I’m trying to teach people to—not save money, that’s not the first principle—but to live like our grandmothers by way of, you know, making things from scratch and not buying things with heaps of packaging. Because if you make things …  from scratch you’re not, by default, using heaps of packaging and [you’re] being better for the environment—which is also not the way I sell it because people switch off that way as well … But being good to your health, mainly it’s about your health and your family’s health, and if you make your own cleaning products and your beauty products—[if] you make everything yourself—you have complete traceability and you know exactly what’s going into your body and the body of your family. And by default living that way, you’re saving money anyway. And then from an inclusion perspective: if we’re talking about different cultures, the whole point in the movement is protecting culture. Especially my work with my partner on Warndu which is about protecting indigenous cultures. So I mean most of the valuable lessons I’ve learned have been from our elders and have been from people from different cultures because people from different cultures approach this in very different ways. The value on family and grandparents and elders’ knowledge in other cultures other than my own… is of the utmost importance, so I’ve learned a lot from that. 

What’s been your biggest challenge in beginning and maintaining Warndu?

There’s been one million and one challenges, and there still is every day… It’s weird because they’re the oldest foods in the world, but they’re the newest foods in the world by way of mainstream Australia, so every time we sell something we have to educate people. It’s not like it’s a smoothie— everyone knows what a smoothie is, right? … We’ve got products and ingredients that people don’t know what they are or what they do, so it’s been a huge process of educating. Then we have a supply-demand issue whereby for the first time in Australia demand is outweighing supply, so now we’re in a position where we used to be able to buy the things we needed very easily—we can’t anymore. So we’re having to extend our networks of growers and harvesters and find new people to get these ingredients for us. And then you’ve got the whole cultural aspect of, you know, me being a white girl standing up there talking about an indigenous culture. Which, if I was just a white girl by myself, there’s no way I’d be doing this work, but my partner’s indigenous, so, we’ve rather beautiful married both of our cultures into a brand that champions, yes, indigenous culture but mainly it’s championing reconciliation of two cultures and the incredible power of these plants, the indigenous knowledge that relates back to my granny skills movement anyway. So the two of them sort of go hand in hand and then first and foremost the environmental necessity of having these plants in the soil for the sake of protecting us from the way the climate’s changing. 

When you were a child, what kind of work did you think you would grow up to do?

When I was a [child], I was a social entrepreneur or an entrepreneur from the age of three. My mum told me the story of me holding up the entire line to go and sit on Santa Claus’ knee to have a photo taken with him, which is a thing we do in Australia, you probably do it here as well. (…) I spent twenty minutes pulling things out of my little purse that I’d stolen from my mum to try and sell to Santa Claus. Everything from chewing gum to my mum’s tampons. So that was my first experience in trying to sell things. [I thought they were things] that he could then give as gifts to kids. At age fifteen, I had an underground speakeasy alcohol business going on—I made alcohol and sold it at 400% profit to teenagers. It was probably not the smartest move but…  I’ve always, always, had a very entrepreneurial hat. I’ve always been the girls that sold things at little craft markets or sold my second-hand clothes or whatever. But I think my earliest memories, they’re really random. I wanted to be a peacekeeper, an environmental human rights lawyer, or be a spy—which is really random because I can’t keep secrets. I think that was [because] I’m always seeking adrenaline so I thought [being a] spy would do that. And I’ve come back to the lawyer thing twice. When I moved back to Australia seven years ago from living in London for ten years, I applied to law school and got in and decided that I was better at being a grassroots leader…  I’m not a very good studier. I have extreme dyslexia as well, so I struggle to read for long periods of time and thought […] you’re just about to choose something that requires you to do nothing but read and retain knowledge, so I decided not to do that. So I’m sort of doing my own environmental human rights fight without being a lawyer… but at a grassroots level. 

What do you think is the ideal balance between individual responsibility and the responsibility of corporate structure in creating a sustainable future?

Individuals are the ones that end up ultimately changing corporate structure because one passionate individual that really has a lot of integrity and love and authenticity and is not afraid to fight for something they believe in is usually what changes the corporate structure. There’ll be one person in a workplace or one person in Parliament or one person at a school or a university that fights and gathers momentum. So I don’t think there’s much difference between the two to be honest, I think they’re both equally as important as each other. And individuals make up corporations… there’s always one in every workplace, isn’t there, that somehow manages to change something. Whether it’s, you know, a decent coffee machine or … not having any single-use plastic, or whatever it might be. It takes both and they both inherently work together.

If you could make one thing a daily habit in the lives of every person on Earth, what would it be? 

The daily habits would be (…) taking a water bottle, taking a coffee cup, taking an eco bag. And where possible having like, I’ve got little knife fork and spoon kit (…) It’s really easy for them to all fit in my handbag. But at home, I think one of the things for me would be to plan, food-wise. Food waste is a huge problem in the US. It’s a huge problem in the world. Forty percent of food in the US is thrown in the bin, completely wasted unnecessarily because people… buy too much. People don’t understand use by dates— I think that’s also a huge problem. I would love people to understand that they can still open something if the use-by date is passed and smell it—like our gut instincts work, our sense of smell works, you know if something doesn’t smell right. But I would suggest that writing a shopping list, not shopping when you’re hungry, and planning meals as best you can would be something that I would love to see happen because that, in turn, means less food waste and food waste is a huge, huge, huge problem.

Abigail is a sophomore in Pauli Murray College. You can contact her at abigail.grimes@yale.edu.