RU Environmental Award Winners 2018

Congratulations to the 2018 Environmental Award winners: Common Ground Society (Student society/residence) and Dylan McGarry (Individual), and the runners-up.

At a celebratory function on Tuesday 25 September 2018, winners received unique and beautiful floating trophies and framed certificates, presented by Prof Hugo Nel. Ms Nikki Kohly was the speaker at this year's event, reminding all that when the environment is polluted, it impacts the poor first, and worst. People cannot live well when all they have is polluted earth, polluted air, and polluted water. There is NO social justice where there is NO environmental justice. The Environmental Award winners and nominees are thanked for helping to promote and further socio-ecological sustainability – in line with the University’s Environmental Sustainability Policy.

Winners are also acknowledged in the Rhodes University graduation booklet, and on the Environmental Awards Honours Board at the main library.

More about the winners:

Common Ground Society

This student society has been going strong since 2011. The founding members had a vision for student wellbeing and resilience while learning about environmental sustainability. The aim was to connect with sustainable approaches to growing organic vegetables, with a focus on indigenous and traditional knowledge of edible and medicinal South African plants.

However, the society also recognised that there is view held by many people, that food growing is only for people affected by poverty, and that local and traditional knowledge systems are inferior to commercial systems.

To counteract this, they adopted an innovative approach to learning about the benefits of local food systems by creating a social gardening space where students can engage in a relaxed social setting, engaging in dialogue and hands-on learning, reflecting on and modifying their own practices to align with pragmatic sustainability goals. In the process of developing practical food growing skills, students also gain a sense of personal fulfilment.

The society has their own space on campus – at Grounds and Gardens – and also at a number of digs in town. Members learn and share knowledge by spending time actively engaging in the process of planning a garden, planting seeds and seedlings, caring for and harvesting the plants.

The society has had a consistent membership base of more than 40 students every year. They are active all year round, holding bi-weekly gardening meetings on Sundays on campus, and remaining in constant contact through social media. The more experienced students engage in conversation and guide the newer members in practical tasks – planting, developing and enhancing an educational permaculture display garden on campus.

Educational material is shared via email and social media, or printed and given to students at the gardening meet. The posts on their Facebook page are insightful, encouraging and vibrant.

Members are also encouraged to bring food waste for composting at the communal garden, or to create compost heaps at home.

In addition to their activities on campus, the society organises visits to digs gardens and community engagement partners. This year, they were approached by Rhodes' Engaged Citizen Program to collaborate with Children of the Soil (a 2016 Environmental Award winner) during 'Trading Live'. They worked with Kuyasa School, creating tyre veggie gardens as a part of a skills trading a program.

As an SRC-registered student society, there are strategies in place to ensure the long-term continuation of the society and quality of practice, as set out in their constitution. Each year they hold an AGM in the second semester, where a new committee is elected and then inducted into their role. New chairpersons attend the SRC leadership training programme provided at the beginning of each new year. Bi-annual semester reports are written, documenting the society’s events, and expenditures. This is shared with all members. Every year in February, they sign up new members.

This student group is furthering a vitally important conversation for tertiary level students – our future thought leaders and, in some cases, societal decision makers. Their leadership has demonstrated an ongoing commitment to connecting students to regenerative food systems.

The chairperson of this society said: “There is a wonderful sense of continuity in being involved with a garden, and there is much personal fulfilment to be gained through the process of planting and harvesting.”

This recognition – and the obvious pleasure that the members take in their activities – contributes in no small way to the sustainability of the society. In the context of rising food prices, climate change, and society’s increasing reliance on corporate systems for food security and services, this society is promoting principles that will make a meaningful difference: food sovereignty, self-sufficiency and urban resilience through regenerative food systems.

As a founding member of this society said: “A community that can grow some of its own food will be more resilient in an unstable future than a community that is entirely dependent on a supermarket.”

Dylan McGarry

Our individual award winner this evening has introduced many innovative practices at Rhodes University and in the wider community through his personal commitment to living, learning, sharing and generating sustainability, reflecting the University policy’s commitment to “improve human well-being and environmental health within the university and in the broader community”.

He co-founded and developed branding for the ‘Sustainability Commons’ at the Environmental Learning Research Centre, and is actively involved in one of their key projects, the ‘Wamkelekile Garden’. This garden creates learning opportunities around sustainable food practices. He has also championed locally-sourced vegan catering for ELRC events.

He has consistently made contributions to sustainability on campus and in the city of Grahamstown since moving here in 2001. For example, his organisation, the Arkwork Collective, was responsible for the ‘Greening the Green’ initiative, bringing recycling to the National Arts Festival from 2009 onwards. He started the first Student Environmental Organisation at Rhodes, and was involved in the international EMSU Conference in 2002 – that is Environmental Management for Sustainable Universities.

Furthermore, our winner has initiated innovative research, teaching and community engagement activities for sustainability. His approach often starts as ‘small acts’, demonstrating an innovative environmental practice, which create inspiration for broader participation towards changing sustainability practices. For example, the ‘E-Waste Funeral’ – a social sculpture process to address concerns about the large amount of electronic waste we generate – started with his PhD, and since then has continued into decision-making processes for appointing recycling service providers at Rhodes, to an interdisciplinary social sculpture event at the National Arts Festival, and into the international ‘transgressive learning’ research network.

In the words of a PhD Scholar in the Department of Anthropology:

His “work restores one’s hope not only in academia, but in the transformative power of a deeply intelligent being engaged in empathetic conversation with the world. There is a kind of magic to the way that [he] co-creates creative and safe spaces which allows incredibly deep work to be done. The projects and processes he has been involved in allow participants to re/connect both with their environment and with a stronger belief in the value and purpose of their own belonging and contribution to the bigger picture. His work connects people and nature in a way that transcends academia to bring together groups of diverse people working to create real and meaningful change in the world.”

And on the other side of the planet, a Director at the University of Barcelona said:

His “… work is intellectually brave and ground-breaking, yet its most important and unique aspect is the creativity of his social sculptures and their capacity to awake empathy … and new ways of caring and listening, all contributing to the creation of new environmental subjectivities and practices. … He has opened up the possibility to do research in a more thoughtful, embodied and artistic way.”

This award winner’s practices are innovative, not only combining practical problem-solving with art and deep social learning, but also promoting inter-disciplinary work. He has brought together staff, students and community practitioners from the sciences, art, drama, anthropology, and education to work on a wide range of creative responses to environmental sustainability challenges including water, biodiversity, waste management, sustainable food practices, animal rights and environmental justice. This is clearly documented online – take a look at the Institute of Uncanny Justness.

His work undoubtedly has continuity. It has been used in course design, helping to establish the theory and methodology of his creative sustainability practices, and his research has been published. Established in 2009, ArkWork continues today as an NGO, EarthJunkies. His Ulwembu project – a collaboration with story-tellers, playwrights, theatre-makers, academics and researchers – has morphed into a small theatre company which regularly produces ‘Empatheatre’ and is being used in the RU Drama Department.

Our winner has also mentored many students, generously sharing his time, ideas and labour. As a Professor in the Department of Environmental Science said: "His sensitivity and integrity regarding valuing the knowledge, perspectives and values of others is amazing – a role model for others."

Even Spanish colleagues are aware of Rhodes University’s Environmental Awards, and say: He is “highly deserving of this award for the endless support and motivation he provides for peers and students around the world. He constantly brings new people into the fold, going above and beyond to encourage creativity and authenticity in our work!"


Chad Keates (individual): An impressive nomination. He has been providing reptile education and awareness-raising through his own initiative to the Grahamstown community and beyond. Excellent educational videos online. He is strongly encouraged to continue with his efforts!

Desmond Tutu Hall (student society/residence): An impressive nomination by Nontokozo Makhathini, Brian Rutageruka, Zikhona Mtwa and Christine Msiska. Great efforts to focus on many different principles of the RU Environmental Sustainability policy, covering sustainability issues around water, waste, energy, biodiversity, travel, food, and gardening, though not always clear how many people were involved in the various activities. They had a great plan to raise awareness about water sustainability and safety, we hope that this will become a well-entrenched tradition that will also inspire other Halls at RU to do likewise. It is also commendable that the focus is not just on one res, but the entire Hall. They are encouraged to continue in their efforts.

Adelaide Tambo House (student society/residence): An impressive nomination by the Environmental Representative, Emma Parlabean. The panel was especially impressed at the honesty of her reflections in a weekly log, including how the res responded to problems - this kind of reporting is as important as the successes, and she is to be commended for the action taken as well as the recording and sharing of the challenges. She demonstrated a keenness to create stronger links between community engagement and environmental concerns. It was also clear that she initiated a great diversity of activities to promote a range of RU Enviro Policy principles in the res, though it was not always clear how many of the residents got involved. They are encouraged to continue and strengthen their activities.

Victoria Mxenge House (student society/residence): A good nomination by the Environmental Representative, Yolanda Huchu. She made great efforts to initiate a diversity of activities, promoting a range of RU Enviro Policy principles, though it was not always clear how many of the residents got involved in the various activities. They are encouraged to continue and strengthen their activities.

Last Modified: Mon, 06 Jan 2020 13:28:38 SAST