The Cooking Circles vision, right, sees empowered women building communities around themselves through food, cooking, storytelling with other women. The process of cooking together strengthens women’s self-confidence and self-worth. When women host they are fostering leadership qualities. And when women cook and dine together, storytelling inevitably follows.
The project was inspired by Timor Leste. Its’ food, communities, and women planted the seed for developing an initiative that highlighted the good in communities; and celebrated the women that often drove so much of this good, but were often missing from public acknowledgment. An interest in the food of Timor came from a mutual love of cooking between Berta, a 32- year old Timorese woman, and Heidi, a 30-year old Australian. Cooking was a leveller between the two women as they lived together and endeavored to understand each other. Cooking Circles now operates in Canberra, Australia; and Dili, Timor Leste.
The project is based on ideas from community development and human rights, and these inform 5 foundations of Cooking Circles’ operations.
- Women’s rights and empowerment are imperative if communities around the world are to be lifted out of poverty. Gender imbalances must be continue to be redressed if women and girls are to enjoy quality of life, freedom from legal and economic discrimination, and the freedom of opportunity.
- Respect for cultural knowledge means that indigenous and traditional knowledge is acknowledged and is, along with Western-rational thinking, drawn on to solve modern-day issues.
- Communities have strengths and assets, whereby communities become healthy and sustainable through the confidence that develops from focusing on what is positive, rather than gaps and problems.
- Mitigate social isolation so that those who feel marginalised in their communities are instead included, contributing and respected.
- Facilitated, continuous learning and development recognises that women, girls and communities are curious about and committed to the region and world they live in.
Cooking Circles is coordinated by a Director, Committee, and a team of volunteers and partners. The team together have talked about what drew them to the project, and then took their list of words to the largest Cooking Circle, the Wednesday lunch collective. These are what the 10 women present listed as their reasons for participating in Cooking Circles. Some concepts appear more than once as it was reiterated amongst the group.
- Being part of something
- Learning and growing
- Valuing difference
- Holistic education
Planning & development
Just like the Cooking Circles project encourages continuous learning and development, the project itself is an ever evolving thing. The strengths and needs of Cooking Circles women changes the kind of activities that are run, and set the strategic priorities for the organisation as a whole. Fundraisers, partnerships and sponsors, and media are selected based on connections and feedback from the Timorese and Australian women participating in the project.
In 2015, Cooking Circles has been working with women’s groups in Canberra in the pursuit of making a variety of venues, days/times, and cuisines welcoming to a diversity of women. Weekly lunches commenced at a community centre; and bi-monthly in-home dinners ran. The fundraiser for Timorese NGO the Alola Foundation successfully raised funds for the organisation while heightening awareness of the challenges for women and girls living in Timor Leste. A suite of media opportunities celebrated the connections and stories between women so far. Being awarded a Runners-Up Anti-Poverty Award as part of the Anti-Poverty Week provoked national recognition of Cooking Circles.
2016 will build on the groups that began in 2015 and resource these groups to strengthen their sustainability. Volunteers with skills in event coordination, cooking and food hygiene, and fundraising/sponsorship will be recruited. The project will spend 2016 focusing Canberra Circles and blogging on the many and rich cultures and cuisine of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Further travel to Timor Leste is planned to research existing cooking community development projects across the country, and pilot joint Timorese-Australian cooking lessons in Dili. Finally, the guest blog space here will be populated with interviews and pieces with women passionate about food and committed to making a difference.