Feature / History

How ‘Mr Everywhere’ shaped modern Brunswick

One of its key figures reflects on the birth of ‘progressive Brunswick’ in the 1970s

Gil Freeman outside the original site of the Sydney Road Community School.

Mark Phillips
Monday, September 11, 2023


IL Freeman rarely gets back to Brunswick these days, but the legacy of his community leadership in the 1970s and 1980s continues to thrive in his absence. 

Freeman has had a profound impact on modern Brunswick as co-founder of both CERES Environment Park and the Sydney Road Community School. 

Earlier this year, he was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for service to conservation and the environment. But that honour barely scratches the surface of his influence. 

Freeman never held or sought elected office during more than two decades living and working in Brunswick, but his achievements are every bit as lasting and significant as those of any local councillor or Member of Parliament from that period. 

Elisabeth Jackson, president of the Brunswick Community History Group and a councillor and Mayor of the City of Brunswick in the 1980s and 1990s, recalls Freeman being a ubiquitous and tireless force for change. 

“When I first moved to Brunswick in the 1980s, Gil seemed to be Mr Everywhere – a bit like Eddie McGuire,” she said. 

Freeman and his wife Meredith have lived in South Gippsland since the 1990s, where they have run a successful organic green grocery, but he recently paid a visit back to his old stomping ground at the invitation of the community history group to speak at its annual general meeting about “the birth of progressive Brunswick”. 

It was an opportunity for Freeman, now aged 83, to not only discuss the early days of CERES and the Sydney Road school, but also to impart wisdom about how communities can achieve lasting change.  

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Freeman says the stories behind the success of CERES and the school resonate far beyond Brunswick as examples of successful activism and the courage to campaign for change. 

“I think [they] should be celebrated as community action out of Brunswick, which has influenced far more than Brunswick,” he said. 

“You can be a community activist and influence government and put your advice to them and it’s accepted … You don’t have to be a bureaucrat or government official to create change, you can do it on the ground.” 

Freeman arrived in the area from Bairnsdale in 1968 as a new teacher at Moreland High School in Coburg. 

He and a few other teachers at Moreland High wanted to challenge the education system and the “sclerotic” syllabus of the time by taking school from the classroom and into the outside world. 

Out of that grew a plan to set up a separate, independent school which was rejected several times by the Education Department until Freeman and his colleagues chanced upon an unoccupied church and Sunday School hall in Sydney Road.  

In 1972, they took 80 students and set them up in the church hall as an annexe of Moreland High. 

After a couple of years that were “a bit chaotic”, by 1974 Sydney Road Community School had its own curriculum and an assessment process that would be mimicked and adopted across the state. 

The school became a beacon for students who did not fit into the mainstream secondary education system.

Today, Sydney Road Community School is a thriving and respected school that at the start of this year moved into brand-new, purpose-built premises in Glenlyon Road. 

Staff and students of the Sydney Road Community School circa 1983. Supplied image

That period in the mid-1970s was one of high youth unemployment of up to 30%, which led the secondary schools in the area to join forces with the Brunswick Unemployment Group to look for solutions to provide jobs for school leavers. 

One of the options was to set up an environmental park, where young people could learn skills like landscaping and earn an income. 

Their protracted search for a suitable location eventually led to an abandoned quarry-cum-tip at the end of Stewart Street and brushing against the Merri Creek in Brunswick East, which the group took over on a 10-year lease from the City of Brunswick in 1982. 

“It was an abandoned, derelict awful site,” Freeman said. Hundreds of concrete blocks that had once formed the streets of Brunswick had been dumped on the site, sometimes buried six deep underground. The creek itself was also in a degraded state. 

But as the result of countless hours of work by hundreds of volunteers, they eventually cleared the land and planted the first community gardens that soon flourished as the Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies, or CERES for short, took shape. 

CERES began with just $50,000 of funding but today it is an organisation that generates about $20 million in annual turnover, employs several hundred people and oversees a group of social enterprises including a café, organic grocery and bakery and a retail nursery. 

Freeman said it was always envisaged that CERES would be more than just a community garden, but would play its part in developing solutions to environmental threats, particularly climate change. 

It was also logical that Freeman and his co-founders of CERES would turn their attention to restoring Merri Creek, which in the early-1980s was heavily polluted and almost inaccessible on both sides of the creek. 

Worse, it had been identified by the State Government as the potential route for a new freeway with plans to fill the creek with concrete similar to the Moonee Ponds Creek. 

In the mid-1970s, the Merri Creek Action Group was formed to protect the creek and revegetate its banks. One of the other founders of the action group was Ann McGregor, who also received an OAM this year. 

The CERES site in the early-1980s. Image courtesy of CERES

Freeman said the development of CERES, the Sydney Road Community School and the preservation and restoration of Merri Creek were all group efforts of which he was just one part. He said they were all shining examples of what could be achieved with clear goals and collective will. 

He now looks back fondly and as a proud parent at the hard work and struggles in the early days of all three projects. 

“Probably this is a terrible analogy, but if you’ve got babies in your life, you know sometimes how difficult they can be, messy, painful,” he said. 

“But you see the young grow up and you start to feel proud. And you can see the maturity of the young people. And as we grow older, they become more and more sophisticated and clever and intelligent and do things well with themselves. 

“It’s how it is with Sydney Road Community School, and Merri Creek, [they are] worth celebrating. And I think if Brunswick has got anything to say to the rest of Victoria, look at Sydney Road, look at CERES and look at Merri Creek. All of those are saying something about what we can do as community activists.” 

The school and CERES are now so entrenched in the Brunswick community that it seems inconceivable without them, but both concepts encountered deep resistance that had to be overcome before anything could begin. 

Freeman said the key to achieving change was to have a clear plan, strategy and desired outcome, identifying the main decisionmakers that would need to be targeted, and building collective and community support. 

“I think you’ve just got to build up a whole range of people who are prepared to walk with you,” he said. 

“If you’re by yourself, you’re really fighting against it.  

“You’ve got to have a good theory behind you and got to know what you’re after. If you don’t have it worked out, then you may as well not start. 

“And get as many senior influencers as possible supporting the case.” 

In 1995, Gil and Meredith Freeman made a treechange to Korumburra in South Gippsland where they have made their mark on another community. For many years, they operated an organic greengrocer business and Meredith wrote a book, A Garden of Useful Plants. Seasons in the Gippsland Hills.

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