Megan Rowlatt is one of the co-founders of Intrepid Landcare, an Australian grassroots movement which empowers young people to drive environmental change. At the heart of Intrepid’s approach lies outdoor adventure and social connection.
Sitting across from Megan in a coffee shop in the Royal National Park south of Sydney, the rain splattering the windows, we’d talked for an hour before I’d even turned the recorder on to start the real interview. Spending time with her is like this. You find yourself drawn into conversation about everything from love to riding a rickshaw (don’t ask). Open by nature, she instantly puts you at ease. Truthfully, I think I may have a bit of a girl crush.
Growing up in a little town near Wollongong with her brother and mum and dad, she spent a lot of her younger years outdoors, exploring the coastline, playing in the bush and discovering swimming holes in the Royal National Park where we are now sat. But as she got older, she started to question the environment she was discovering.
“I’ve always been a silent observer of the world,” she smiles. “A deep thinker. I wanted to know what the landscape looked like before the urban and industrial changes. I’d hear stories from the older folks and I was saddened by how pristine things used to be, how much we’d lost, and what I would never get to experience in my lifetime.”
This deep connection with nature has followed Megan throughout her life, and after studying Ecotourism in Queensland she took her first job back in the Royal National Park as a Visitor Services Officer.
But she soon found herself handing out more parking fines than information. Feeling jaded with her life at that time, isolated from her community, and feeling the pressures of a long-term relationship which was quickly leading to the white picket fence, she knew deep down it was time for a change.
“I started soul searching,” she remembers. “And that’s when I saw an advert for Conservation Volunteers Australia. Getting involved with them was the best thing I’ve ever done. I felt well for the first time in a long time. Fresh air, interesting conversations, learning things I didn’t even learn at university.”
But one thing Megan noticed was the lack of younger volunteers. The majority of people involved being semi-retired older men. “I always felt I could connect,” she says. “But I couldn’t help but think how nice it would be to have people who were a similar age and mindset to me.”
WHERE ARE ALL THE YOUNG PEOPLE?
It was in her role as a Community Support Officer for Landcare Illawarra a year later that a little spark of an idea took hold. That spark set Megan on a path that has since impacted hundreds of youth across Australia and beyond.
Since its inception thirty years ago, Landcare in Australia has grown to be one of the world’s largest grassroots environmental movements which is actively addressing some of Australia’s greatest environmental and sustainability issues.
But what has been missing, is an effective community engagement strategy targeting young people, and the development of young people to be adaptive, compassionate leaders for the issues we face locally and globally.
“I had to speak to Landcare groups across Illawarra and discover what they needed,” she remembers. “The answer every time was the same. Young people. Succession. We’re getting too old to be doing this work but it’s important the legacy continues.”
The same message was being echoed at a state and national level. Over and over again people were asking, ‘where are all the young people?’.
A light bulb moment hit in the shower after a conference. Megan ran straight to the phone and called her boss (still wrapped in a towel) and outlined her idea. The premise was simple – get together a group of young people and combine landcare/environmental initiatives with adventure and fun. Camping, kicking a footy about, kayaking. Whatever fitted.
“My boss was super supportive but despite the overwhelming need there was initially some resistance,” she says. “People didn’t know why I was bothering, saying that young people didn’t care about the environment and I was wasting my time.”
But the naysayers made Megan only more determined and defiant. She knew there had to be more people out there like her. The first event back in 2009 – advertised in the local paper – was a huge success with 18 young people turning up on a Sunday morning to pull out weeds, do something meaningful, and most importantly – meet likeminded people.
“I can’t tell you how many stories of social isolation we hear,” says Megan. “Whether they’re working in the city surrounded by people who won’t embrace adventure, in relationships that just aren’t cutting it, or have grown up a black sheep longing for the mountains and someone to share that them with.
“When they come on a project there’s almost an instant sigh of relief and a resounding ‘I’ve finally found my tribe’. It was what Intrepid gave me and for that to be happening now for other young people is more than I could ever have hoped for.”
STEPPING OUT OF FEAR INTO POSSIBILITY
That was nearly 10 years ago, and today Intrepid Landcare has 14 groups across the country, run by young people looking to make a positive impact.
I personally have been to quite a few events run by the Illawarra tribe and can truly say that they’ve been some of the most enriching times I’ve had here in Australia. If you’ve never pulled out Lantana and then packrafted down a river then you’ve definitely missed out.
“The ultimate aim is to have an empowered and connected community of young people, who are taking action for themselves, the environment, and the community, with the support of all generations around them.”
In 2014, Megan got a call out of the blue from Naomi Edwards who worked in coastal management up on Queensland’s Gold Coast. She’d been watching Megan on Instagram for eight years and loved what she was doing.
Together, they applied for funding and started running leadership retreats throughout Australia to help make their now shared vision a reality. Open from ages 16-35 the Intrepid Landcare retreats cover not just leadership but self discovery and empowerment too.
The retreats connect young people directly to like-minded peers and leaders in their community, creating an ‘instant’ network of collaborators, supporters and mentors. They’re also introduced to a diversity of projects happening in their community so their awareness of local opportunities is increased, and they can seek inspiration from those who are out there doing it already.
“It’s been such an inspiring journey so far,” says Megan. “These young people want to create change. They just need some support, encouragement and a few tools on how to do things.”
Twelve retreats in, and the post-retreat stories keep coming. Within two weeks of attending, one group of students had organised a whole-of-school tree planting event to plant 2,000 trees. They’d even cleared a section of river on their school grounds that was previously impenetrable by invasive weeds and built a jetty.
Another group of young women created a link for university students to learn more about regional agriculture and sustainable food systems. Other groups are working on marine debris education and running plastic-free living workshops, running campaigns to save threatened species from extinction, and liaising with local businesses to create change. Yet more have gone on to study or work in the sustainability and environmental fields.
LOOKING AFTER YOURSELF FIRST
But the benefits aren’t just for the environment, but the mental health of everyone involved too. Megan is a firm believer that you can’t do something for others if you don’t look after yourself first, and wellbeing is a part of the retreat’s core teachings with self-care and wellbeing techniques infused.
“We live in some crazy times,” she says. “And our health is so important to look after. Stress, anxiety, overwhelm and depression are rampant and no one is immune, so we work on these things together and really put this at the forefront of the way we build and look after community. It’s a group of people who have your back. We’re all here to look out for each other and no one gets left behind.”
Intrepid Landcare has even captured the imagination of people as far away as Japan – with Megan recently invited to speak at a conference in Nagoya, she has since hosted a Japanese group of students sharing how some of the principles of Intrepid Landcare can be used internationally.
“Our tagline is ‘Do Stuff That Matters’ and it really can be anything that matters to a young person growing up in the world,” says Megan. “Some of the biggest things that stop young people being the change they want to see is limiting beliefs and perceived barriers, as well as a lack of support and connection. Take these away, shift the thinking, create the support and connection that is needed and their passion becomes infectious and the possibilities become endless.”
From marine debris, species decline, and habitat loss to reversing climate change, Intrepid Landcare continues to support young people to develop skills, confidence, connection and knowledge to tackle these matters with the support of their communities. If you’d like to get involved visit their website.