A team of three individuals, Zaedno: Communication for Support and Development, is a NGO whose mission is to support growth of the individual and sustainable development of communities. Their work involves non-formal education, art, and volunteering with children, families, and teachers through which participants “learn to be, do, know and live together.” Below, Maria Dimitrova shares how Sutra supports Zaedno’s online permaculture and edible gardens program, Life and Gardening in Harmony with Nature. She speaks to the ease with which she creates beautiful content spaces that offer participants a rich, multimedia educational experience, and the ability to foster connection among participants with regular Zoom meetings and within discussion spaces.
The Zaedno team strives to inspire, educate, and support people in living harmoniously with one another and with nature. Specific to their permaculture programs, they support people in building edible gardens at home and in community and school plots. Beginning in 2021, Maria and her colleagues brought their programs to the Sutra platform with their online family program, Life and Gardening in Harmony with Nature.
Reasons for choosing Sutra
Prior to offering Zaedno’s first online program, Maria was a participant in a permaculture and graphic design course hosted on Sutra. At the time, in 2020, the world was in lockdown due to the pandemic and this, perhaps, made her experience more poignant. To this day, Maria says she does not remember all the content of that class but, what shines brightly in her mind, is the surprise she felt that it was possible to create online learning in a beautiful and accessible way, and that it was possible to enjoy community in a space outside mainstream social platforms.
Just weeks after completing that course, Maria told her colleagues about Sutra and the possibility of hosting an online course there. While Maria felt sure Sutra was the best platform for their work, she agreed to spend time with her team researching other online learning platforms. They researched over 20 different companies and, in the end, chose Sutra to host their programs for two main reasons.
The first reason is that Maria wants creative freedom—and ease—in designing the online program space. On Sutra, Maria can design the entire layout, using her own pictures and graphics to transform the vision from her head and her heart, “with just a short time and some movements of the [computer] mouse,” into something beautiful that reaches students on the other side of the screen. Sutra’s tools make it easy for her to do this.
The second reason for choosing Sutra is the platform’s ability to foster community. Between Zoom meetings and trainings, it’s important that program participants stay connected. Building community is at the heart of Zaedno; in fact, zaedno is the Bulgarian word for ‘all together’.
In addition to visually-pleasing content spaces which hold resources like recorded Zoom meetings, video lessons, and written materials, Maria creates discussion spaces where participants ask questions, share their learnings and projects—and gather—while moving through the program. It is very much an experience of learning, working, and being all together.
Starting small and testing content
Once the Zaedno team chose Sutra to host their program, they created the framework for their online permaculture course and ran it in 2021. The first iteration of Life and Gardening in Harmony with Nature consisted of seven modules, lasting seven weeks. They intentionally kept the group small with a cohort of 15 families (25 participants) as they tested their content in an online learning space.
While the content of the program centers on building edible gardens, the deeper focus is on inviting participants to live harmoniously with nature. As Maria and her team teach participants how to build permaculture gardens, the lessons learned aren’t only about growing tomatoes or strawberries but also about understanding nature and finding ways to live in harmony with nature. The families learn practical skills such as how to build raised beds and make compost, but they’re also guided in understanding ecosystems and learning to live in sustainable ways.
The early weeks of the program, begun in winter months, are spent sharing lessons and resources with participants via Zoom meetings and content spaces. Then, as spring arrives in Bulgaria and surrounding countries, the participants take their lessons outdoors and practice working with the earth. Each participating family has a project to build their own edible garden and, after they present their projects within the program’s private online spaces, they receive personal feedback from Maria and her team.
Expanding content and fleshing out the program
As of this writing, in 2022, Life and Gardening in Harmony with Nature has expanded to twelve modules in its second iteration. With a group of 45 participants this time, the age range is wide, from 14 to 73. Offering online programs has enabled Zaedno to expand their reach and to support the growing interest for online learning; current participants live throughout Bulgaria and various other countries. Many of the participants are parents, whose days are filled with small children and work, so the ability to study and engage in online spaces without the need for travel is appealing; these parents also report appreciating the ease of using the Sutra app.
Maria states that the intent of Zaedno’s edible garden programs is to mobilize teachers and parents within communities, and to engage the communities’ youngest members. She and her colleagues share ideas, instructions, and demonstrations in Zoom meetings and with written materials posted on their private online spaces but then, when the adults actually take this knowledge out to the garden with the children, everything expands. The children explode with enthusiasm, energy, and their own ideas for how to realize concepts within the garden.
Much like the participants planting literal seeds in their gardens, Maria and her team plant seeds of their own via their programs. They provide metaphorical seeds in the way of tools, resources, and support that foster the growth of participants’ gardens and participants’ own selves.
For both iterations of Life and Gardening in Harmony with Nature, the Zaedno team has witnessed participants share what they’ve learned within their respective communities, helping others to build edible gardens of their own; they share photographs and stories of these experiences in the private discussion spaces on Sutra. More seeds planted, more gardens grown, more community nurtured.
The nurturing of community is very important to Maria and her colleagues. When much of the world was in lockdown due to the pandemic, and Life and Gardening in Harmony with Nature was in its first iteration, there were several Zoom meetings where time was spent talking, laughing, and sharing everyday stories, with less time spent on actual permaculture design lessons. Maria and her colleagues decided that their participants desperately needed that time to connect, and felt confident knowing that course materials were organized in easily-accessed content spaces and that everything could be reviewed in future meetings. For those early Zoom gatherings, the work at hand was community building and connection. The experience of being together in that safe, online space—in those moments, together—was foundational. The Zaedno team held that space for its participants, and continues to do so in subsequent groups.
When love shared online can be shared in person
For the current group working through Life and Gardening in Harmony with Nature, the Zaedno team will sweeten the online experience of these families with an in-person event, Celebration of Abundance, at the program’s culmination. In August 2022, many participants in the current cohort will travel long distances to meet with one another and to celebrate gardening and friendship. Hosted at the site of the garden from which Maria and her colleagues share and record their permaculture lessons, the families will gather to eat, to talk, to laugh, to hug. Maria and her colleagues are eager to have these families gather in this way—to balance the work they’ve done together online with time together in the flesh. She looks forward to everyone being able to physically touch each other, to cook together, to taste the food grown in the Zaedno garden—all together. The gathering will be a beautiful manifestation of the growth that has occurred on many levels in this online permaculture program.
Zaedno plans to develop a program on Sutra that includes permaculture training for teachers so that, regardless of where teachers live, they have the opportunity to learn practical gardening and foundational life skills which they will then impart to school children.
A unique aspect of the teacher program is that participating teachers will co-create the content as they move through the program. Every week, the Zaedno team plans to provide the teachers with ideas for designing student activities; the teachers will implement these ideas in their respective classrooms, adapting as necessary. Part of the program requirements will be for the teachers to provide feedback on the activity designed, as well as to create a video of the session spent with their students. All of this content will be put into Sutra content spaces to exist as a community-created resource for teachers—those presently in the program as well as those who study in the future. Recent legislation in Bulgaria has accepted the edible garden program as an innovative, effective learning model, and it is the hope of Zaedno that institutional support will soon be available to teachers wishing to study their permaculture design program.
Additionally, the team has a vision for an online parenting course and online art courses. All this to say, Zaedno has vision and passion for many programs—and gardens—in the future.