#209 Building Lifeboats to the Emerging Futures with Sophia Parker of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
How do we best use the tools of our current system to create and support the emergent change we need?
My guest this week is someone who is both right at the edge of the emerging futures and in a position to exert leverage at some of the highest points of the scale at which change happens.
Sophia Parker is the Emerging Futures Director at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a philanthropic organisation with a long history of progressive work, aiming for social and cultural equity. It is still committed to the research that sheds new light onto the nature and scale of poverty and injustice in the UK. It is still advocating for change and supporting the people who are making it happen – but newly it is supporting those who are at the leading edge of paradigm shift, exploring all the myriad ways we could break out of late stage capitalism and towards that more flourishing future our hearts know is possible.
And there are so many ways – one of the many things I took on board from this conversation was the number of people and organisations around the world who are working in and expanding the radical spaces we’ve touched on recently with Indy Johar and then Alnoor Ladha and Lynn Murphy.
In her role as the Director of the Emerging Futures Programme, Sophia is working at the heart of the change, connecting ideas, exploring how best to support them in ways that will grow us forward and not just keep propping up the old system and the old narratives. She’s delving deeply into ways to change the narrative, the levels at which that happens, where are the tipping points in our culture and how do we support and entire ecosystem of transformation. Near the top of the hour, we talked about hope and truly, I came away from this conversation a lot more hopeful than when we started.
Sophia Parker was CEO of Little Village, the London-based charity she founded in 2016 that works to tackle child poverty. Now, she is the Emerging Futures Director at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a philanthropic organisation with a long history of progressive work, aiming for social equity. The Emerging Futures programme was set up to imagine and grow radical new approaches to tackling poverty, in collaboration with partners and people with lived experience of poverty.
Previously she has held senior leadership positions in think tanks and charities, as well as working in government locally and nationally, and was a Research Associate at Harvard’s Kennedy School).
In the podcast this week, Manda asked for your help with ideas for future online Gatherings? Who would you like to meet and/or ask questions of? What kind of Gatherings would you like us to hold?
If you can spare a couple of minutes to answer two questions we would be very grateful.
Sophia’s Blog Emerging Futures at JRF – Two years in, the story so far
JRF Emerging Futures `
Geoff Mulgan Another World is Possible
Meg Wheatley – Two Loop theory
EF/JRF Imagination Infrastructure Event
The Onion Collective
The Onion Collective: Liminal economics paper
Centre for Public Impact
Center for Economic Democracy
York: New Constellations
Opus in Sheffield
Cassie Robinson Emerging Futures, Patterning the Emerging Horizon
Manda: Hey people, welcome to Accidental Gods. To the podcast where we believe that another world is still possible and that if we all work together, there is time to create a future we would be proud to leave behind. I’m Manda Scott, your guide and fellow explorer on this journey into possibility. And my guest this week is someone who is both right at the edge of the emerging futures we want to create, and in a position to exert leverage at some of the highest points of the scale at which change happens. Sophia Parker is the Emerging Futures director at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a philanthropic organisation with a long history of progressive work aiming for social and cultural equity. In 2023, it is still committed to the research that sheds new light onto the nature and scale of poverty and injustice in the UK. It is still advocating for change and supporting the people who are making it happen. But newly in the past couple of years, it is also supporting those who are at the leading edge of paradigm shift, exploring all the myriad ways that we could break out of late stage capitalism and move towards that more flourishing future that our hearts know is possible. And there are so many, many different ways of doing this. One of the things I took on board from this conversation with Sophia was the number of people and organisations around the world who are working in and expanding the radical spaces we’ve touched on recently with Indy Johah and then Alnoor Ladha and Lynn Murphy.
Manda: In her role as the director of the Emerging Futures Program, Sophia is working at the heart of the change; connecting ideas, exploring how best to support them in ways that will grow us forward and not just keep propping up the old system and the old narratives. She’s delving deeply into ways to change that narrative, looking at the level at which that happens. Trying to find where are the tipping points in our culture and how do we support an entire ecosystem of transformation? Near the top of the hour we talked about hope. And absolutely, truly I came away from this conversation a lot more hopeful than when we started. We are about to hop into that. But before we do, I want to tell you about something we’re planning for next year to bring the two arms of Accidental Gods, the membership and the podcast, closer together.
Manda: As you probably know, we already hold the experiential gatherings as part of our way out of what Alnoor and Lynn called the trauma culture and towards the initiation culture. We are expanding that program into 2024, starting with Dreaming Your Year Awake in January. But we also want to open doors for you, our podcast listeners, to explore the ideas in the podcast more deeply. So from February, we’re starting a series of Sunday night online events, that’s UK time, that we’re calling Cutting Edge Meetings, where we invite previous podcast guests to go more deeply into their areas of expertise and give you the chance to ask them questions directly.
Manda: We are starting with Monty Merlin in February, because I think the whole world of Web3 and regenerative finance is a huge part of the emergent future, and there are so many things he is part of that we didn’t get to explore in the podcast that I think are worth bringing out. But beyond that, we want to know who you want to hear from. By the time you hear this, there will be a page on the website, and I will have put a link in the show notes so that you can go there and tell us who inspires you most or who you would like to hear more from. I’m assuming those two are the same. They may not be. Or who you would like to question more deeply. So please do head over there and tell us who you want, because if you don’t, we will just go for who we want and it might not be the same thing. So that’s it for the public service announcement. And now people of the podcast, please do welcome Sophia Parker of the Emergent Futures Program of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Manda: Good morning. I apologise for my voice. We’re just going to have to get around that. Welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. Thank you for taking time out of your own Covid recovery. I am really grateful. We will endeavour to make this a very healing experience. How are you and where are you this morning?
Sophia: Well, Manda, it’s lovely to be here and thank you for having me. So yes, I am recovering from Covid currently at my home in York, up in the north of England, and the sun is actually shining. It’s a beautiful clear blue sky here. So that’s a lovely state for a Friday. And I’m warm and cosy at home, so.
Manda: Yeah. Fantastic. Yes. Your room looks beautiful. I have to say sorry to those of you who don’t have the video, which is everybody, because we don’t do video. Definitely not. So I’ve only ever dared ask one other person this question, but it’s the question I ask myself on a daily basis, pretty much. Which is how long do you think we’ve got? And what is your theory for change? And you feel to me, somebody who’s got such a broad view of the emergence of possibility, that I can ask it. So how long do you think we’ve got and what is your theory of change, Sophia?
Sophia: How long do I think we’ve got? It’s such a big question, isn’t it Manda. And it’s one I think about every day as well.
Manda: Thought you might
Sophia: And I feel at the moment it’s a very troubling question, right? I mean, I’ve got three small children and I look at them and think, is this the golden time we will look back at? What kind of future do they have? And I have to say that I feel at the moment, quite often, a sense of real fear for their futures and a real sense of just not feeling that confident that they have a future to look forward to. And that’s incredibly painful. So when you ask that question, those are the things that come up. And I think it’s one of the reasons it makes it so hard to even begin to answer it. And the truth is, how long have we got? I mean, we don’t have any time in one way. Report after reports showing how we’ve overshot nearly all the planetary boundaries and we’re on a brink that I’m not sure we will return from.
Sophia: And that is very frightening. So I think in the answer to how long have we got, we have to face up to the possibility that we may have no time. But somehow we have to face up to that possibility whilst also not giving up hope, which is a really hard thing to hold. You’re on the one hand having to engage in the scale of the crisis; the ecological crisis, the environmental crisis, the economic crisis. You’re having to engage with that scale at the same time as saying, but maybe there are things we can do. There are things already happening that we need to pay more attention to, resource, nurture more. And so when I think about how long have we got, I suppose I find myself, first of all, wanting to run away and hide in a cave. Secondly, to kind of find some resolve and hope in myself. And thirdly, to say it doesn’t really matter how long we’ve got, what matters is what we do today and how we act today.
Manda: Yes, because there is only the present and actually the future is unknowable. I would like in a moment to look at your theories of change, but because I think almost everybody who listens to this podcast is going to be in the same place of we confront the realities of the present, and any of our rational mapping forward looks pretty grim. Daniel Schmachtenberger talks about three kinds of hope: the kind of pre tragic hope, which is la di da, everything in the garden is beautiful. Baskets of kittens and rainbows and unicorns and you know, fine. There’s the tragic hope, which is much more the everything is going to fall apart, but I will find a good way to die, and I will just die with grace and that’s where my hope lies. And then there’s the post tragic Hope of yes, things are very, very bad, but there is an emergent future which we cannot, by definition explain or understand or predict and we will do whatever we can to help that emerge. How do you personally, first of all, where do you put yourself on that scale? I’m assuming the emergent hope, but I you know, that might be unreasonable. How do you find within yourself the resilience to bring that hope close enough to the surface, that it can help you to act from it.
Sophia: Great question. And yes, I hope that most of the time I find myself in that space of emergent hope. I really think Rebecca Solnit writes so beautifully about hope in this context, where she says hope isn’t optimism or pessimism. Optimism and pessimism are not an invitation to action. It’s a sort of blind kind of faith that everything will work out. That doesn’t necessarily lead to action. Hope leads to action. This is what Rebecca Solnit talks about and I have some of her quotes pinned up in my room downstairs, because hope for me is that emotion, that space of existence where you don’t know if the actions you’re going to take will make the difference, but you believe they might. And I think that’s the place we need to be, and that’s what we need to cultivate, actually. And that is probably also one of the things, certainly in our analysis of why we’ve created the Emerging Futures program, that we worry is in danger of disappearing. So if you look at all of the kind of public attitudes work, the polling work of what people, the general public are believing, you see a picture. It’s a very depressing picture, I think, of a lack of hope and of a fatalism taking hold. So three quarters of UK adults don’t believe their children will have a better future than them. The way I read the data is that people are expressing a feeling that nothing will ever change, that we’re stuck with things the way they are, and we have a cohort of political leaders who have no interest in making those changes and lack the bravery and courage to do so.
Manda: Right. Okay, so let’s have a look at narrative, before we go back and look at theories of change. Because you move in stellar circles of people who, at least notionally, have the potential for pulling levers of power. And at the current evidence, seem to be pulling levers apart in exactly the wrong direction. We’re going to promote more fossil fuel drilling and exploration, and I saw a cabinet minister the other day who said, because the problem is not the supply, the problem is the demand. Which is at every level functionally insane. We don’t need to go into why that’s crazy, but this individual lives in a reality space where that is the narrative that is being promoted and which undoubtedly they believe. Is there anyone that you come across in the levels of governance, so beyond necessarily the governments and politicians, but the people who make the decisions that then roll out, who is understanding anything of what you just said of the potential for hope and the potential for emergent futures and the need for emergent futures. Or are they so locked in a reality structure of business as usual, that they haven’t got the creative capacity to see beyond it?
Sophia: That’s a great question. I mean, we hosted a panel of political insiders at a recent JRF awayday.
Manda: That was brave.
Sophia: Yeah, and it was fascinating. And you know, I have very mixed feelings about politicians. On the one hand, I actually have quite a lot of sympathy for them, particularly progressive politicians today. They’re hemmed in by a series of challenges that make it very difficult, I think, to act with integrity, even if they want to. An increasingly volatile electorate; if they say something that isn’t palatable or it’s too hard to understand, they will effectively cede their votes to another party, because there isn’t that kind of party political loyalty that there has been in times gone past. They have got less money than ever, greater challenges than ever. Their scope for action feels very, very constrained. And I can really see how that must feel if you are in that position of power. At the same time, I think to occupy that position and not call out all of this stuff, feels to me like an abdication of courage. My sense, and this is just a sense, is that the more visionary thinking within that space is happening locally in communities and in places.
Manda: Under the radar.
Sophia: Yeah. Under the radar. Often using quite different language, often working very much in concert with other people in that local area, in relationships, in different ways. But I have to say,I mean, I’m someone who worked in the world of policy and think tanks for the best part of 20 years, my faith in that route to change diminishes every year.
Manda: Okay, we are definitely going to come back to theories of change. But this I really want to explore, partly because that’s where I am now, on draft seven of the novel, technically nine edits but we’re going to draft ten, I’m sure. I want to look at how we fork governance, because it seems to me that the system we have elevates the people who will maintain the system. That’s what it’s for. And it’s working brilliantly. But the requirement of the kind of mentality that maintains the system is increasingly obviously psychotic. How do we create a system that elevates different people? And it seems to me that one of the routes is changing the narrative, in ways that, for instance, parents for future were thinking of: at the school gate we just change what we’re saying. And that will get us a certain amount of the way. But if, for instance, a progressive foundation with a lot of money, probably more than JRF, bought out The Telegraph and The Mail, we could change the narrative tomorrow. If they bought out Sky and GB News, goodness gracious, we could change the narrative tomorrow. Have you thought about or ever had a panel of newspaper editors at JRF? Because they seem to me, they’re the flank of which the politicians are afraid. Nobody wants to upset the Daily Mail comments thread. And the Daily Mail comments thread is the worst of humanity, but it influences how even the progressive politicians, and I’m struggling to think of any, but I’m sure you know some, how they think. Have you any idea of how we could influence that level of narrative speak?
Sophia: Can I answer your question in a slightly long winded way?
Manda: Yes. Please do.
Sophia: Because I feel like to answer that, we need to acknowledge something that Geoff Mulgan has written about in his latest book, Another World Is Possible, which I really recommend to any listeners who haven’t already read it. Where he talks about and points to a crisis in imagination, a crisis in imagination that has led to a narrowing of our sense of what’s possible, our collective sense of what might be possible. And we see that in our beliefs about our children’s futures, but we also see systemically how that’s showing up. So think tanks and politics being trapped in this sort of 24 hour news cycle, the calcification of social sciences departments. Social sciences departments used to be world building and kind of imagining alternatives and now they’re very much about analysing what has been. And you see I think, in the work of people like Rebecca Solnit and Geoff, this story of us losing our capacity to imagine alternatives, coming to see the world as it is now, as fixed and immutable. And I think there are some analysts, so I’m thinking here Naomi Klein, Henry Giroux, who talk about the fact that it’s not just that we’ve lost our capacity to imagine, but that those in power seek to limit our ability to imagine.
Manda: Rob Hopkins says the same.
Sophia: Right. And that is the topic of a whole other podcast, probably. But whatever you believe, whether you think it’s that our imagination has been captured and is being controlled, or whether we’ve just lost that ability or some combination of the two. The context for your question is that collectively, we have forgotten to remember that the way things are is not the way things have to be. That the way things are are a product of our imagination in the first place. And so when it comes to shifting narrative, yes, I think it is really important that we start to think about how we influence the controllers of our media platforms. And actually, I would say, the kind of digital media, the complexity around fake news and all of that, that’s even more complicated in a way, than the newspaper editors, right? But we have to do that in recognition that actually trying to speak to these imaginative alternatives might not Land, even if we had power around those things. Because it’s so difficult, I think, for people to see a way out of where we are now. And the other thing I would say, there’s a fascinating piece of research that More in Common, launched last month in October, looking at segmenting the UK population into different sort of value bases. And I forget exactly what all of the segments are called, but the one, the kind of progressive, I don’t think it’s progressive liberals. Progressive someones, this category. It was just 13% of the population. So the sorts of things that we’re exploring here will probably really resonate hard for 13% of the population. But ow do we speak to the rest of the population?
Manda: To the other 87%.
Sophia: How do you build bridges between these perspectives? And that, for me, is something I’m really fascinated in. How do you actually expand people’s sense of what’s possible? That seems to me one of the challenges that we really need to engage deeply in.
Manda: Yes, at every level of society, from the politicians to the people at the school gates, to your taxi driver, to the single mother with three kids under the age of ten living in a high rise in Birmingham. Okay, let’s go there. Because I have ideas. We need to change the stories, we need to change the books, we need every single writer of fiction to abandon business as usual and start writing ways forward. But they can’t do that also until they’ve had the expanded creativity. And they still have to have publishers who would be prepared to publish, or filmmakers or TV makers. There’s a whole mess of what our narrative structure is even. What’s your theory of changing the story? Because this seems to me right up there was one other coda that Alnoor Ladha and Lynn Murphy were, one of their most exciting ideas I think, was that we need to change from a trauma culture to an initiation culture. And that doesn’t mean going back to being forager hunters, because clearly we can’t. It means changing the nature of our relationship to ourselves, each other and the web of life. However, I think you can’t undergo rites of passage without wanting to. Certainly a rite of passage might happen, but you wouldn’t process it as a rite of passage, that contained encounter with death becomes another source of trauma if you don’t have the resources and the resilience for it to become a growth experience. So I would like to hold that as part of the framing of changing a narrative is only going to land if it’s more than just stepping out of predatory capitalism. I can’t remember who said it’s easier to imagine the total extinction of life on Earth than to imagine the end of capitalism, but that’s true. But we also need to imagine something that isn’t just the end of capitalism, but is a different way of being. With that as the framing, and I’m guessing that is also your framing, because I know you’re talking to people in this space, what’s the theory of change around changing the narrative?
Sophia: So none of us know the answer to that, do we? So all we can do is try some stuff and try it with integrity and with an intention to learn and share what we discover. Which is very much the spirit of our work at Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the Emerging Futures programme. I suppose our starting point here is that it’s very difficult to imagine what you can’t see or feel. Sometimes it can be hard to see, if you’re talking in abstract terms. And so we are very inspired, and our theory of change I guess, is very rooted in a model that was developed by Margaret Wheatley at the Berkana Institute, the Two Loops model. And that model describes two systems: one, the dominant current system in decline, and two, this kind of fragile emergent system that is coming into being. What’s very interesting about the model is the two don’t touch each other. It’s not that one flows into the other, they’re nested together.
Manda: Like a yin yang symbol.
Sophia: It is exactly. And I really believe very deeply that we are in this point of transition right now, where the old world, the world in which we have grown up in, is making less and less sense, which is very frightening. The new world is beginning and becoming, but not yet fully clear. And our theory of change, and as much as we have one, is that our job, in the position we’re in in this ecosystem, is to nurture that fragile, visionary, emergent set of possibilities. And we want to do that in a way that helps to illuminate where those alternative possibilities are already in existence among us, because these are the kind of prefigurative things that exist and show us how things might be. They give us clues. We talk about them as glimmers and so we need to show them. We need to show them, talk about them, explain what they are and how they’re different. And I mean, there’s lots more I can say about the other things we think we need to do to to play that role.
Manda: Please say. Go on. Go for it.
Sophia: So let’s carry on with Margaret Wheatley’s work, which is very important to us. And one of the things she talks about in relation to this emergent new world is that there are there are four things you need to do to support it. You need to name these new ways of being. You need to name them and describe them. So we put a lot of effort into that. And maybe that’s something we could come back to, because I think it really links to some of the things that you talked about with Alnoor and Lynn.
Sophia: You need to connect these different glimmers. So we support networks of pathfinders and change makers, visionaries around the country. And many of them talk about feeling like they’re doing this work in a way that is constantly in battle with the current system and a sense of isolation, burnout and all of these things. And part of what we can do is connect. And as we know, networks are the lifeblood of emergent spaces. What is possible when you start to join these small parts up is a system of influence emerges, in Margaret Wheatley’s words. Okay, so there’s naming and there’s connecting. That’s really important. Then there’s nourishing those glimmers, nourishing those seeds of alternative possibilities. Now, obviously, an organisation like JRF is in a position to be able to do that through moving money into them, although frankly not at the scale that is required. But there are other things that we can do in that nourishing space around actively field building around that work, connecting ideas and people in new ways and supporting in that way. And then the final thing Margaret Wheatley talks about in relation to these new and emergent systems is the need to illuminate them, to tell stories. And this is where I think some of Rob Hopkins work is so interesting. He talks about the primary task of any activist today is to create longing for more beautiful futures. And I really believe that. So how you tell the stories of this emergent system is everything, I think. And I think if we can do all of that and keep doing all of that, maybe we start to shift the dial at that narrative level as well.
Manda: Beautiful and brilliant. Thank you. I’d like to go back to the naming in a moment, but let’s stay with the illuminating the stories. Because one of the disconnects that I see when we try to do this, is that a lot of the people who have currently captured the narrative, frankly went through PPE at Oxford (politics, philosophy and economics), huge numbers of the political correspondents and then people who end up as spads and as MPs, all did PPE at Oxford or Cambridge. And they have a narrative that is: this is the way the world is and everything else is floaty, utopian, fictional hippie stuff. First of all, do you meet that? Or is that entirely my own projection? And second, if you meet that, or if I were to meet that, how can we engage with people who fundamentally inhabit a different reality, and yet hold a lot of the power of the existing narrative?
Sophia: So I feel I need to confess something here. I went to Oxford. I didn’t do PPE. I didn’t do PPE, thank goodness. But I did history. And then I went through this kind of very familiar route. I went into the civil service, I went into think tanks. You know, I’ve played that game.
Manda: You’ve been there. OK.
Sophia: I’m happy I no longer do that. And I’m very glad that I chose a different path in my career. But I do really recognise what you say there, Manda. One of the things I notice a lot with the kind of work we’re doing on the Emerging Futures program, is that when you talk about some of this stuff, about the need to imagine alternatives, the need to believe that we can have a world where people and planet can thrive. The need to think about what it really means to move from an extractive based economy to a regenerative one. All of these things, you get a kind of eye rolling reaction from some of the ex PPE ists. Kind of get real. This all sounds lovely, but come on.
Manda: But we live in real politics and you don’t, so go away, little girl.
Sophia: Yeah, exactly. And I mean, I think it really came out; I don’t know if you ever listen to the Rest is Politics podcast with Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart. Kate Raworth was on, author of Doughnut Economics a little while back. And it was just astonishing. Rory Stewart just sort ofdismissed her stuff as utopian. And actually, I think she, with enormous grace, kind of kept on pushing back at them and saying, well, why don’t you explain why your position is right? Why am I having to do all the explaining? And I think there is something so powerful in that. Like one of the things I see a lot in the work that I’m doing is people can dismiss it as this sort of folksy, wokey, whimsy. And so often when people say ‘we just need to get real’ or ‘that all sounds lovely, but…’ whatever. What they really mean is things need to stay as they are. And I really do believe, though, that where we are, in the state of the world, I really do believe that at some point in the not too distant future, I hope, it’s the realists today who will be dismissed as the fantasists.
Manda: Gosh, wouldn’t that be good?
Sophia: Because that’s the shift that needs to happen.
Manda: Oh yes.
Sophia: It is not realistic to hold on to the way we’re doing things now. It’s just comfortable.
Manda: Yeah. And we’re back to Rob Hopkins concept that capitalism is a dis imagination machine. It’s designed to constrain people’s capacity to be creative, and that if you’re working in that system, if you start speaking in the way that you and I are now, you would probably lose your job. So there’s somebody else’s law who says a man is very unlikely to understand a position when his income requires him not to understand it. And so there’s there’s a chicken and egg loop of how do we filter into there? What’s the number of people inside the system speaking up that will then tip everything over? I have never seen any work that really gets that.
Sophia: It’s very difficult. It’s very difficult. And I think the other thing about these systems of kind of contemporary power, is that they are so deeply rooted in a very rational view of the world. Logic dominates feelings.
Manda: The trauma culture has required that.
Sophia: Feelings have no place. And you know, everything from when you’re a civil servant, the way your performance is assessed, the way you move through the ranks, it is all about having a very steady profile. It’s about being very good at analysis. These are the skills that are overvalued, I would say, relative to what is now really required. I have to say, we do have quite a lot of engagement from some parts of the political system. Like, can you explain all of this stuff to us? It feels really important but new. And I do think that is work that is important and necessary, to start to crack open some of those hyper rational models that underpin the way in which policymaking works, the sort of skills that are valued in policymakers. I work for Paul, our group chief executive. He spent 20 years in the civil service, has, by his own admission, been on quite a journey since joining JRF two years ago. He often goes back and gives talks about how the civil service might need to change to take account of this.
Manda: And is he listened to?
Sophia: Yeah, I think so. But it’s an enormous set of structures and beliefs to dismantle, right. And I think you could put your whole energy into trying to do that. We want to take a much more propositional approach. Partly because of what I was saying at the beginning; we don’t have much time. If we spent our entire time trying to win round people trapped in institutions of today, we wouldn’t be putting any of the time and attention that is required into resourcing and nurturing that that emergent visionary ecosystem. And if that fails and falters, then we have nothing.
Manda: Right. Yes. Yes. Yes! In a paper that you wrote recently that I read, you said in this place of transition, a place that feels disorienting, confusing and messy, we need to be learning from each other, plural in the possibilities we generate, and willing to let go of those mental frameworks that are no longer serving us well. I just love that. And so it seems as if you, clearly you’ve got people around you, you’ve been there two years also, who’ve gone on a journey. And I’m curious to know, before we go back to the naming and to what you’re actually doing at the inter becoming. If you were asked by the Civil Service to create a programme for them that mimicked the journey that you had been on. Would that be something? I hear you that this is a holding pattern. It’s not systemic change, and it’s definitely not shifting consciousness, but holding patterns still need to happen. Could you envisage either that that request would ever come, or that that would be a thing that JRF could do? Are you in a position to do that, or would you farm it out and say, you know, these guys over here, they’re much better at that than we are?
Sophia: I mean, it’s a great question. This is a kind of active inquiry for us at the moment. Leadership for transition. Because there are a lot of leadership courses out there, but I haven’t yet come across one that really speaks to what I think might be required. And as a team, we are, as I say, kind of scoping out what that could look like, to see whether it’s something that that needs resourcing. Is it something that JRF delivers? Who knows? We very much try to work with and alongside others all the time, because part of our practice is about pluralism, recognising that not a single one of us has the answer, and nor do we even have a singular view of where we’re trying to get to. We can kind of paint a picture of the direction of travel, and in that scenario, many of us need to be contributing. So I do I think it is fascinating and I really do think it’s an area where there is so much that could be done.
Manda: Yeah. Because it seems to me that politicians think tank people, even media people, have kids too. And they must get to a point. They have the same data you have, where they wake up in the morning or in the middle of the night, and and the terror is overwhelming. So offering them routes forward might be useful.
Sophia: I think that’s true. I also think, though, that any meaningful intervention of this sort, has to work at a greater depth than intellectually alone.
Manda: Yeah. Yes.
Sophia: So how you give people a bodily experience, how you connect to their heart and their soul and their spirit, is the key question. And I’m personally super interested in the connection between the kind of inner shifts of how we are in the world, how we relate to each other, how we relate to the economy, and the kind of outer change that we’re pursuing. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last five years engaged in existential therapy, and I think there’s something in that practice that is very important in this space. Giving us opportunities to really explore how we are in the world.
Manda: Right, right. Yeah
Sophia: And I feel like the work needs to happen on the inside as well as the outside. And that would be true for whoever you’re working with; politicians, policymakers, whoever. The experience needs to be there as well.
Manda: Yes. And that loops us back to Alnoor and Lynn, who have a lot of really interesting physical exercises in their book, physical, physiological, emotional. And we’re back to trauma culture versus initiation culture. Is you have to want to do that. You would traumatise somebody really badly if you forced them to feel, when they didn’t have the resource and the resilience to do that. It’s not only not kind, it’s counterproductive. So gosh, really interesting journey. I would love to go into that, but I think that’s probably beyond the scope of this podcast. Let’s go back to the the model of the four parameters that you need of naming, connecting, nourishing and illuminating, which sounds very much like what Indy Johar was talking about: inter becoming. That you go to the very edges of emergence and you experience what’s happening there, without predicting. Which is the scary bit. We, as our rational human minds, are taught that we can have a linear prediction and we go from A to B, knowing where B is and knowing where C is going to be after. And the point now is we don’t have any idea. But you get to the edges of emergence and you be there in your heart and soul, connected to each other, to the web of life, to the earth. And you experience what happens. And it sounds reading your work as if you’re working with some really exciting people who are right on the edges and that they are the leading edge. Can you can you name a few so that we can connect and illuminate?
Sophia: Of course. On the JRF website, you can see some of the organisations that we are moving money to and resourcing as part of this work. But there are some truly incredible people and organisations working today to build these alternatives, and I often see them as our kind of lifeboats to the future. And what does worry me deeply is just how fragile their existences are. And in fact, one of the organisations who we have resourced is called the Onion Collective down in West Somerset. And one of the founders of the Onion Collective, Jess Prendergast, has just written a beautiful piece this week called Liminal Economics, which describes in language I can only ever aspire to, that experience of operating in this liminal space between one economy and the next.
Manda: I will find that.
Sophia: So the Onion Collective is a great example. Other examples: We Can Make in Bristol, Civic Square in Birmingham, Colab Dudley up in Dudley. East Marsh United in Grimsby. Gosh, the list goes on. Maya Collective, who talk about rehearsing the worlds we want as their sort of work. There really are some incredible people who are doing this work day in and day out. I think what’s really interesting about the organisations I’ve just mentioned is that all of them have a different starting place. They all start from a position of a kind of a ‘what if’ question, I suppose. What if we acted as if we were in this world where regeneration had replaced extraction, where stewardship had replaced ownership, where care, not profit, was centred? Where healing, not trauma, was our mode of being. And they are asking those what if questions and acting from them in the work that they do, but actually also in the way that they organise themselves. They’re also, I think, very distinctive in their work in that often what they’re doing is quite, in contemporary hyper rational language, small scale. As in contained to a locality. The depth is astonishing.
Sophia: And also they really locate that work in a much bigger analysis of the deep transition we need to make that will shift our economic and social systems. So there are some very distinctive things, I think, about the organisations we’re seeking to resource through the Emerging Futuresprogram. It isn’t the work of public service innovations, important and crucial though that is. It isn’t the work of joining up services in a locality. This stuff is all really, really important, but it is also the stuff that philanthropy is very good at funding already. It’s where the vast majority of philanthropic resources in this country go. If you look at the Civic Power Fund report on where does funding go, a lot of it goes into that kind of stuff. We, I guess, are trying to make the case for resourcing this different work, which, as I say, starts in a different place. Understands the depth of its contribution to these much deeper paradigm shifts. And I suppose the other thing that is really distinctive, is the sort of timeframes they’re working in, where they are thinking in multi generational terms, even as they act today.
Manda: Wow, I need to be talking to these people clearly, because that sounds…
Sophia: I could literally fill your podcast for the next year.
Manda: Okay. Let’s do that!
Sophia: Yeah. As I say, lifeboats to the future. I think what’s really difficult though, and I’m sure any one of them that you spoke to would say this, that they are doing a disproportionate amount of work to kind of be these beacons of hope. But actually there is not enough money, there is not enough resource. So they’re doing this with this constant sense of jeopardy.
Manda: Okay. So let’s explore that a little bit. Because this is the leading edge between the death cult of predatory capitalism and how do we share exchange and account for value in a different way? I’ve been listening quite a lot to the regenerative finance people, and they tend to be young men. They tend to be young white men, but not all of them by any means. But they have very exciting ideas that are, you know, let’s just abandon fiat currencies because they’re clearly broken. And let’s exchange account and transfer value in different ways. Are you getting any sense? No, let me take this back. It seems to me I haven’t explored in depth any of the groups you’re mentioning, but I sat in on a webinar with Chef Food recently, which seems like it’s doing very similar Stuff.
Sophia: Amazing stuff happening in Sheffield. Amazing.
Manda: Really deep. It’s extraordinary. And they did it by not envisioning the future, but looking at what they’ve got and then seeing how could they push the emergent boundaries. It’s very thoughtful work. So I have a sense of what’s possible. And exactly as you said, it’s local, but it’s deep. And it has to exist within the predatory capital death cult, because that’s the sea in which we swim. And if we pull ourselves out of the sea, we are fish gasping on the land. How then, do we create little channels, you know, lifeboats of the future or channels of other sea? And cryptocurrencies strike me as a possibility, but they require such a head shift that I’ve had 3 or 4 people on the podcast who are trying to explain them, and I get more emails going, okay, we truly didn’t understand that. Have you a sense of an emergent boundary in which the handicap of being under resourced by capital is being overcome in other ways? Or is that just asking too much of people?
Sophia: Uh, I’m glad you asked this question. We’re doing this work in late stage capitalism.
Manda: Thank you.
Sophia: So that is the reality, as you say. And. I also speak from inside a wealthy philanthropic organisation, with some very questionable roots of wealth of our own, which we’ve spoken about and acknowledged. But, when I joined two years ago, it was my first step into the weird and wonderful world of funding, and it kind of blew my mind. And I do think it’s worth just saying something briefly about this, because I wasn’t aware of it before I went into philanthropy. Most philanthropic organisations have a model where they have a large endowment of money accumulated in many ways.
Manda: Through colonial eras, basically.
Sophia: Colonial eras. Exactly. Absolutely rooted in those colonial extractive practices, in pretty much every case. I can’t think of a case where that isn’t so. What they do with that endowment is they invest about 95% of it on capital markets and they take the 5% of it to spend on things. So I spent ages, I was thinking I’ve missed something here. I’ve missed something here. So we’re spending 5% trying to make things better, but investing 95%.
Manda: In maintaining the staus quo.
Sophia: In ways which literally create these problems in the first place. How is this possible? And so I do think there is something; we just need to call out the way in which money flows and where it is sustaining, perpetuating, exacerbating the problems that we’re then trying to address. And so when you ask this question of how do we resource or what are the flows of capital towards the sorts of initiatives that I’ve just been describing, I think we have to be very, very honest that philanthropy alone, even if we kind of blew up that model of the five and 95%, would never be enough, right? So we are doing a lot of work around reimagining wealth and investment, and that’s actually one of the four tracks of the work in the Emerging Futures program. And I think there are some really interesting, exciting things beginning to happen in this world. We know that the the sort of money that the visionary ecosystem needs, it needs to be non-extractive, it needs to be democratic, it needs to be patient and long term. We know that mainstream investment models do not work for that. It’s not how they’re geared. Nor are philanthropic models of these kind of stupid grants that are usually tied to an outcome and require all sorts of reporting, a year at a time. Neither of these things speak to the needs of this visionary ecosystem.
Sophia: You then have impact investing, which has grown enormously over the last ten years. This whole world of social impact investing, which I think has maybe done some good, but I would say and I’m probably going to annoy loads of people listening now, but I would say that really theimpact investing model is a slightly less bad version of mainstream investing.
Manda: Can you just unpick for those of us not in the field what impact investing is?
Sophia: So impact investing is basically any investment in current ways of thinking about money, requires a return. Mainstream investment would require a higher return than impact investing. So basically with impact investing investors say, well, look, we’ll accept a slightly lower return because we’re doing some social good, aren’t we lovely.
Manda: What is slightly lower? Are we talking 10% instead of 20% or 50% instead of 100%?
Sophia: I mean, it really varies depending on anything. But for example, most philanthropic social investment arms would require a return of somewhere around 3 or 4%. So quite a lot lower there. But you know, philanthropy can afford to take bigger risks. Some of the more mainstream impact investing will have a slightly higher requirement than that. The bottom line is this is the same model, just slightly less bad. Yeah.
Manda: It still requires the economy to grow, which is what’s killing us. That’s the bottom line.
Sophia: Exactly, exactly. And still, this model where the investor will quite often benefit more than the people doing the work. So there are some amazing innovations around the world and we’ve taken a bunch of UK funders on a sort of virtual learning journey around the world, to meet and hear from some of the innovations in this space. As an example, the Centre for Economic Democracy in America are behind an initiative in Boston called the Ujima Fund, which is absolutely about growing community wealth through putting money and investment decisions into the hands of minoritized communities in that city. And the investments that are made through that fund have a requirement that the businesses they invest in have at least the same return as the investors. So some really interesting models that do exist. Again, these things are happening, they are in our midst, it’s just we don’t necessarily know about them. They’re not necessarily mainstream. However, I would say that even with all of the really exciting developments in the solidarity economy space, like the Ujima fund I just talked about, even in some of the more kind of progressive philanthropic thinking that’s going on in places like Thirty Percy and Lankelly Chase, we’re still not really talking about the scale of money that we need to be talking about.
Sophia: This is still around the edges of what is still a very, very dominant mainstream model of extractive capitalism. So one of the other things we’re super interested in is are there ways, given we’re doing this in late stage capitalism, given there is an urgency to this work, we’re not going to rebuild the entire system overnight. What are the hacks we can make to current practice to break through and I guess kind of release capital quickly and at a sufficient scale? Because really, if you look at where the money is, it’s not in philanthropy, relative to other places.
Manda: No it’s a tiny drop in the ocean
Sophia: We’ve got to be looking at the pension funds. We’ve got to be looking at private equity. What are the hacks we can do in those spaces where we’re talking about trillions of pounds, not millions, that can kind of unleash that capital.
Manda: And what are they? That sounds really exciting.
Sophia: I am not an expert on this and it’s colleagues in my team like Cassie and Emma, who would be able to talk much more knowledgeably about this. Cassie and Emma were just over in New York doing a day long kind of exploration of where are the potential hacks we might play with, nd we want to continue to develop that work next year. But it feels very, very important that we are focusing our attention on where the big money is, as well as trying to address some of the failures and problems in the philanthropic sector and so on. But we have to be realistic. You know, JRF has an endowment of half £1 billion. Even if we chose to spend that down tomorrow, it would go some way towards helping. But it’s not enough.
Manda: This is making me think of the leverage points. So, Donella meadows leverage points of you’ve got, you know, to most of us it’s an extraordinary amount of money, but in the overall ocean it’sless than a teardrop. How do you leverage, in the awful American phrase, but that’s the thing, how how do you maximise the impact that that can make systemically? And that sounds really exciting. Even the fact that you’re thinking about that. And I also wonder this is beginning to get esoteric, spiritual, energetic. But it it increasingly seems to me in the shamanic space that there’s people who genuinely get that the web of life is grounded in compassion, and they’re feeling compassion insofar as they possibly can. And there’s the other side that feasts on war and hatred and home secretaries who want to create violence. And it’s becoming a much clearer dichotomy than it was. And that what you’re talking about is definitely on the how can we create impact and leverage. And at some point you put your head above the parapet and the other side are going to notice you’re there, and the pushback will be interesting. Have you felt that sense of our heads just went above the parapet yet?
Sophia: There have definitely been some moments. I mean, I’m not sure we’ve fully experienced it yet. I suspect, I feel, we’re still operating somewhat under the radar. We’re very deliberately and actually, just to be really honest as well with where we are in JRF at the moment, the emerging futures program is not even two years old. We’re 12 months into our first learning cycle, where we’re working with less than £10 million to learn, and there is a commitment from our trustees to release 50 to £100 million of the endowment in a year’s time. But we’re not there yet. So we are operating with actually, you know, very small amounts of capital, in a fraction of a fraction. And so I suspect that has meant we’ve been freer to operate in a way without having to stick our heads above the parapet. But we have had a few moments. We’ve hosted two conferences over the last 18 months looking exploring next frontiers in philanthropy and investment. And on both of those days, the team and I were nervous. This is a foundation with a well-established brand and reputation amongst those who hold power and we’re saying some things that challenge and question a lot.
Manda: The very foundations on which it is built. Because it’s part of the sea. Yeah.
Sophia: And I think that that is really important actually, to acknowledge that. Because that, I guess, is at the heart of JRF’s restated mission, which again, we’ve been doing a lot of work on that over the last couple of years. To try and be honest. We’re trying to be very honest that we’re an organisation that is both trying to lean into the urgent work this moment demands, ameliorating the worst impacts of poverty. I mean, we just put out a report two weeks ago showing 3.8 million people in the UK are in destitution.
Manda: That is such a deliberate political act.
Sophia: It is. It’s something that has been enabled by a policy environment. It doesn’t have to be that way. So we have our work cut out at that level. But we’re trying to be honest about the fact that, yes, we have to do that work and we have to be doing the work we’re doing through the Emerging Futures program.
Manda: Back to Joanna Macey’s three pillars.
Sophia: It’s not a binary. We don’t need to make a choice. We just have to do both. And it feels very important to keep acknowledging that. The urgent and the deep together. We need both. Both are as important and crucial at this moment we find ourselves in.
Manda: Yes. Holding actions, systemic change and shifting consciousness. There’s three and and it does feel like you’re doing all three. I am guessing, and I have no clue, but the trustees of your foundation got to be trustees of your foundation because they were fully embedded in the system as it stands. And I know they say in science that advancement happens one funeral at a time because, you know, the old guard eventually goes and the new guard then are the old garden. Is it the same in philanthropy? Do you have to wait for a new generation of trustees to come forward? Because I’m thinking we haven’t got time for that either.
Sophia: We haven’t got time for that. No. Well, we’re very lucky in JRF. We have a board that is actually very mixed and coming from many different experiences and perspectives. But we’re all on a journey, right? So actually, I think to decide to wait, as you say, one funeral at a time? We haven’t got time for that. We’re embarking on a piece of work, looking at our own endowment over and above the commitments we’ve made, to kind of spend some of it down. And the remaining endowment, we want to look there at our investment choices and practices in a much more fundamental way. Trustees are the legal stewards of that wealth. And in order to help them make wise decisions that are congruent with the moment we’re in and the change we are seeking, we are navigating a journey with them, with other partners; Good Ancestors Movement, the Social Investment Consultancy, Deep Transitions Lab in Reddington. We are taking them on a journey, which I think will speed up that learning and engagement with some of what we’ve been talking about today. So we’ll see how that goes. But we really want to do that work in a way that is open and can be shared with other foundations. And also, to be honest, you know, we aren’t the only ones doing this. You know, Lankelly Chase have just gone through this enormous change process with Alnoor and Lynn actually, as well, amongst others. And so I do think we are beginning to see foundations with trustee boards that are asking difficult questions. It’s not universal, but I think the truth is it is increasingly less acceptable, I would say, for a trustee board to say, we just don’t want to think about this.
Manda: Right. A trustee of a progressive philanthropic organisation, because I’m guessing there’s plenty of trustees of, I don’t know, fossil fuel endowment bodies who are quite happy to keep saying no.
Sophia: Yeah, yeah.
Manda: Brilliant. You’ve answered all the questions I’ve written down, and one of the questions I had was, who are the fellow travellers? And you’ve named a few, and I’ll need to get them down for the transcript in the show notes. But there are fellow travellers and presumably you can share best practice amongst yourselves. And that again, the leverage points then, you know, changing the paradigm is the top leverage point. No it’s not. It’s really weird. There are 12 leverage points. Changing the paradigm is the second to top, but it’s the one that I got my head around and thought, yeah, we can do that. The top one is ‘abandon all paradigms’. I have to sit very still inside myself to get to the point where abandoning old paradigms becomes a real thing. I so want to come on some of your conferences and things. It sounds like the most exciting thing happening, actually.
Sophia: Well, we try and put as much as we can out on the web. So I mean, for example, the Next Frontiers conference is up there. There’s a playlist you can watch every single panel back. Part of our job is to do this in the open.
Manda: And the courage actually. I really want to celebrate the courage and the openness and the rawness and the vulnerability of changing in real time, openly and in exposed ways. It feels huge, and it feels like a really valuable model to have in the world. So really, I’m beyond impressed.
Sophia: Yeah. Well, I would say one of the things that I notice… It’s funny, you know, I’ve been ill for the last few weeks and this time sitting and resting and feeling rubbish…and one of the things I’ve been reflecting on is just how hard this work is. It’s sort of easy in conversations like this to talk about how inspirational it is, how visionary it is, all the possibilities. But operating in this space of transition, where it feels like all of the the anchors, you’re footing has been lost and you don’t know where you’re going. And you are in a world where some of the things you’re thinking we might need to be doing are ridiculed or dismissed or ruled out by those holding power can create a culture of, I think, hypervigilance, anger, frustration, vulnerability, fragility. And we all hold these in our bodies, right? We hold these feelings in our bodies. They show up, they come out. And some of the work that people like and Nkem Ndefo and Dimple Abichandani are doing around philanthropy and the challenges of doing this kind of work, I think, shouldn’t be underestimated. And I say that as someone who’s sitting in relative luxury, right? I work in a, philanthropic organisation where I know my salary is going to be paid every month. That is not the case for many of the other people in this ecosystem. And that alone creates some discomfort in myself. But I think it’s so important to be honest and recognise that this work can be very challenging and very uncomfortable, and it can release some difficult and challenging emotions into the system, that we need to be honest about and pay attention to. Because they will show up whether we acknowledge them or not.
Manda: Yeah. I’m thinking of Anthea Lawson’s book The Entangled Activist really addresses this. This may be deeper than we need to go, or than we can go. How do you personally and you institutionally help the people that you’re in contact with to work through this? Because we have to. If we ignore them, if we go into denial, we all know suppressing stuff just brings it up out to play bigger and harder and faster next time. And there’s all of the stuff about white privilege, colonial privilege, global north privilege, which is difficult. And yet if we go, okay, I’ve got all this privilege, I don’t deserve to act, then we’re also not being part of the emergent future. And that seems to me quite a delicate balance. I accept my privilege and I will do with it everything that I can, while endeavouring to mitigate the damage that that does. How do you navigate that?
Sophia: At a personal level, do you mean?
Manda: Yes, you personally and then also as an institution.
Sophia: So at a personal level, I have done a lot of work actually, not only at JRF, but also when in my time previously when I was running Little Village, the charity that I set up. Really getting to grips with my privilege and the biases that it continues to create in me. And I understand now in a way I don’t think I really did five, ten years ago, that that is something that needs constant awareness and thoughts. So I think that’s the first thing. Is just really understanding and recognising that anyone working in this space needs to do that work and to treat that work as a kind of essential requirement. Not a nice thing you do. And it’s not a performative thing. It’s not a thing you tweet about. But you do need to do it. And to ask yourself all the time, where did that decision come from? Where did that feeling come from? Why is that showing up like that? And that feels really important.
Manda: How do you do that without fostering a kind of amygdaloid explosion of hypervigilance in yourself, such that you end up silenced because you double guess everything?
Sophia: I don’t think I always achieve it. And actually also I think particularly, I am a white middle class woman with
Manda: With an Oxford education, and all the privilege
Sophia: So I know that and there are some things I feel I can’t say as a result of that. Or that if I were to say them would be heard in a way I wouldn’t want them to be heard. So it’s something that I find very difficult. And I think particularly in philanthropy at the moment, you know, this is a such a live issue, these debates around white privilege, racism, power, equity. And I think this stuff is so important, but a lot of it is framed in ways that keep us trapped in the present. And this is a difficult conversation to have but I do really think, you know, we’ve always said with the emerging futures, work it’s rooted in equity AND transformation. You can campaign for equity without actually really fundamentally reshaping economic and social systems. You can have equity in this system. That’s not the goal here. I want transformation. Liberation and solidarity are actually the words that I try and centre my thinking around, and I believe we need to centre it around. But I think these debates are playing out in all sorts of ways, and I think we still struggle a little bit with an account of anti-racism and liberation and transformation.
Sophia: Not wholly. Places like Healing Justice London, I think have the most beautiful account of how the world needs to be and could be. But I do think some of the framing of these debates keeps us trapped in models that aren’t ultimately helpful. But to try and call that out without being heard, as someone who’s not in favour of equity, is very challenging. So that’s the kind of honest answer. It’s very delicate territory, and particularly given my positionality in that.
Manda: Yeah. Because there ends up being a dichotomy is perhaps the wrong word, but I can feel there’s a kind of, something that Daniel Schmachtenberger again talks about, is we can spin our wheels and create a lot of noise and heat and friction, dealing with the chaos of the moment, of which this is a part. You know, the whole what’s being framed as a woke agenda. We can we can argue amongst ourselves about that. But that’s going to take a huge amount of our bandwidth that then isn’t going towards affecting change. And yet we don’t want to say to people we’ll deal with those issues later. I have a friend who used to be really active in the trade union movement back in the 70s, she was at Greenham Common, all of those things. And she has a very solid memory of a trade union, big white man, working class, telling her that, you know, we’ll deal with all the women’s issues when we’ve had the revolution. You know, and now it’s 2023 and no revolution has come.
Sophia: Still waiting!
Manda: Yeah, exactly. And so it always seems to me how do we navigate? We need absolutely the transformation and the liberation and the justice. But in a very tiny time frame which we talked about at the beginning. And I really appreciate the honesty and the vulnerability of what you’re saying, because it’s an incredibly narrow knife edge to walk. And I’m very aware that the people on what we might call the other side of a big political divide, don’t care about that knife edge. They’re not wasting bandwidth on this. They’re just promoting the division and the acceleration to extinction as far as I can tell. I don’t understand why, but that’s, you know, without any of the wheel spinning and the friction and the bandwidth going anywhere else.
Sophia: Yeah, totally. And I think that that is it. Exactly. We need to build coalitions, even when we may not exactly see eye to eye, exactly aligned. But if there is enough overlap, we’ve got to hold hands. We’ve got to hold hands in this time and advance. Because those divisions will be exploited incredibly effectively. We’re already seeing that. They’re being exploited incredibly effectively by the far right.
Manda: Wedge issues are suddenly splitting people apart. And we’re screaming at each other across amygdaloid divides and not addressing anything bigger. Steve Bannon, actually, I think is a really interesting role model in this one issue, because he said way back in the 80s, the whole of the American right agreed to go beneath the radar. And the libertarians were totally in favour of a woman’s right to choose. That was their stance. They were libertarians. And the evangelist said, absolutely no, that’s one of our our red lines. And the libertarians went, okay, we have the same goal, which is white supremacy, patriarchal theocracy. Okay, you can have that one. And they just stopped arguing and they stopped the bandwidth. And I don’t know, we are not that. And we don’t share the same energetic pyramidal structures. And we don’t want hierarchies and we don’t want to be telling each other what to do. But somehow we need to unify around the common cause of let’s not all become extinct, hey? Let’s give our children a future that we would be proud to have bequeathed them. If that is our common cause, how can we navigate the difficult cultural issues that 10,000 years of predatory capitalism have arisen? And then we get back to how do we heal our trauma culture to being an initiation culture in a way that allows everybody to go through the rites of passage? I don’t have answers to this.
Sophia: None of us do.
Manda: We are running out of time, and this is such a fascinating conversation, we could easily go on for two hours, I have no doubt. Is there anything that you feel we haven’t touched on that you would like out there in the world?
Sophia: Um, I suppose there’s one thing which you may or may not feel is relevant. So before I came to Joseph Rowntree Foundation, I set up and ran a charity in London called Little Village, which at one level was like a food bank, but for baby kit; everything from cots to socks. At another level, we were trying to show what might happen if you built an infrastructure rooted in solidarity and love. Those were our values. And created the infrastructure to enable these small, warm communities of families to come together and look after each other. And I’m so proud of where that organisation has gone and the vital work it’s done through the pandemic and beyond, cost of living crisis and so on, in terms of the children it’s supported. But one of the things I really noticed when I was there is that when you run a grassroots organisation like that, you get held up as the answer. Look, communities can solve this. Brilliant.
Manda: Community becomes a Tory thing then.
Sophia: Exactly. And one of the things I really, really would not want anyone to take away from this conversation is that just because we’ve said things about kind of very local organisations or local politicians, that that is the only place that change needs to happen. We cannot shove this responsibility onto communities alone to solve. Yes, you might be able to do the deep work of showing what an alternative might look like rooted in a place, but if that is not surrounded and nested in different systems of regulation, different systems of ownership, different systems of policy, it is forever going to be battling the status quo. Trying to be co-opted back into it, trying to be turned. All the time, people talked about Little Villages said, oh, your service is amazing. I was like, this isn’t a service. We don’t have grateful recipients, beneficiaries or whatever you want to call them. We have families helping each other, but all the time people try to turn it into this service, into this model of kind of benign giving. And I just really feel so strongly that it’s important we stay honest about change is required at multiple levels. It’s required at communities, yes, of course. But it’s also required at the level of regulation, policy, governance, the level of narrative, as you’ve talked about, and I would argue as well, the soil. The soil from which new possibilities arise. And I would say that the soil of our country right now is barren and arid broadly, and there are kind of roses growing through that soil. But if we want to have more alternatives emerging, we need to nourish that soil such that different things can grow.
Manda: Right. And on a real and metaphoric level. On a real level, there are regenerative farmers who are actually building soil. And on a metaphoric level, you’ve mentioned obviously a lot of people who are building the soil, but we need the 13% wholly engaged, understanding what’s possible and making it. But then we need that to spread beyond. I have one last question, because it’s been coming up for me all the way through. In the very deep local changemakers that you’re working with, I am assuming that the people making them happen are like the local people here. You get to know the people who make stuff happen, and it’s always the same people, and they’re all in the same group. And they they do. But there comes a point where the making new things happen touches the wider population who aren’t the change makers, but who are impacted. Have you seen, are there studies that you’re aware of or funding and promoting, of the extent to which the people who are impacted, ordinary people, whatever we want to call them, the non activists, are changing their perception because they’re touched by the local deep work? Does that make sense?
Sophia: It absolutely does. And yes, yes. All over the place. And so I mean, just as an example, is it coming up or it’s just happened, Civic Square in Birmingham are hosting community events around doughnut economics and have got the most amazing account of how this is touching people in communities who are not engaged daily in the change work, but just living their lives, doing their best to get by. And so I think that’s a great example. Sheffield, you mentioned earlier, I think Sheffield is very exciting at the moment. We are supporting some work there with a wonderful organisation called Opus, also Dark Matter Labs, which Indy is part of, that I know has been on your podcast. And indeed the city council is involved as well in that. And the work that’s happening there is absolutely about backing what they call the demonstrators, the sort of change makers and activists who are building these alternatives.
Sophia: But then there’s a whole programme of work around new forms of democratic conversation, to bring a much greater number of people into the work. So I think Sheffield is an amazing place. And actually really close to home, here in York we’ve been working with a wonderful organisation called New Constellations. And in collaboration with New Constellations, we’ve brought together the most epic crew of 16 residents across the city, all of whom are engaged one way or another in trying to make York a better place, either professionally or personally. And we’ve taken them on a journey to imagine what a better, more beautiful future for the city might look like, that is perhaps less rooted in tourism and hen do’s, and a little bit more rooted in something more regenerative and nurturing.
Manda: And are you using constellation work as a structure?
Manda: Wow. I need to talk to one of them too.
Sophia: So New Constellations. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. They’ve got the most beautiful website. They have audio encounters with very inspirational people and they’ve been running journeys in places like York, also Barrow and actually Sheffield as well. And we now are working with the crew and we have some money that we are going to be working with the crew to channel into initiatives and things happening in York that we think are about building those alternatives. So I think there are lots of examples of where this work really does reach out into our everyday lives. And that is where it needs to be reaching. It can’t stay trapped in these little niches.
Manda: Fantastic. All right, Sophia, I think that’s an extremely good place to end. I am so grateful for everything that you’re doing and for who you are, and for the fact that you’re there and that you gave us time on Accidental Gods podcast. Thank you.
Sophia: It’s been lovely. Thank you.
Manda: Well, that’s it for another week. Wasn’t that completely inspiring? I do hope I am not alone in coming away from that feeling very much more hopeful. About the degree to which the people at the heart of the potential for change in our culture really get it. Really are exploring sodeeply, with such breadth and depth, all the possible ways, or perhaps many of the possible ways, in which we can help the inter becoming that Indy Johar spoke of. Where we can get to the leading edges of change, and then find out what happens when we’re there. Be the change and then edge it into deeper change. And as Sophia said at the end, this is not just about local organisations going deep and broad locally. It’s about change at every level.
Manda: So I will put as many links in the show notes as I possibly can of local places in the UK and around the world. But wherever you are, there will be somebody that gets it, who is making change locally and you can be a part of that. Join up with whatever they’re doing, find out what they need from you, and if you can give it, then do so. And also head over to South Devon Primary or whatever is appropriate in your area, to find out how we can help to affect change at all levels of governance. From local area councils, up to total political change at a national and an international level. Because, as Sofia said, tomorrow is too late. We need that change today. The old system has gone, people. Pretending that next year is going to be like last year is no longer an option. We have to start making the change happen at every level of our own lives. So please, whatever else you do, find out the ways that you can be part of the change. And as ever, if you know of anybody else who understands even slightly, that this is the way the world is and wants to understand how to build ways forward, then please do send them a link.
Manda: Beyond that, we will be back next week with another conversation. In the meantime, enormous thanks to Caro C for the music at the Head and Foot. To Alan Lowells of Airtight Studio for the production. To Anne Thomas for wrestling her way through the transcripts. And to Faith Tilleray for all of the extraordinary work that goes on behind the scenes and under the radar to keep this podcast afloat. And as ever, here at the end, an enormous thanks to you for listening, for getting it, for being part of the change and for sharing the ideas, I hope, with everybody that you meet. This is how change happens. This is how we win the time war. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
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