Healthy Systems: Strong Relationships, Strong Foundations
When I look at the world, I generally see it in two ways (usually at the same time). On the one hand, whilst I don't like to admit my pessimistic tendencies, I see the world as broken. I see people in trouble and struggling. I see support networks with gaping holes and put in completely the wrong place to catch people. I see endless examples of people being neglected, ignored and pushed aside for greed, capitalism, economic growth and self-interest. But on the other hand, I also see opportunity. Opportunity to make things better, to treat people with dignity and respect, to build support networks that reflect that, to change the systems in play and how they relate to one another. It is both of these views but particularly the second that have led to me working within this field of social change and social justice.
I've worked for social change since I dropped out of university at the age of 18 (having been involved in political youth voice projects since I was 14). I've done youth work, prejudice and discrimination education, human rights campaigning, and community organising to name a few. I've given my all to each of these jobs and the communities that came with them, as well as to the neighbourhoods I have lived in over the past 15 years. And whilst I have seen incremental improvement in the lives of those I have worked with (I’m not saying that's directly because of me), I have often seen those communities or individuals flounder once they have left a service, or once a project has ended, or once a different person came into a role. Change was only happening in one small space, or in isolation from other things. Those people, or communities, could not tap into a healthy network of relationships that existed without one organisation.
I have also seen myself flounder too after months or years of working in organisations that never quite seemed to get the relationships right. Despite starting out with such hope, expectation and excitement, I have often ended up feeling desperate, hopeless and frustrated at unnecessary bureaucracy, or detachment of decision-makers from the world we exist in and the lives of those they are trying to change. I have been frustrated at having no say, at not feeling respected, at my skills only being valuable to a certain degree, that degree typically being just short of the point at which decisions get made - especially decisions that involve money.
Being part of the Collective Impact Agency (CIA), I am excited to be exploring how we can change what seems to me to be the most integral part of successful, sustainable, genuine and useful change: the relationships that bind a system, a community, or an organisation together.
We all know what bad relationships look like: a line manager who makes decisions on project delivery regardless of how staff describe the reality; a competitive staff team that snipe, target and put others down to further their own goals; neighbours who voted different ways in the EU referendum and cannot engage in discussion without resorting to insults and slurs. But there are a whole host of bad and unhelpful relationships that often fly under the radar: services that operate in isolation and never talk to one another; talking shops that obsess over the problems without anyone stepping up and leading action or generating change; staff burnout because of the absence of any kind of support culture. Building good, positive and healthy relationships seems like something everyone sees as essential, or thinks they already have. But, from my experience - and especially in work contexts - they are hard to cultivate, and even harder to maintain in existing systems than I think many people realise.
I’m interested in what happens when we actually prioritise the building of relationships over everything else. What happens if we give time to shared reflection and learning? What happens when we take the time to actually get to know those with whom we work shoulder-to-shoulder? What happens when our opinions are genuinely listened to and engaged with – and moreover when our opinions are allowed to influence the decisions that affect us (be that in or outside of work)?
My experience so far at CIA is that it generates a level playing field. This company – or rather this group of people - has made me realise (or rather confirmed?) that my voice is important - and that significantly changes how I relate to my work. It creates a vulnerability that means I can share things that are important to me without fear of retribution, mockery, neglect or even losing my job. It creates space for me to feel supported because there is time, there is space and there is understanding. For me, this seems like a better foundation for change than stress, disconnection, mistrust, competition, and isolation.
And all this makes me want to explore further what a healthy foundation of relationships for change could look like, be that within organisations, communities, or systems...