Different conversations

Last Saturday morning I was having a cup of team with Andy talking about Friday night and trying to explain how the annual evenings hosted by David Towell work.

Last year I blogged about person-centred leadership. I commented that you know it when you see it – just from being in the same room with someone. Friday night was like that. David has a gift for connecting people, and asking questions that lead to different conversations.

He generously, around the time of his birthday, hosts an evening at the Kings Fund in the name of the Centre for Inclusive Futures. He jokes that paying for the food and wine entitles him to ask us to work, and talk to each other around a particular question. This year it was:

        Where are the current opportunities for making and shaping 

        positive differences in the lives of disabled people?

This is a different kind of community building – intentional community building around a shared passion and interest, often called communities of practice. David achieves this through the questions he asks, his generous hospitality, the way he structures the evening and the diverse group of people he invites – his circle. On Friday night it was an international group of family leaders and campaigning self advocates, people from organisations who may in other times see themselves as competitors (going for the same tenders), an actor, writers, leaders in all senses of the word.

A little after eight pm, David takes the mike and invites people who have been ‘listening posts’ to share what they have been hearing and learning.

I do not enjoy being in a room with lots of people that I don’t know, trying to make small talk, so at any other time I would be avoiding situations like this. However, because conversation is focused on a question, I have ‘permission’ to ask this directly, and this leads to deeper conversations, quickly and easily. This year I met another Andy (Andy Bradley) who inspired me to think about compassion and mindfulness in my work, and we have been in contact since Friday thinking about opportunities to connect our work. I also met Julia from NEF and took the opportunity to tell her how personally powerful I have found the ‘5 Ways to Wellbeing’ that they had developed.

It is also a great way to connect with people I do know, but may only see once a year. The work that Sally Warren and Paradigm are doing about An Ordinary Life is excellent, and seeing Sally gave me an opportunity to tell her this. I talked with Nic Crosby about where he is seeing good progress in children’s budgets, and I now have some people to contact to learn more.

I leave with new people to contact; having contributed to a wider conversation; inspired by a different way to think about compassion; and appreciated and gently challenged at the same time by David himself.

So here is my challenge back to you David – please help more people learn from the people in your circle – the David Towell blogs for example? And thank you, for your leadership, and intentionally connecting diverse people through powerful questions and great hospitality.


7 thoughts on “Different conversations

  1. Continuing these conversations

    David Towell writes: Helen wrote this commentary a few days after the Centre for Inclusive Futures (CIF) reception on the 10th May – actually the 10th annual get-together of this kind. As always, Helen writes very thoughtfully. She ends with an invitation – she describes this as a challenge – that I am happy to accept.

    It has taken us a little time to set up this word press blog – Helen helped with this too – but now we are rolling! I call these receptions networking for a purpose which seems a good title for the blog as well.

    There are three main reasons that I am responding to Helen’s invitation. The first is that Helen asked and she is a very persuasive friend and colleague! Secondly, I often circulate some notes myself on what we learn at these receptions (and indeed at the CIF Board meeting which always precedes them) but Helen’s idea for a blog fits much better with the style of these events: here is a simple way of continuing these conversations ‘virtually’. (I am conscious that blogs often turn into monologues so, while I plan to offer a series of reflections in the coming months as I say below, I very much hope that these will find some readers and that readers will from time-to-time join in, especially by sharing your own experiences.)

    Thirdly and most concretely, Helen’s invitation resonated with some reflecting that I am doing, concerned precisely with the importance of networks like this in achieving social change ‘from the bottom up’. As a way of encouraging such efforts I often make reference to Margaret Mead’s famous aphorism:
    ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens
    can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing which ever has.’

    The participants in the 10th May reception are drawn, as Helen says, from my own circle or network which has grown over the last forty years, mainly through working with people seeking to promote equal citizenship and social inclusion for people with intellectual and other impairments – more simply ‘an ordinary life’.

    More recently I have had the privilege of doing some similar work in Colombia. Indeed in May I had just returned from my 11th visit to one city, Bucaramanga, in the North East of the country, where I always spend at least an evening with a small group of people who have identified themselves as Bucaramanga’s red inclusiva (simply translated as ‘network for inclusion’). I am returning to meet them in the autumn and had been thinking that my most useful ‘gift’ would be to offer my version of their own story as a group demonstrating Margaret Mead’s aphorism. But I was also thinking that it would be timely, drawing on both their experience and ours, to try to ‘unpack’ this statement and examine what it means for achieving progress in different situations.

    So far I have thought of five questions to explore further:
    1. If we are networking for a purpose, what are promising ways of defining this purpose in new times? CIF includes the goal of inclusion in its title but I have been thinking that we need to say more about ‘inclusion in what?’ and arguing for combining inclusion with sustainability in envisioning a better future. (A selection of my own recent writing on this theme is included in the useful on-line library at http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/authors/david-towell-phd/ )
    2. What enables individuals to stick at the long-term and sometimes unrewarding work of community building? Another Margaret, Margaret Wheatley, has recently published a book on ‘Perseverance’. What are we learning in our networks about how people get the inspiration and support to ‘stick at it’ through thick and thin?
    3. How are effective networks both created and sustained as collective agents of this important work? Another body of recent work focuses on methods (like ‘World Café’) for ‘hosting conversations which matter’. What are we learning about the conditions for resilience in our networks?
    4. What strategies in what conditions do people and networks employ to achieve real and sustainable change? In the spirit of Margaret Mead, a new book from Marshall Ganz asks ‘Why David Sometimes Wins’ – the story of the Californian farm workers movement and the leadership of Cesar Chavez (who gave us the slogan ‘Sí, se puede’, ‘Yes, We can’). Of course David only wins sometimes. What do we know about when?
    5. How can we ‘scale up’ these efforts to achieve wider social change? Another Wheatley book (with Deborah Frieze) ‘Walk Out, Walk On’ starts to address this question through reviewing a number of social experiments in which communities are ‘daring to live the future now’. What are we learning from our experience?

    So, I plan to use this blog to offer some thoughts on at least these five questions over the rest of 2013. But in the spirit of the events Helen describes, I am hoping that these questions will be good ‘organisers’ for extending the conversations we have when we are together – and thus both guiding and supporting our efforts to build a better tomorrow.

  2. Yes, we can – Sí, se puede: Reflections on a journey in Brazil.

    As my response to Helen’s invitation (above) suggests, I plan to address some of these themes more systematically, hopefully with wider participation, over the summer in preparation for my return to work with the ‘red inclusiva’ in Colombia in the autumn. However I have just had the privilege of spending three weeks in Brazil which proved to be an education as well as a holiday!

    Brazil is of course a wonderful, large and diverse country. I was able to travel from Rio to the Amazon and from Iguacu (the amazing waterfall on the border with Argentina) to Salvador do Bahia (with its strong African influences). Throughout this three weeks – and continuing – there were major demonstrations on the streets of most large cities which I watched on news programmes. Then in Salvador my hotel was actually on the route of a big demonstration which I was able to ‘follow’ first-hand.

    Western media seem to have been focusing on two aspects of these demonstrations: the popular complaints that too much public money is being spent on first, the football world cup and then the next Olympics while ordinary people are, for example, deprived of decent health care; and second, the violence – and indeed when very large crowds are marshaled by also very large numbers of military policemen, ‘vandalismo’ seems a likely side-product. Salvador by contrast was, in my experience, very good-natured: the demonstrations there were part of the 2nd July celebrations of independence from the Portuguese.

    Of course, I am not an expert in Brazil. But following Marshall Ganz (‘Why David Sometimes Wins’) we have to ask about the conditions which shape the prospects for social change and, in this instance, what gives rise to the coalescence of public discontent into a social movement for reform. This is big stuff!

    Brazil is emerging as a major world economy and, like several other Latin American countries, has moved distinctly to the left politically over the last decade or more. This political change is partly a response to the declining global power of the United States (i.e. to control ‘its own back yard’), partly a reaction to the impact of globalisation and neo-liberalism on the experience of ordinary people in ‘developing’ countries like Brazil (debt, IMF structural adjustment programmes, cuts to investment in welfare and public services) and especially a consequence of the growing strength of popular movements concerned, for example, to value the indigenous people’s and their cultures (as in Bolivia), achieve sustainable development based on the concept of ‘buen vivir’ /good living (as in Ecuador) and tackle massive inequalities through participatory democracy and cash redistribution (as in Brazil).

    But in Brazil as elsewhere these progressive trends have been combined with an economic model which depends on extracting natural resources (notably oli) and agriculture for export, with continuing dependence therefore on world markets and multi-national corporations for the economic success required to fund social programmes. In 2013 my reading of these demonstrations is that they speak to the growing gap between the aspirations encouraged by leftish governments and the daily experience of ordinary people.

    This is a link http://share.shutterfly.com/action/welcome?sid=0BbNWTRs0cMWSl to my photos including several from the demonstrations in Salvador. You will see that there was plenty to demonstrate about! Rising costs, including for transport. Declining public services e.g. in health and education. Discrimination against people of African descent. Gender inequalities and violence against women. And corruption in the processes of government.

    We have a phrase about ‘hosting conversations which matter’. Here perhaps we are seeing an example of ‘hosting’ demonstrations which matter. These demonstrations speak to a wide range of problems but it is not difficult to see how they could coalesce into a strong narrative for change. Running through these issues are the beliefs that a better Brazil is possible, that this new economy and society must respect diversity and reduce inequality, and that both require a new politics of genuine democracy and accountability. Sí, se puede.

    We should ‘watch this space’.

  3. Hi David

    I didnt make the event this year but have really enjoyed reading your blog and others comments following it.

    I have been thinking lately about progress and regression, as it seems we cannot have one without the other. we have great personalisation stories in abundance in social care now yet we have horror stories like winterbourne we have PHB coming to the NHS yet we have the horror of francis.

    working on the board of an NHS trust I struggle daily with the feeling of progress and regression constantly there side by side and the discomfort this makes me feel

    we are supporting a genuine lived experience led recovery college. this is exciting to facilitate and is being so well received by people with MH problems and our staff yet we are discussing a board strategy in response to health cuts which prefers SAFE contracts for specialist inpatient services???.

    So I struggle supporting those who are leadersd with lived experience yet being on a board which is starting to think the answer is to hanker down the NHS and do more beds and treatment and thats good healthcare and the budgets will balance!!! so any advice on perseverence and what works would be greatly received here


    • Hello Amanda, Thanks so much for sharing some of your current experience in an important NHS leadership role. Aided a little by Margaret Wheatley’s little book on ‘Perseverance’ I am working this week precisely on what seems to be involved in ‘sticking at it’ in the context of the competing tensions you illustrate so well.

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