Christin Hume 482925 Unsplash

Tree-hugging in Birmingham: reflections on my Fellowship residential

I have to confess, I am a tree-hugger. Ever since I was a small child, looking up into a dizzying canopy of branches and leaves reaching to the sky has filled me with awe, and I often succumb to the urge to wrap my arms around the trunk, make a connection and, well, hug the tree.

So for me, the second Clore Social residential week at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham was a gift. Not only were the mature trees in full leaf, but there was an intoxicating array of plants and flowers, copses, hideaways, meandering paths around a serene lake – all inviting that same sense of connection and empathy with my surroundings, myself and my fellow Clore Social Fellows.

Over the course of the week, we questioned Clore Social, questioned each other, questioned society and the future of the social sector. We tried to listen, forgot to listen, became embroiled in our own individual anxieties associated with who was leading the group and why and where our place was within it. At one point, I engaged in somewhat exhaustive discussion with a facilitator about the definition of empathy itself: do we have to agree with the values and feelings of another, or is the key simply to acknowledge and respect the lens through which they experience the world – which may actually be very different to our own?

This discussion felt crucial to me because I sensed on some level, we were all negotiating the complexity on offer. I don’t think I was the only one to retreat somewhat bruised at times, wondering why I was here and what I could possibly offer. Neither do I think I was the only one who occasionally thought, deep down, that I have the answer, if only everyone would listen to me. Some of us were ready to go, leaping out of our chairs and practically out of the door in our bid to change things. Others of us sat quietly, immersed in our own internal dialogue, perhaps wondering whether to speak at all: did we have enough to say on behalf of the group, could we take our place in our own way or should we be more this, or less that? And what experiences had brought us here – did they include education, privilege and entitlement or trauma, poverty and marginalisation: how much was any combination of these influencing our ability to engage properly with others?

Our struggle at times to seek out, respect and harness different lenses within the group seemed to mirror a wider considerations within the social sector – whose voice get listened to, who gets the (dwindling) money and what about those who have neither the voice nor money to convince us that their needs and their cause are important?

Never has it been more imperative that we are able to think and behave tactically, influence funders, purchasers and policy makers, sometimes using our empathy for perhaps more Machiavellian purposes. Equally, never has it seemed wiser to engage our empathy in adaptive leadership, able to bring our organisations and beneficiaries with us as we negotiate ever more choppy seas. Against my collectivist, tree-hugging nature, I could see how, as individuals, we need to be able to stand up to these challenges regardless of our individual drivers, play the game on behalf of those less powerful than us and, dare I say it, take the lead.

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