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Larissa Young watched a recording of the session on the Power of Imaginative Communities at the What Next Summit. Here are her thoughts on what she saw. See the whole session here.
Having just watched this discussion, I am blown away, and inspired by the impact individuals and their imagination can have in their communities. Dan Raven-Ellison, a guerilla geographer and creative explorer, helped lead the campaign that led to London become the first National Park City, and more recently has been involved in Slow Ways, mapping out walking routes between towns and cities across the UK. Afsheen Rashid, a community energy specialist who founded Repowering, has been equipping communities across London with the tools needed to run their own fairer and more just low-carbon energy supply. And Kamran Shezad, a sustainability advisor and member of the Badu Trust, has been working within his faith group to mobilise his community to become more ecofriendly.
Throughout all these projects, what stands out is what brings us all together; the shared values, the collective imagination, aspirations and vision for a different future, the connections between people, places, organisations and nature.
The questions leading the talks were: how can we best support the communities in which we live and work to expand their sense of what the future could be like? What could a low-carbon, more equal, just and fair society look like? And how could we expand the capacity of community imagination, putting it at the heart of what we do?
Dan was the first to tackle the question. He focused on the need for dialogue with the communities, changing the way we are connected to an area and its nature, and the way we think of London. With the status of a park city, what should we then expect? If we all start questioning what could happen if, and why not, what might be achieved? What if the canals were clean enough to swim in? What if we had beavers in our rivers? Let us aspire towards these aims, and we might reach them.
Slow Ways has involved hundreds of volunteers working collaboratively over lockdown to produce 7,500 routes, which have in part highlighted the difference between where you want to go and the way you have to go, walking around private land, busy roads etc. Part of his passion for this project was the creation of opportunities allowing other opportunities to be born. What other opportunities might arise from this project?
Afsheen spoke about how, in 2020, their focus became hyper-local, helping their community more holistically, not just concerned with providing the energy, but also caring about their financial and mental health needs. Repowering was born out of a group of people who shared a vision and imagination for what could be, and then created it. They also wanted to share this successful model with others, so they found local community champions, who helped their own communities, spreading the vision for others to benefit from. This again works by getting people excited, and aspiring to find answers. How will local energy transform? What if everyone had access to clean renewable energy? How can no one be left behind? What if everyone had access to advice?
Kamran shared his experience working in his Muslim community and beyond as a sustainability advisor for his local mosque. Sustainability is his passion, and he wanted to share it with his community, so he created his role. There are many ways to influence a community, one of which is for leaders to demonstrate, so he led workshops for Imams on a faith-based approach to tackling climate change, biodiversity and nature. Now, 18 of the mosques he works with have solar panels, setting an example for those who visit them. He believes that caring for the planet is inherent in all religions, and globally faith communities and their leaders are beginning to step up to the challenge of protecting our world, creating a strong multifaith stand.
The end of the talks allowed for some extra questions:
How have you got engagement from your communities? By finding common values, talking about narratives, getting people talking, bring people along with your imagination, find leaders, and don’t worry if not everyone is there for the environment. As Dan said 90% of the people there care more about meeting people than your cause, and would be there even if it was a cat grooming party! But while they are there, they are getting involved.
In a fragmented and individualistic society, how do you encourage people to be more involved in the communities they are part of? Find ways to create moments of people meeting others that they would not usually. Have accessible public spaces. Know who your community is and work within it, you will have a stronger impact within certain groups than trying to reach everyone at the same time.
How do you stop climate grief from sapping energy from activism? Surround yourself with positive people. Believe in the possibility and power of communities; there has been a huge growth in people wanting to be involved in recent years. Keep on fighting, knowing you will be able to look back and see the small changes you created.
‘We cannot build what we cannot imagine’. So let’s use our collective imagination to build something great.
Larissa Young is one of our two EcoTalent interns, working with Sophie on our Hackney sites learning how to grow food, as well as exploring other work across GC and the Better Food Traders. The EcoTalent programme is managed by Feedback and funded by the National Lottery Community Fund as part of the Our Bright Future programme.