Amrita Bhohi, our new Project Co-ordinator for the City Forum writes:
In it’s unlikely location, situated right in the heart of the City in the midst of London’s financial ‘square mile’, lies St Ethelburga’s. A small, spiritual organisation founded after the 1993 IRA bombings as a Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. St Ethelburga’s has a great reputation locally as well as internationally for their pioneering approaches to dialogue, facilitation, conflict as a means for transformation, the use of story and narrative, as well as their bold mission to build relationships across divisions of conflict, culture and religion.
Until now, it’s lived in juxtaposition with the business folk, known by some who attend faith groups and perhaps the occasional world music or poetry evening, but mostly getting on soundly with it’s own work. Thus, it’s not necessarily obvious why St Ethelburga’s should be launching a new project entitled, the ‘City Forum’ as a direct move towards working with the financial crowd that surrounds it. How, or why, at this time, would the work of this small charity be useful or even relevant to the famous corporates and financiers occupying the global nerve centers of Capitalism? With all good intentions, what could be it’s motivations or expectations to impact or influence such a complex and different group of people?
Having recently been assigned to lead the ‘City Forum’, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the purpose, shape and function of this project. And what I’ve come to believe, is that whilst it could be mistaken for a small, unassuming and well-meaning project, St Ethelburga’s actually has an offering that is not only very unique, but also profoundly and urgently needed in the City. To be able to see things from my point of view, requires first some context, and then a closer look at their work through a different lens.
There is no doubt about the fact that change is happening. Even those who don’t see the need for it, cannot deny that not too far off in our future (and present) looms unprecedented uncertainty and deepening, pervasive crisis. Some realities are inescapable; fossil fuel and resource depletion, over stepping the planetary boundaries that allow for the conditions for life to flourish on Earth, climate change, ever rising global (and local) wealth inequalities,decreasing levels of well-being in the developed world – to name but a few. Given the likely eventuality of conflict and war over scarce resources in the coming decades, places such as St Ethelburga’s may be called to centre stage. For now though, what’s real is that leaders across all sectors and systems are having to navigate this time of great insecurity and change.
This is really interesting to me because I’ve spent the last year at the pioneering Schumacher College working on the assumption that we are living at a momentous time of transition, commonly referred to as the ‘Great Transition’ by the New Economics Foundation, where from the failure and breakdown of existing systems and broken trust in established institutions and power structures, a different story is beginning to emerge. This ‘new paradigm’ is occurring and developing in practice all over the world, where people and planet are prioritised before profit, and is rooted in the central philosophy, to quote John Ruskin the grandfather of new economics: “there is no wealth but life.” Such alternative economic initiatives stem from a fundamentally different set of values and world-view from the industrial values of individualism, growth and pursuit of maximum financial wealth, to designs built around sustainability, community and sufficiency fostering relationships of reciprocity and cooperation. This movement, far larger than recognised, is often overlooked due to the traditional monetary measure of GDP being inadequate to capture the different kind of wealth creation generated. Examples include co-operative businesses, community owned forests, land trusts and the digital commons.
From a bigger picture point of view, the multiple systemic crises are allowing for the re- invention, re-imagining and transformation of the old, to an entirely new fundamental conception of who we are and our relationship to each other and the Earth. But, given the context I described earlier, this is a process inevitably wrought with inner and outer conflict and confusion; things are no longer clear nor certain nor solid, but as we collectively venture into the new; the vague, unfamiliar and unknown, the answers are not pre- determined.
The financial institutions are like every other, and at a deeper level also experiencing the realities I describe. We know this because City professionals have talked to us about the increasing pressure that they face. About living with a rapidly changing environment constant ethical challenges, anxiety about the future (their own personal future and the future of the economic system), concerns about business and environmental sustainability, hostility from the wider community, an increasingly ‘toxic’ working environment stress and mental health challenges, threat of redundancy and a deepening sense of disconnection and loss of meaning.
Now, turning back to St Ethelburga’s, the enchanting space, where the qualities of sacred and spiritual are intrinsic and inspired through the sensitivity, inclusiveness, openness and feeling of deep service from which the place operates. Naturally, if you’ve been to St E, you’ll find this is a veritable haven and retreat from the outside world (pressures and tension of the City), this is what it is renowned for. Hence, the concept for the City Forum evolved (before my arrival) into being as a ‘safe and expertly facilitated space and creatively designed collaborative processes for those who are questioning current practices, challenging the status quo, facing ethical dilemmas, or struggling with increasingly difficult workplaces’. The key aim is for participants to ‘return to their workplaces strengthened and inspired, connected with other like minded people, challenged and stimulated by those with different perspectives, and more able to act ethically, stand up for human centric values, share new ideas and implement positive change in the workplace.’
I support this mission whole-heartedly. But I have also been making an inquiry as to the deeper significance and importance of this kind of work which is, in essence, convening a deeper conversation; a dialogue. I think that this is of major underestimated value and importance. I draw primarily from my experience studying at Schumacher College, where through direct experience I had the opportunity to grasp the transformative power of dialogue through the frameworks of complexity science, systems thinking and the ecological worldview. The implications lend new and creative thinking on leadership, transition and collective conscious awareness.
The point is that the ‘future’ is emerging now, today, in the present. If, from systems thinking, everything exists only as a series of interconnected relationships, then how can we stop re-creating the patterns of inter-relating that are creating and perpetuating an economic, financial and social system that no longer serves humanity and the Earth? Enter: the art of dialogue. Our colleagues over at St Paul’s Institute, Tomorrow’s Company, The Finance Innovation Lab and many others have some cool and useful ideas and alternatives for the future of the City and Business. We hope to have the opportunity to work together with them. Yet, for me, the pre-requisite, and/or requisite, is the more subtle work of sensing and co-creating, as Otto Scharmer eloquently puts it, ‘the future that wants to emerge’. I’m fascinated with the idea of emergence, and in particular the art of thinking together, generative conversation, conversational leadership and the power of accessing collective wisdom. This definitely calls upon a deeper level of individual and collective awareness. I think it’s from this place that change can be effectively lead and navigated, from which we will ultimately give birth to the new.
The practice of dialogue – which brings together St Ethelburga’s expertise and experience, to understand that intrinsic to the most challenging situations is also the unique opportunity for growth and alignment with a new kind of future – is critical to our collective transition to a more peaceful world. It’s not about right or wrong, blaming the bankers or even the system; it’s about an entirely new way of engaging. Encountering each other as peers, having courageous conversations, being curious, sharing stories and perspectives grounded in the knowledge that we each hold a tiny bit of of the picture. It’s about letting go of certainty, positions, identity, dwelling more in the creative unknown, challenging our beliefs and assumptions and being willing to be disturbed and expecting to be confused. It’s about listening to each other and slowing down.
I can’t think of a more perfect and unique space to hold such a forum than at St Ethelburga’s. And so, though it’s still in it’s infancy,my fantasy for the City Forum is as a kind of container for living, collaborative and sustained inquiry for city workers interested in, and working with transition. My hope is to begin to foster (to borrow from Meg Wheatley) a ‘community of practice’ and in turn to create a, ‘community of influence’ (from Alison Donaldson), in service to a more peaceful world for all life on Earth.
After all, Peace is not about eliminating diversity, it’s about, in systems thinking terms, ‘maximum freedom to the parts, maximum coherence of the whole’.
If you are intrigued or inspired by our work, we would love to hear from you.
Schumacher College; ‘Economics for Transition’
Relume; ‘The Challenger Spirit’
Otto Scharmer; ‘From Ego-system to Eco- system awareness’, ‘Theory U’
Peter Sennett; ‘Together’
Meg Wheatley; ‘Leadership and the New Science’, ‘Turning to One Another’
David Whyte; ‘Conversational Leadership’