Two years ago I wrote a blog about what I learned as I became one of 20 inaugural Obama Fellows. The blog focused on the slowness and toughness of social change, the patience and energy required to make a difference and how, in spite of the inevitable setbacks, when people work together towards a better future, they can bend the arc of history toward justice.
Last summer, I shared more about my journey with the Obama Foundation, and how much I’d learned from my fellow Fellows. The piece was more political than personal: it focused on power and privilege, isolation and inequity, confrontation, co-operation and coalition.
AN AGE OF ISOLATION
Now, we live in different times. A pandemic has swept across the world, infecting millions, killing hundreds of thousands and shutting down whole interdependent economies. Like many crises, this moment has revealed things that whole societies had long known to be present, but were too blind, too scared or too selfish to do anything about. Most notably, there is an awakening about the extent and insidiousness of structural and interpersonal racism in the US, the UK and around the world, and the crimes that have traumatised and oppressed over centuries.
Meanwhile, the world is also waking up to the dangers of systems and cultures that create and perpetuate these dual concentrations of power and powerlessness, hope and hopelessness, connection and disconnection. For too long, we have allowed systems — in health and housing, politics, public services and philanthropy, education and entertainment — to separate, rather than to unite.
In doing so, we have built an age of isolation — from one another, from communities different from our own, from our true histories, even from ourselves. That isolation is a gateway to so many of our social ills, from racism and classism to the abuse and addiction that compound trauma over generations; to care and criminal justice systems that punish rather than protect; to politics that polarise.
For some, these realisations are new. But these are issues that have been at the heart of deep discussion — and the requisite action to solve them — for the Obama Fellows over some 200 years of combined community efforts in 11 countries around the world. As well as all the learning I’ve gained from these friendships with 19 remarkable leaders, I’ve also gained solace: that in spite of the pain we all see, the world is changing for the better, and it’s changing because of the power relationships, and the realisation that comes from knowing one another.
HERITAGE, HEALING, HOPE
It’s already been seven months since we were last together in Chicago, though the 20 of us communicate nearly every day. Our autumn gathering was bittersweet: the last of four week-long get-togethers convened by the Obama Foundation over two years, but the start of a different way of working together, from afar and for the long term.
The gathering started with a moment of reflection on the power of place. Along with the second class of Fellows, we explored what it means to have heritage, what it would take to find healing, and how, through our work, we each try to expand hope. The session provided an introduction to the theme of the week and the 2019 Obama Summit: ‘Places Reveal our Purpose’ — the idea that our communities shape the type of change we want to see in the world, and that we in turn shape our communities.
I spoke about the place that has always felt like home to me, the place I was born and grew up, the place I’ve always loved the most, the place which still feels like the geographic and spiritual centre of my world: Camden Town.
I told the story of the migrants who arrived in Camden 150 years before me, in the mid 19th century, to build the railways and the three train terminals which still operate to this day. I talked about a place of industry immortalised in the Peaky Blinders TV show, where skies filled with ash and later the sweeter smell of freshly baking bread; Camden was the home of the famous Aerated Bread Company until the year I was born, and the older neighbours I’ve spent nine years with at North London Cares still recall the aromas that helped them to know they were home.
I told the story of the three pubs that the migrants who built our city made in their image, and which housed their own communities. The pubs were each named for the new arrivals’ nations of origin. Two are still open: the Dublin Castle and Edinburgh Castle gave me some of my happiest memories growing up in the neighbourhood. The third, Carnarvon Castle, was converted to a clothes shop before being lost to fire and inevitable redevelopment in 2008.
And I told the story of my own upbringing surrounded by that heritage — heritage of a working class community, rooted in the power of knowing itself, and neighbours who knew one another, now transforming as globalisation, gentrification, digitisation, corporatisation and transience pulled at the roots of meaning. These days, Camden Town doesn’t feel like it used to: it’s more a hotel than a home.
These are the trends that led me to create North London Cares, and then the expanded Cares Family in other rapidly changing cities — to bring together older and younger neighbours who live side-by-side with their different experiences but who too seldom interact, and in doing so to connect the past to the present to the future.
They are also trends that define the purpose of the Obama Foundation which seeks to empower people in communities to recognise their heritage, to embrace healing, and to expand hope in order to create a better future. And they’re trends at the heart of the Obama Fellowship: in our first week together back in 2018, we agreed — and Kalani Leifer articulated — that our job is ‘to reconcile the estranged’.
In that final week together as a group last October, we were privileged again to learn from some of the best community leaders there are. adrienne marie brown guided us through sessions to remind us to focus on critical connections, not critical mass. She said something which was powerful then and even more prescient now that the world feels like it’s changing 10 years in 10 months — that ‘we are in an imagination battle, but almost everything is shaped by fearful imaginations.’ She said that if we partner with life, and with change, we don’t have to be scared of it. adrienne’s book says it best:
“I believe in transformative justice — that rather than punishing people for surface-level behaviour, or restoring conditions to where they were before the harm happened, we need to find the roots of harm, together, and make harm impossible in the future. I believe that the roots of most harm are systemic, and we must be willing to disrupt vicious systems that have been normalised.”
adrienne’s ‘Emergent Strategy’ has lessons for all leaders working in a world of rapid change. We need to be iterative — yes, to set strategic intentions guided by our values, but to be adaptive in how we meet those goals, rather than wedded to a plan. It was a truth echoed in conversation after conversation throughout the week — that there is no guide in the work of social change; that we’re creating it together and that means the personal work can be more important and sometimes more messy than the organisational; that good relationships are what advance a cause; and that a crescendo of small wins ultimately will lead to bigger change. In other words, if the goal is distributed power, and power is local, do we really need scale — or isn’t it better to ‘start small, stay long, and stretch out?’
That phrase struck me because it’s what we’ve tried to do with The Cares Family. Far from a single unit, The Cares Family is six separate charities, each working together to achieve the same outcomes, but in their own ways unique to their own communities in rapidly changing parts of the UK.
But it’s also stuck with me because, as we’ve developed our approach we’ve encountered challenges around voice — both in establishing a national voice based on multiple local identities (a challenge shared by nations everywhere), and, for me personally, in establishing a platform strong enough to give clarity to the mission, broad enough to be authentic, emotional enough to motivate, but also moderate enough to manage the multiple demands and expectations of charity leadership, both inside and outside our organisation. As Selena Sermeno said:
“The burden of leadership in social movements is that you’re expected to rock the boat, but not too much. You have to balance the responsibilities of budgeting, funders and people management with the instinct and social need to change how some of these established systems and processes work, in order to achieve your goals. That’s hard.”
I reflected on these insights over the next two days at the third Obama Summit. The event started with a conversation between Ava Duvernay and Theaster Gates, about ‘Places Too Often Hidden’. The conversation could equally have been named ‘Stories Too Often Hidden’ — because, just as history is written by the powerful, so the media is still too dominated by majority voices that can ‘distort and mal-nourish.’ Or, as Selena, said: ‘we need more of the streetlight than the spotlight’.
These were themes which came up again and again throughout the week. In a conversation with her brother Craig Robinson, entitled ‘There’s No Place Like Home’, Michelle Obama spoke about the particular tension of a first-term president having to run the country, fix the country, and run for re-election simultaneously. She gave strength to the social change leader’s argument that donors and funders are better off supporting the cause and the communities they care about, and then stepping aside to let the leaders get to work:
“There’s the angst of donors. Everybody’s a backroom campaign manager. That’s stressful. They’ll call and give the five things [they] think from [their] couch or CEO suite. It’s annoying — not always helpful. As much as you know about coffee or whatever it is you make, this is different.”
This is something I’ve written about before, from the perspective of value measurement. Because in a world where we need new answers to new problems, and where the best answers always come from the community rather than the tower, local people with lived experience need to be confident enough to say ‘no’ to old power. Billy Porter took the notion further:
“We talk about authenticity all the time. But the reality is our authenticity is accepted when it’s convenient for the others on the outside to accept it. If it makes somebody else uncomfortable then it’s a problem. It’s easy to be who you are when what you are is what’s popular.”
The final two sessions of the Summit focused on power. Dolores Huerta, who we were lucky to have dinner with later that evening, spoke about the richness and power in diversity, and the importance of people participating in their communities and their democracies:
“Sometimes they think they don’t have the power, that they can’t make any difference. So the main thing we have to do when we organise is to explain to people, ‘you do have power, even if you don’t have a lot of money, if you don’t have a formal education. But you have power in your person. This is all the power you need. We don’t need anybody to come and do it for us.”
It’s a theme that Barack Obama took forward in the final session of the day, ‘What Can I Do Where I Am?’:
“The first stage is figuring out, ‘what do you really believe…what are you willing to sacrifice for it?’… Then you test that against the world and the world kicks you in the teeth and says ‘you may think this is important, but we’ve got other ideas.’ Then you get through a phase of trying to develop skills and courage and resilience and you try to fit your actions to the scale of whatever influence you have… Over time, you start getting a little bit of confidence with some small victories. That then gives you the power to analyse and say… ‘here’s what worked, here’s what didn’t, here’s what I need more of in order to achieve the vision or the goals that I have. Now let me try to take it to the next level’ — which means some more failure… and some more frustration, because you’re trying to expand the orbit of your impact… It’s that iterative process. It’s not… a grand theory of, ‘here’s how I’m going to change the world.’
This iterative approach — the bootstrapping, the scrapping, the leveraging, the change-by-accident-and then-by-design, the learning, the building of teams and coalitions bit-by-bit — has been how The Cares Family has grown. We didn’t start with a plan, or any money, or even a team. We started with an idea and a set of values. The idea shifted and grew over time, as we tested and improved ways of working. There’s no doubt it’s been painful. 16-hour days, months on end, relational tension and exhaustion have all led to burnout.
That’s why, throughout the Obama Fellowship, a common theme of learning has been about self care — the need for patience and nurturing and learning on a personal, emotional, physical, mental and spiritual level. This isn’t something we’ve got fully figured out yet at The Cares Family. We’ve long had a focus on wellbeing, on burnout, and on resilience as being in the community rather than the individual, but as the Covid-19 pandemic struck, we’ve been running into the fire to try and make the biggest difference possible. That’s led to a unique form of burn-in amongst some of our team, including me.
In particular, especially amid a racism pandemic, it often feels that there’s more pain in the world than progress. So we’re looking at new tools — mentorship, healing discussion groups, deeper one-to-one conversations and more — to help us prioritise community care in the future. We’re focused now as much on squad care as self care.
So what has being an Obama Fellow amounted to?
Well, on the face of it, The Cares Family has grown from two locations to five since I applied to be a Fellow in autumn 2017. Then, we’d brought together 8,000 older and younger people through 200,000 interactions and 40,000 shared hours. Now, we’ve brought together 18,000 people through 500,000 interactions and 100,000 shared hours. We’ve helped guide the creation of the world’s first ever government-level loneliness strategy, which was launched by the last UK Prime Minister at a Cares Family gathering. And, during this pandemic, we’ve completely reinvented how we work to connect 2,241 people across the generations, a number that’s growing all the time.
Now, as we come to an inflection point in the world and in my Fellowship, as I move onto alumni status, we are determined to do more, or to go deeper. That’s why our new ‘Action, Voice, Power’ strategy is based on an expanded vision about the power of relationships to make the world a more equitable place. So in the coming years, The Cares Family will be applying our model to helping more people find connection in a disconnecting age — not just across generational differences but across broader social, cultural, digital and attitudinal lines too. We’ll seek to help people to bring neighbours together in their own communities in their own ways through our new Multiplier project. We’ll share more stories about the power of spending time with people from different life experiences. And we’ll help powerful organisations to enable, rather than oppress, the potential of relationships to improve communities.
GRATITUDE AND GENEROSITY
At a dinner the night before the start of the 2019 Summit, President Obama gave a powerful speech that reflected that need to come together during times of change:
“There are those who think that the only way to feel at home and have an identity is to hunker down and only be with folks who are like ourselves, and to be fearful of something that’s different from us.
And part of what I think is our project together is to figure out: how do we remain rooted in place? How do we continue to affirm those specific things that make us who we are — our parents, our grandparents, the places we grew up, the foods, the music, the cultures….the history, the memories, the tragedies — that are very specific to us and yet still be able to connect with others? And how do we form, from our place, connections with other places, and from our history, connections to other people’s histories?
And how do we form larger and larger communities so that more and more people can feel at home, and more and more people can feel connected. And as a consequence of that connection, more and more of us can feel more generous toward each other.”
That’s the purpose of the Obama Foundation, and it’s the purpose of The Cares Family too. I’m so grateful for all the people who have taught me so much over these past two years, who have encouraged and nudged and guided and coached what started as a small vision in my own community to be about something bigger — who we are, how we interact, and the vitality of diverse relationships in helping us all to recognise the world as it is, and to try to remake the world as it should be.