So what have I learned now?

It’s been over a year now since I first wrote about my experience of being one of the inaugural 20 Obama Foundation Fellows, and what I’d learned at the opening gathering of that group in May 2018. Since then, the Foundation itself has grown, launching its Leaders: Africa and Scholars programmes as well as its Girls Opportunity Alliance; hosting events in Asia-Pacific and Europe even as it puts down roots with the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago; and of course adding another 20 Fellows from around the world — people who are improving their own communities in their own extraordinary ways.


In that year and more, I’ve learned so much. I’ve been inspired by my fellow Fellows and new friends who come from varied places and backgrounds, but who have so much in common in their approach: whether they’re working to make justice systems more equitable, to expand young people’s opportunity or make bridges to employment fairer, or to help rural communities to be better heard, each of these leaders believes in the power of togetherness to reduce isolation and to distribute power more evenly.

I’ve also learned more about my own privileges in the world and what it takes to be an ally to others in times of change — to ask questions, to listen deeply to people’s lived experiences, to challenge old orthodoxies, to amplify others’ voices, and to step aside to make space for new perspectives in every arena. And I’ve learned, often first hand, about the importance of self care, joy and balance in social change work — issues I spoke about at Nesta’s recent Reimagining Leadership conference.

So at the third gathering of our Fellowship in Washington DC this May, I was eager to consolidate that learning, to raise my aspirations again, and to think of practical new ways to expand The Cares Family’s mission based on the principles of openness, inclusivity, diversity and collaboration. Some of that thinking has already started to appear in our new work. But there are also many practical, universal tips that apply across sectors — from business to government to social action — that I wanted to share.


Those lessons lie at the intersection of inspiration (imagining the world as it can be) and perspiration (changing the world as it is). Angela Glover Blackwell, for example, who led our spring gathering’s first session, urged us to “declutter [our] thinking and pay attention to narratives; be curious about people’s lives; hear people and capture their truth — the sincerity and the longing.” In a world in which we are so overloaded with data and disempowered by remote systems, finding a way to locate and articulate ‘the essence’ of your mission, and the people and the stories that make that work meaningful, feels ever more important if we are to recognise people fully.

So the purpose of data in social change work should not be merely to assess, appraise or analyse — to reduce the richness of people’s lives to a number or a label. That kind of bean counting can stand in the way of radical imagination and equity. Rather, the purpose of our data should be to expand our perspective, to extend our understanding, to zoom in on people’s lives rather than to zoom out. Because if we’re interested in shifting outcomes, we need to ask different questions from the ones that the system is asking, or else risk perpetuating the status quo.


Angela also spoke about the combination of “audacious confidence, deep humility and preparation for loneliness” required in adaptive leadership. It’s a theme we’ve returned to several times during the Fellowship — that in a fast-changing world, in which new power is built on nexuses, our solutions to entrenched social challenges need to be agile. So whether in our core activity or in how we build our organisations, we need to recognise the various partners and stakeholders who may be influenced by our actions, consider their potential loyalties and losses, and hear their perspectives before taking action on their behalf.


We also need to recognise that while conflict can be harmful, confrontation is a necessary and important part of driving change. Just as Brené Brown had shared with us a year earlier that ‘clarity is kind’, social change leaders shouldn’t be afraid of tensions, in their teams, their relationships or their advocacy issues — because those confrontations offer the opportunity to challenge assumptions and structures, to deepen connection and ultimately to resolve problems. So in a session with Joe Weston, author of the book ‘Mastering Respectful Confrontation’, we learned the importance of putting away those endless day-to-day tasks, focusing instead on deepening relationships, vulnerability and connection in order to build power with others and ultimately to be more productive.


All of this got me thinking that if we can respectfully confront the difficulties in our human relationships, one-to-one, we also need in the UK to respectfully confront our national history if we are to improve our connection to one another, to each of our diverse communities and ultimately to ourselves. Because while our national narrative is not honest about our past abuses — or the trauma, structural discriminations, privileges, entitlements and inequities that are the legacy of those abuses — we can never create a truly inclusive, connected society where power is more evenly spread and togetherness is the norm.


Achieving that togetherness is a mission which all the Fellows share, regardless of our diverse geographies. But we’re conscious that we won’t achieve our collective mission in our unique communities unless we can do something to change the systems and even cultures that so often uphold inequities, and which can double down, rather than open up, when challenged.

So we each need to think about the approaches that are most relevant in our own communities; to not chase scale for scale’s sake; to recognise our own blind spots and prejudices; to encourage philanthropy to think differently; to reject abstract evaluation approaches and language that can strip people of their unique experience and thereby perpetuate power and powerlessness; and to appreciate that systems and cultures only change when individual behaviours and biases change. That’s our mission as Fellows.

And crucially, to do that, individuals and organisations working on social change need to prioritise the sustainability of self care. Because while humans are evolved to cope with strain, we are not made to cope with chronic, permanent stress. We need long term vision and balance, unimpeded by the myopia of the immediate crisis. We need to take delight in the good fortune of others and to express admiration, affection and gratitude easily. And we need to constantly remind ourselves of that, because as President Obama himself said: “While these ideas may be self-evident, they are not self-executing. While they may be common sense, they are not common practice.”

Founder/CEO of @TheCaresFamily . @ObamaFoundation Fellow. Previously @Ed_Miliband aide and @LabourList editor. Camden head, MUFC heart.