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Emotions, empathy and what it means for us now.

I wrote last week about the nine things I’d noticed at the start of this crisis, but I’ve carried on watching. And I’ve since observed

  • That emotions really are the blind spot in public policy and in the way in which we talk about things. In all the words that have been expended so far about the impact of this crisis, I have not seen much attention paid to the fact that we’re all experiencing grief: grief for hopes and plans dashed, for security taken away and for some, the terrible lasting grief of bereavement.
  • And we’re all terrified: scared about what the future holds, anxious at a time of such uncertainty, frightened for those we love. And we’re angry – angry at a government that has failed in its basic job of protecting us, furious at those who we see as exploiting the situation, raging at forces we cannot control. And at times of grief, terror and anger we cannot always be rational, we are all easily triggered, so the language we and others use really matters.
  • And because language matters so much I’ve also noticed that Zoom and Skype calls, social media tweets and blogs and conversations that don’t acknowledge the pain we are feeling are dangerous places. When I hear people talk blithely about the great opportunity this is to shape our economy, or who seem to exult in ever last bit of tragic or terrifying news, I retreat in horror. I notice the armchair epidemiologists who spread fear or rush to darken any glimmer of light. I fear the Cassandras who spread gloom and despair as our predicament continues.
  • And I know that trust in these dark and difficult time, is the most precious currency. The most fundamental contract the people have with the state has been broken. We expect the government, whatever that government is, to keep us safe, and while we know that many of our fellow citizens were long ago abandoned by a state that failed them in this fundamental duty, this time we have all been betrayed at some level. We need to trust the science even while we know that science can be flawed. We need to trust the NHS even though we know its grossly underfunded and can make mistakes. We need to trust people making decisions on our behalf, and that’s really hard when so many of them have let us down so badly.

None of this sounds at all ‘strategic’, but I believe that it is. Because we are learning three fundamental lessons

  • That we need to be kind and thoughtful and intentional in the way we talk- and behave – and that is neither easy nor straightforward. But as I argued in  Kindness, emotions and human relationships will be vital in public policymaking. Indeed, the really disruptive approach is to be kind in a world which favours cool rationality,
  • That anger, like revenge, should be a dish best eaten cold. We have seen the underfunding and the vilification of our public services, and our public servants, we have watched the undervaluing of the work done by carers. Now at the time of crisis, we can witness appalling behaviour by some employers, observe the machinations of profiteers and speculators, and see the disarray in our political leaderships. We should neither forgive, nor forget. But let’s not waste precious energy right now, and risk fuelling more despair and anguish when it is already abundant.
  • And that while we plan for a better tomorrow, and we must, we need to do so in a way that recognises this is so much more important than ‘a political opportunity’, so much more profound than an attempt to simply repeat what we have always said before. We need to recognise that we are observing and learning things that challenge our most precious preconceptions.
  • Real social comfort, real solidarity and therefore real change, comes from people and the relationships they have with each other. And that anything at all that devalues or undermines those precious relationships diminishes us all, and threatens our chances of getting though this sad and frightening time.
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Time to get serious about civil society

The end of a decade is always a time to take stock, but in the UK just now it represents so much more. A General Election outcome, more dramatic than most had predicted, has created some certainty about the way ahead, and for civil society some greater certainty about what we need to do next.

We argued when we launched the final report of Civil Society Futures over a year ago, that we urgently needed a renewed reenergised civil society to meet the challenges ahead. Well those challenges have now only got clearer and sharper.

This second decade of the century is going to be both turbulent, and fast paced. Three things we know we will face
• A constitutional crisis that for all the constituent part of the UK will involve change, attention to the national story that we tell ourselves, and the weaving of a new narrative, along with new structures and accountabilities. And perhaps for England even more than the other nations, an urgent need to develop a new view of nationhood.
• Economic volatility as we settle into new and differently negotiated settlements, and find ourselves more subject perhaps than ever before to global flows of capital. There may well be some sunny economic uplands in prospect, but the route to them will be bumpy and volatile. We know the deep and, lasting damage done in the past by unplanned unconsidered economic transitions.
• Climate emergency having real and daily impacts. The floods of this autumn are now classed as the ‘new normal’ and we can expect throughout the decade to be responding to the desperate damage, largely to the poorest and most disadvantaged communities, brought by climate change.

There’s lots we don’t know, but it’s always worth articulating what we do know.

And we do know that civil society at its best, brings a number of vital things.
It brings –

  •  The ability to shape and develop a story that helps us understand and live through change. That’s what creative and artistic organisations do at their best, working closely with communities to articulate a new purpose, and renewed sense of belonging. It’s what churches, mosques, tempLes and synagogues do, bringing people together from different backgrounds and ages to think about how they want to live. It’s how universities, those anchor institutions with deep roots in a place can help to bring people together to tell their own story.
  • We’re good in a crisis – it is community organisations and neighbourhood groups that are first on the ground in a crisis, helping to plan, bringing emergency help, supporting and galvanising the helpers.
  • Our roots are in rights and resistance. We know that major change can have intolerable costs – we know how to organise to demand better, and to seek redress when those demands fail. We know how to intervene in fragile economies, how to develop skills and capabilities, how to assert repeatedly and skilfully the damage done most particularly to those who are too easily marginalised. We know  what is happening at the margins.
  • Much of civil society is in a place – both the big asset holders like universities and housing associations, the long-established local charities and so many others. And one thing we all now know is that place really matters, not in some sentimental way, but in a powerful and defining way it shapes who we are and what we care about.

And there are things we’re not so good at.

  • We’re too divided within civil society with vanishingly low levels of trust between small and large organisations, with too little money flowing from the large well endowed bodies, and too little sense that bigger charities will support their smaller colleagues.
  • We’re bad at collaborating, still too frequently worrying about brand, looking to funders, and government for approval, rather than focusing on our purpose.
  •  We’re still too timid about saying loudly what we know and what real experience looks like. This means we can look detached and far away from the communities we serve.

To be at our best we need to change. And in Civil Society Futures we were explicit about the strategic and organisational changes needed – across the country we see evidence of all sorts of organisations, taking this challenge seriously and making real and deliberate changes.

But times have changed.

In this new and exceptionally challenging decade, we will need new forms of focused accessible help.

This is not the moment for those with assets to sit on the sidelines and lament the lack of action in civil society. A few months ago I suggested three roles for funders in our troubled times, but things have got even more serious and much more urgent. this is not just about the funders – though they have an enormous role to play – its about all of those with power within civil society – universities, housing associations, richer organisations.

So just to start with a few suggestions, how about –

  •  A designated fund, available – without judgement and endless appraisal – across civil society to enable legal challenge to injustice, to allow for review of cases, to protect those organisations threatened with gagging. A fund, and expert resource,  that is as comfortable supporting necessary judicial review as it is in meeting the costs of a small organisation penalised for speaking out.
  •  A mechanism for responding to crisis. Moving money from the big organisation to the front line at the moment of emergency, not months later. We seem to have learnt how to do this after the major national emergencies. Isn’t it time we came to do this when there is flooding in a remote village
  •  Investment in the painstaking influencing of the endless trade negotiations on which we are about to embark – influence to protect and enhance environmental, consumer and workers rights at every step of the way. The costs of the deeply technical interventions might be large, but the value could be huge.

If this is to be the decade of deep connection, we need to start connecting the resource and the power to where it is most needed.