“We need to centre joy and hope in our work”: Alex Sutton reflects on his last day at PHF
This week celebrates Refugee Week in the UK, and it also marks my last week at PHF as Head of Programme for Migration. I’ve learned a huge amount over the past seven years from the organisations we’ve had the privilege to partner with, so I thought I would use my remaining time at PHF to share a few reflections on ideas and themes that have really resonated with me recently.
Learning has been at the heart of how the Shared Ground team has operated over the past seven years, and we have tried to share our thinking through our Theory of Change, updating this every couple of years. Working at a foundation brings many privileges, one of the greatest being that you can carve out dedicated time for reflection and learning, which we have done through quarterly team awaydays. Recently, we have tested out opening up our learning spaces to organisations we work alongside, so that instead of analysing the world alone as a team, we do it through dialogue with others. This has led to challenging conversations when our assumptions and view point has been challenged, but the pay-off has been new and powerful ideas that I’m sure will shape our work going ahead. Below are five thoughts that I’ll be taking into the future:
- The importance of regular learning spaces. As a team, dedicating regular time for learning has been critical for our work; ensuring we stay at the forefront of a volatile policy context. It helps us identify opportunities and recognise gaps in our approach, learn from our partners work and test our own assumptions about how change might come about. Even more importantly, it has allowed us to continuously shape a team culture of curiosity and allowed us to model (then re-model) how we go about doing the work. One of my biggest take-aways is how you do the work is often as important as what you do. Those learning spaces though can become too comfortable, as our individual analysis within the Shared Ground team has become more aligned over the years. So opening up our learning spaces to become shared spaces with partners has injected a degree of creative abrasiveness back into the mix. A place of comfort is generally not a space within which new ideas emerge nor where personal and collective growth is nurtured, which leads me to my next reflection.
- The importance of centring marginalised experiences. If you want to create inclusive spaces, then the way we normally conduct meetings and events simply does not cut it. It privileges a majority (white, male, ableist, cis and hetero) identity, and this needs to be countered from the outset, by centring experiences which are often marginalised in those spaces. Introducing yourself and your preferred pronouns and centring lived experience knowledge are some ways to do this. At a recent shared learning away day, the partner organisation began the day by singing a song and reciting a poem about how we had lost our shared relationship with each other and nature. Before we had introduced ourselves, the space was immediately centring the wisdom and knowledge they were bringing into the room, and the resulting conversations were more open, honest and powerful as a result.
- The importance of understanding how ideas spread. The context we work in has never felt more challenging, and within that context we need to think about how we measure impact. Measuring success through legislative and policy change will only sap morale and doom much work to failure. We need much longer term horizons to think about and measure change. If we centre the experiences of those often pushed to the margins of the migration sector and movement, new ideas for the future we need to create will emerge. And over time these ideas, once seen as radical, will increasingly become mainstream. Investing in understanding how bold ideas are seeded, take hold and spread feels critical.
- The importance of centring trust. Sometimes our tried and tested ways of working do not serve us well, and lead us to the same conclusions. To change systems, we need to change how we work and model new approaches that centres relationships and principles of trust and care. Investing in trust may be the way to invest in the conduits through which ideas are spread. We have recently begun an action research project to generate learning that catalyses action and change on the role of lived experience in the UK migration sector. Rather than commission a researcher to carry out this work, we have been working with a Learning Collective of eight people who all bring lived experience of injustice in the immigration system, alongside learned and practice experience in research, leadership and organisational development. We did not go through an open recruitment process to select individuals to join this group, but rather asked organisations who we know are doing powerful work that centres lived experience to nominate individuals, trusting them to know the right people with the necessary skills to do this work.
- Joy is a form of resistance. Many of the structures we seek to change that oppress and cause harm are enabled by apathy and othering. To counter and disrupt these systems, we need to centre joy and hope in our work. Doing so not only nourishes people trying to bring about positive change, providing sustenance to continue their work over the long term, but it also shines a light on the fallacy that an uncaring system is the only way society can be organised and models new structures and systems based on relationships of trust, care for each other, and a shared hopeful future.