Imagining the future together – in solidarity and with equity at its heart
At the beginning of 2019, I began discussions with trustees and staff about refreshing our corporate strategy. I was nearly five years in post and wanted to make sure our vision and approach still felt relevant and that our values and aspirations were as clear as possible for the people and organisations we fund, as well as prospective applicants and partners.
If I had known in January 2019 how different the world would feel in September 2020, I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to even start such a strategic discussion, but I am very glad I did. I think the work we have done to refine our vison and purpose and to bolster our commitment to social justice means we are in a stronger position now to do all we can to help, as we emerge from a period of crisis and start to imagine what the future could be whilst still navigating uncertainty and challenge.
Comparing today’s strategy and the document we wrote in 2015, the main shift then is in the prominence of social justice, signalling our desire to be part of a movement tackling systemic inequality.
This is not new – Paul Hamlyn Foundation has seen social justice as a golden thread underpinning all of our work since we were established and, over the last few years, we have supported some extraordinary projects and organisations working to create a fairer world, often in the face of huge challenges and negativity. It is a testament to our trustees that they choose to back those speaking truth to power and holding others to account and those working to dismantle the barriers of racism, poverty and other structural inequalities, as well as the backbone and infrastructure organisations that are often unsung but are truly essential to the work of the voluntary sector.
So, in many ways, the strategy we are publishing today ‘catches up’ with our previous gains and makes more prominent our priorities. We are still funding in the same fields of migration and integration, investing in young people, arts access and participation, education through the arts, nurturing ideas and people, and helping to create opportunities for communities in India, but the focus is more clearly on addressing issues of equity and injustice in this context. We will reopen to applications to our main funds in October, as well as continuing our emergency funding stream for the rest of this year.
The difference now is in the clarity with which we are articulating what social justice means for us, in helping us to stretch toward a vision of a world in which everyone can realise their potential. It also signals a preparedness to speak out more, recognising that our silence is sometimes not good enough. And in doing this, we are responding to the frustrations and hurt of the many people who feel excluded and want to see more urgent action.
And they are right to demand change. The Covid crisis has exposed more vividly than ever the inequalities and structural problems our society is built upon and we owe it to those that have suffered unfairly to use this moment to reflect on our power, agree how best to use it and build a better future.
We are justifiably proud of our roots as an institution, built from scratch and with determination and innovation by our founder just over 30 years ago. Paul Hamlyn, as a migrant and fleeing persecution, made his home in this country, created a publishing empire and then established the Foundation, giving back and entrusting those that followed to use his legacy wisely.
But those roots don’t allow us off the hook. At the same time, I must acknowledge my position of privilege as a white, middle class, non-disabled cis woman, and, as the leader of this foundation, recognise that there are power dynamics in play in the very acts of philanthropy we are set up to execute. So, it is all the more important that we interrogate our actions, check our assumptions and change our behaviours, and work with peers as well to challenge and improve the wider sector. This requires honesty and humility and a willingness to change. I hope this is reflected in this refreshed strategy publication and in the rearticulation of our values too.
Because the way that we use our power, our funding and our other resources, is crucial. There is much talk at the moment of how we build a better society after the rupture caused by the pandemic. We are keen to be part of this rebuilding, but only if we can participate in a way that builds equity. We want everyone to have a chance to imagine and create a future that is right for them, so the way in which we communicate, the people we talk to and how we make decisions needs to ensure that we don’t only hear from those who shout most loudly.
A shift is taking place, breaking down elite and closed structures and ushering-in a new generation of different voices and different perspectives – not just younger people, but people of all ages who are only now getting their chance to speak and to lead. We want to be part of this shift, responding to the creativity and imagination of these new leaders who have the ideas that can change the world for the better, regardless of the colour of their skin, the place of birth, their religion, gender or sexuality.
When the Black Lives Matter protests started, we were found wanting by our own staff. I am sorry this was the case and grateful for their courage in speaking out and their trust in me. We will make better decisions and do better work if we make sure that our commitment to social justice is also manifest in our own organisation. That means valuing a diverse and representative workforce and board of trustees – and doing what it takes to bring this about. It requires us to be alert to bias and blockages in our processes and systems that have meant some groups and people find it hard to engage with us – and making the necessary alterations.
We have started this process through the refreshed strategy and our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion statement which sit alongside it. The work has begun. Discussions are rigorous, sometimes uncomfortable, but always full of energy. As an organisation we are feeling positive whilst recognising that there is the labour of real change still to come.
I am, by nature, an optimist, but even I have found it hard to remain so in this very turbulent year, when so much of what we are committed to has felt so much under threat. But the act of refreshing our strategy is helping me to re-engage. After an acute crisis, comes the opportunity of renewal. If we can go into this process, knowingly and meaningfully committed to change, whilst continuing to support the best of social activism, I can continue to hope and believe that our vision for a just society in which everyone can realise their full potential and enjoy fulfilling and creative lives will be achieved.
Dreams by Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.