Civic Futures: A conversation with Eli & Ruth
Eli Manderson Evans is the Senior Social Justice Consultant at Ten Years’ Time where he works with the wider team researching social change issues in relation to addressing systemic challenges in society. Ruth Knight is the principal policy and programmes officer at the GLA environment team.
They were brought together, along with Nile Bridgeman of AfterParti and Pete Nichols, as part of Civic Futures 2020 and have been working together on a project to grow climate expertise in under-served communities. Ned from Koreo caught up with Ruth and Eli in January 2021 to discuss their experience of the programme and find out more about their project.
Ned: Eli, why were you interested in civic futures in the first place?
Eli: I was really keen to connect up the work that I was doing for the black community, specifically in London, in the organisation I was helping to run called Memorial 2007. I was really keen to connect that up with other groups that were doing maybe similar work or other particularly black led initiatives in London that we could learn from and also connect with. I think it’s really important to learn from the activism of those working on other issues with different experiences in life, especially groups that exist on the margins of society. So that was really a driver for me, engaging and just wanting to learn and to listen and see how things could maybe work differently in London. I was really keen to understand how best I could interact with an institution like the GLA, and honestly tap into some of those funds for my people! I came with a really open mind to see what I could gain from it and, from that point on, it became a bit clearer that they were just really, really amazing people on the programme that I needed in my network. For me one of the most special things about the program was being able to connect with some of the elders that joined our cohort. It was a really powerful learning experience, just listening to them and how their activism has had to evolve. I think, especially coming from SOAS, and kind of fresh out of there, I was very ready to take down everything, throw everything into the Thames! But, I think listening to their wisdom, how they centred kindness, love and compassion in their activism really helped me think a little bit more strategically about change and the different ways it can be achieved. And because the process was so open, there was space for us to really shape where we wanted it to go as a group.
Ned: And Ruth, How did this come round to you? Why were you interested?
Ruth: For me, it felt like a real opportunity, being fairly new to the GLA and having worked previously with community groups and with civil society generally I was keen to get involved. I think it’s quite easy to get into a rut where you tend to do things in a set way simply because processes dictate. When this email came around it was a perfect time to break that cycle and to have a sense check.
I was doing work on the London Greenspaces Commission, looking at the future management and funding of green spaces, so I was thinking about how you engage more effectively and trying to get a wide variety of opinions, I felt I was engaging with a relatively small group of people and was keen to find ways of breaking that bubble. Even though environmental impacts are felt by all Londoners often and in some cases, those most impacted by environmental issues can be the least represented.
Eli: I’d increasingly been working on climate change issues at Ten years Time, not as someone that had a huge amount of knowledge on climate change, but more from the position of social justice — climate change is already disproportionately impacting communities of colour in the UK and globally, and I really wanted to try and carve out some space with some resources to build something that catered to communities of colour in London and increased engagement on climate issues and also grew understanding in a way that was really authentic, gentle and non-hierarchical in the way that we engaged. Nile does a lot of work with AfterParti in terms of opening up architecture to black people in London and nationally, and talking about the built environment. Me and Nile had had conversations beforehand about our desires and passions to diversify racially the sectors that we work in. It just felt like a fit.
Ned: Do you want to talk a bit about the project itself?
Eli: So, our project is all about growing climate expertise in communities that are statistically the most deprived, the furthest away from influencing policy on climate change, from being listened to., it’s all about building some kind of community led climate action and we leave that super open. We want the community to be front and centre in that and for it to be authentically co-produced. I think the different thing with this program compared to a lot of other ones I’ve seen is that the processes are catered to growing expertise and empowering. So, we’ll be partnering with a local community organisation, understanding that that’s the best way to engage.
I guess zooming out a little bit, we did some mapping as to where the initiative would best be focused and, it was kind of a no brainer that Newham was the borough that had the most need and where there was the greatest potential to positively impact communities and to really generate some buzz for the project in the first iteration, hoping that it would grow to something bigger and more widespread across London. Then we just came together and talked about what we wanted the project to be. What would the end result be and working backwards from that in terms of what relationships did we need to establish to give it the best chance of success. Who did we need buy-in from, what values were going to govern the project. And I think that was something that I felt really passionate about, and I was really happy that we could centre it in the project. And we all believed in that, because so many projects approach values as an afterthought or a kind of comms piece later to draw people in. I love that values are what drive this project.
Ruth: I was going to say the same, that having the opportunity to start from the point of the values was a really interesting thing about this project for us too. Often we tend to have a solution that we then take to a community. And that’s the way I think a lot of environmental programs work. Actually having the time and space to step back and start with the overall values and then taking this really local approach, t listening to a community and understanding what’s actually needed and then bringing in the environmental element is exciting. Environmental and climate change campaigns don’t always engage people, how do you make these issues real and relevant to a community? So I think what’s been really interesting about the project is thinking about fresh approaches and about which values are most important to us. And I think that’s been really useful to challenge ourselves and our assumptions. Are we getting as close to the community as we need to get for this kind of project, or are we using a useful person or useful organisation to go through? Finally, I’d just say that it’s still early days. We are only just starting on site but still I think even that initial process has been helpful. Hopefully it will give us information that will be massively useful for other programs. But even at this stage, for me, it’s actually been a really helpful process of development.
Ned: Has there been any influence on your practice outside of this project, outside of Civic Futures?
Ruth: Working on this project has made me keen to engage with a wider range of voices even when it’s not easy. I think we all need to work harder at reaching out beyond the environmental bubble. Organisations are trying to do this and it’s not easy. But I think that there is growing awareness that it’s essential in seeing truly meaningful projects that work alongside and with the community. It’s starting to happen in lots of places and lots of big organisations. And I hope that this is something that can be continued after the pandemic has ended and we return to some kind of normality .
Eli: Yeah. I think the first thing that springs to mind is that in a lot of my conversations with trusts and foundations and philanthropists that want to engage more in the climate space, they’re always really interested in this project, and people are always getting in touch to ask more about it. I’ve spoken recently at the ACEVO Fest as a keynote speaker and people were really interested in this initiative. Me and Pete spoke at C40: Clean Air Cities and, in all those forums, people are really interested in this project because I guess there’s a little bit more awareness, especially as people become slightly more aware around racial injustice in society, how that connects up with other systems of oppression, and other huge, negative consequences of the current economic system such as climate change, to put it lightly! But, this project is a really nice example of how you can connect the dots and an example of co-benefits of how you engage communities where they’re at, and then bring in another element that might not be at the forefront of people’s minds and might not rank so highly in many hierarchies of concerns in their daily life. It’s a really clear case study as to how you speak about climate change to communities that have been ignored in such conversations for so long. So I guess that’s been one of the impacts on my work, in that it provides a really nice way into some tougher conversations, especially equity around funding, creating space in project timelines for authentic engagement with communities and challenging notions of what co-production really means and what it entails.
Ned: And would you like to say anything about the wider fellowship Eli? Because you built quite a lot of strong connections in that group, didn’t you?
Eli: Yeah, definitely. to be honest alongside this project that we’re doing with the GLA, I’ve been speaking to members of the cohort and checking in and seeing if they know anything or have any connections in the area and stuff like that. I think for me, the special thing about it, that casts it aside from the other networks I’m in, is that we all came with a similar purpose to collaborate and connect. And I really like that. We’re not a homogenous group, far from it. I’m not even from London. We may not have that many connections on paper, but actually those are the best connections I find sometimes. I think having the elders in the group (I mean this as a term of respect not because some of the group were a bit older haha) really held us together. There was something that was really powerful in the way they held us all together, amidst the many different experiences of activism, campaigning and fighting for change we had. bringing in holistic approaches to explore our collective connections really helped steer us to common ground- a deep commitment to making London a safe, kind and just city for all.