“We must make our freedom by cutting holes in the fabric of this reality, by forging new realities which will, in turn, fashion us. Putting yourself in new situations constantly is the only way to ensure that you make your decisions unencumbered by the inertia of habit, custom, law, or prejudice — and it is up to you to create these situations.” David Graeber
Beta Mode 🛠️
Anyone paying close attention to Koreo’s website over the last two years will have been frustrated.
Met with a holding page telling them that we were taking some time to reflect on our work, visitors were left to piece us together from the couple of paragraphs on that page, a range of project links, some blog posts, and a couple of semi-active social media accounts. That holding page has been our virtual front door for the last two years and, appropriately for a time of multiple lockdowns, we’ve spent plenty of time behind it.
Inside though, we’ve been in one of our most creative and productive periods ever.
We’ve launched national learning projects (the Community Leadership Academy, Lead365 to name just two), brought nearly 500 people into social change work across Charityworks, 2027 and Kickstart, done fascinating work on culture and change with Crisis and The Health Foundation among many others, and continued work across the student movement on issues of equity and inclusion.
We’ve also grown our staff team to 20, met some wonderful new associates, and gone deeper on collaborations with inspiring partners like the Young Foundation, Ten Years’ Time, Northern Soul, Dark Matter Labs, Centre for Knowledge Equity, Power to Change, International Futures Forum, Migrants in Culture, NUS Charity, and more.
Most importantly, we’ve been alongside each other, our partners, and participants through the adjustments and readjustments that have been required during a period of constant, traumatic flux.
But we’ve also been, as we promised we were, using that time to reflect deeply on our role in civil society at a time of multiple transitions and, as our friends at Dark Matter Labs have described it: ‘cascading crises’. Prompted by the pandemic and its impacts direct and indirect, that meant an interrogation of our purpose, our practice, and the culture that supports both.
Now, as we approach the 2-year anniversary of the first lockdown, it feels timely to post some reflections on that process, how we’re thinking about ourselves in 2022, and where we’re taking that next.
Our Roots 🌱
Like all organisations, Koreo is an emergent process of learning punctuated by periods of (sometimes all too brief!) clarity, frustration, flow, struggle, success — periods that are often only truly recognisable in retrospect.
Set up in the mid-00s as Vanilla Ventures, we started life in a repurposed garage at the bottom of our founder Rachel’s garden. Almost 15 years on, some of the same golden threads still run through our work. We are still believers in talent as the fundamental force of social change, and in keeping with our early work creating new routes into social change work, we continue to run national programmes that support people into social purpose careers, adding the 2027 and Kickstart programmes to Charityworks.
But our understanding, our ambition, and our practice have all evolved.
We have grown into an established team of learning designers, producers, facilitators & coaches, and are supported by a rich and growing community of specialist associates and partners working across the whole social change ecosystem in the UK; with communities, in institutions, across networks and sectors.
That development has been continual but has also been punctuated by phase shifts, an intentional shedding of skin through which we clarify what work we’ve been doing and what we’ve learnt about ourselves, each other and the world around us. The last time we went through that kind of process was in 2016, against a backdrop of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election in the US.
That was the shift to Koreo, when a new name articulated an understanding of our work as being about addressing disconnection; between people and mission/purpose, between different parts of organisations, between organisations within sectors and, most importantly, between organisations and the communities they served.
The name ‘Koreo’ itself is steeped in allusions to connection. It came from the Greek words ‘Khoros’ and ‘Choreuo’, meaning chorus and ‘I am part of the Chorus’ respectively. For us, this still resonates strongly. We like the metaphor of the chorus effect, through which a collection of individual sounds become something unified and more powerful. And we also still identify with the allusion to the Greek chorus and its role helping the audience connect with and make sense of the action on stage.
That change in 2016, and the work we did to support it, challenged us to start looking at the social change ecosystem more holistically. It challenged us to work more intentionally within organisations, with a particular focus on issues of culture. It also positioned us for what we now see as a ‘civic turn’ in our work, more explicitly focused on creating the space for community power in the civic system.
The starting point for that journey was 2027, and the partnership brought together by Jake Hayman (then at Ten Years’ Time) that included us, Ruth Ibegbuna and Baljeet Sandhu. It was the first work we’d done that was explicitly about power, where it sat in the civic ecosystem, and how and where it needed to shift to.
2027 has since been joined by the Community Leadership Academy with Local Trust, Civic Futures with the GLA, My Food Community with the Soil Association, and a raft of smaller projects with similar intent, with the result that our work now ranges from grass roots people development through to institutional culture change.
So the evolution has been constant, a journey of exploration into our best contribution as a collective.
A Reset 🐣
The first half of 2020 was another punctuation point in the story. Less a comma, more a series of exclamation marks in the middle of a sentence.
There was the new reality brought about by the pandemic, and new relationships with the future; grief for futures lost, recalibration of plans and hopes for the short and medium term, new energy focused on how the shock might be used as an opportunity to fundamentally re-shape the world.
There was also the way Covid affected communities differently, highlighting and deepening the challenges facing people already long minoritised and marginalised. There was the shattering impact of George Floyd’s murder and the following, ongoing reckoning around racial equity. And there were deepening crises in climate and democracy to name two of many.
Some of those we were better equipped to deal with than others. We knew how to bring care and support to colleagues and the people we were working with, flipping many of our programmes into peer support spaces that helped people make sense of what was happening for them. We learnt quickly how to re-design and deliver our work virtually, taking almost everything online without sacrificing the sense of connection and community that sits at the heart of our most successful work.
But we were slow to speak publicly in support of Black Lives Matter despite the racial diversity in our team and on our programmes, not understanding quickly enough that silence was unacceptable, and were rightly held to account for that by the Charityworks trainees in particular. We’ve also learnt the hard way how challenging it is to hold a physical space (in the form of Impact Hub Islington) for a working community against the backdrop of multiple lockdowns and unending uncertainty.
Beyond specific successes and challenges though, what underpinned everything during that first part of 2020 for us was the pervasive feeling that things could never be the same, and an imperative to re-interrogate the work of social change and our role in it. In that context, a public face and website brought together in 2016 felt both incongruous and unhelpful, so we took the website down.
Practice & Culture 🤝
Organisations like Koreo can exist in blurry spaces. We are often invited to work on things that people find intangible or which resist easy definition/measurement.
Leadership, for example, is often spoken about as a kind of dark matter; necessary and alluring partly because it is almost always just out of sight, and always evolving. Necessary because the unexpected always happens, but something which will always depend fundamentally on the context, the time, and the person/group doing the ‘leading’. This blurriness means ‘leadership development’ as an activity and industry is frustratingly hard to pin down, and is extremely vulnerable to bullshit, either unintentional or otherwise.
But it also means that its boundaries are porous, and at its best it can stitch together a constellation of practice which takes people into new and transformative spaces, where participants can combine deep reflection, creativity, vulnerability and possibility. It can give you permission to work with people in unexpected ways, in essence to help them create new realities for themselves and others, both during the experience and afterwards.
To a large extent, it’s that license we’ve been reflecting on over the last couple of years; what license do we have as a result of our work over the last decade, what are we doing with it, where are we not making the most of it, and where are we not living up to the privilege it confers?
For us those questions touch on both practice and culture. On the one hand, quite simply, what are the practices we employ as an organisation when we create space for people, organisations and networks to do their best learning, and how can we make sure they represent the most powerful way of working with people? On the other hand is what Otto Scharmer’s famous quote calls the ‘internal condition of the intervener’. So what internal conditions have we been cultivating here at Koreo, how does that embody the change we’re hoping to see in the world, and how does it support our practice?
What this period of time has made beyond clear is that no privilege is neutral, and that where we leave things unarticulated or implicit, we risk reinforcing the injustices we’re actively trying to deconstruct to make way for something new.
So this last two years for us has been a process of making explicit. Of uncovering what was already there to build on. Of uncovering what wasn’t there and needed to be. It has become about articulating our shared practice as an organisation and making that a central part of how we talk about ourselves publicly, and also articulating and building a culture which is grounded in that practice, constantly pushing it to be in keeping with the contexts we’re working in.
Making Explicit 🌞
This is therefore an opportunity to outline that practice, which you will also see is threaded throughout our refreshed website.
At the heart of our work is the understanding that we are all engaged in constant processes of learning about ourselves, each other, and the world around us. We see these interweaving processes as being at the heart of all social change in a complex world. We think of them as social, cultural processes even when we experience them alone. And we know that the more we can shape them, the greater our capacity to transform ourselves and the worlds we operate in.
If these are the foundations, even deeper are 4 interlinking beliefs, some version of which have been in place since the beginning of Koreo.
- That a just and regenerative world is possible,
- that the talent to build it is everywhere,
- that the work of making it is for everyone.
- And, finally, that making that world a reality will require a radical approach to learning.
For us in this context, radical learning is simply learning that gets to the root of things. Radical, coming from ‘root’, meaning “supporting, causing or being an example of great social and political change; affecting the fundamental nature of something; being far-reaching and thorough and relating to the most important parts of something or someone.” It is therefore about a learning practice that gets to the heart of social change work. That creates space for people who hold an ambition to imagine and build a better world, despite the scale and complexity of the issues we face, and the transformations needed to address them.
Our experience is that the spaces needed for radical learning are not those commonly deployed within civic settings. To reference the work we’ve been doing with Graham Leicester, the spaces we need to develop are: safe enough, reflective, empty, liminal, expansive and prophetic. Like Graham, we take inspiration from Englestrom and his expansive learning pedagogy that describes as radical the learning of what is not yet here, the learning of new patterns and ways of being. Our ambition is to create learning spaces that do that, creating environments that help people sense what is possible.
This orientation towards the radical is as much a challenge to ourselves and a statement of intent or exploration as it is a description of our current work. There are some areas of our work where we can credibly describe our practice as radical and progressive, pushing us and everyone we’re working with into new spaces. And there are other areas where that challenge is fundamental.
So building on the three things above: the understandings that underpin the work, our founding beliefs, and finally an orientation towards radical learning, we have articulated five design principles which we will actively explore through our work, and measure our practice up against. Here are those 5 principles, expressed as questions:
- How can we bring to life the nature and scale of the defining issues of the 21st Century, and the transformations needed to address them?
- How can we help mobilise people, communities and networks around shared missions, focusing on the learning capacity of the whole?
- How can we develop capacity for people, communities and networks to lead their own ongoing development and transformation?
- How can we support people, communities and networks to see themselves as part of the wider systems they operate within?
- How can we increase capacity for working beyond boundaries, and across systems?
In a complex and uncertain world, our practice will always be live and evolving. So we’re sharing these here as a version 1, a tool for inquiry, and a starting point for us to further develop and iterate what we’re working to.
We wanted to share them early, so that anyone we’re working with or likely to work with can see how we think, what informs our work, and understand where and how that might fit or not. And as you’d expect from a company oriented towards learning, we’re actively looking for feedback, challenge, clarification and more.
If the above covers practice, the second part of the picture is culture, which is the focus of much of our work with our partners and is the subject of a second post which is a companion to this one.
What now? 🚀
So, what’s going on now? In some ways nothing changes — we never went anywhere, we’ve always been out here doing the work, and we’ve always been paying attention to how we can clarify and make the most of our contribution.
But there should be a perceptible opening up. We’ll talk more about our work and what underpins it, we’ll publish more in collaboration with our colleagues and friends, and we’ll increasingly understand Koreo and its assets as a platform from which we as a team, our associates, partners, clients, and participants can do their best work
In the short term, there are 4 things to draw your attention to:
- We’ve refreshed our website, putting up something slightly more extensive than the holding page that’s been there for the last 2 years. You’ll find an outline of our practice, a snapshot of the projects we’ve been working on, and the start of an ongoing series of publications. If anything there is of interest please get in touch we’d love to speak with you.
- Over the next couple of months we’ll be publishing a collaboration with Graham Leicester and Maureen O’Hara from International Futures Forum, as a series on Medium and as a web and hard copy through Triarchy Press. The work is called Spaces for Growth and it explores what spaces we need to create for people to do the transformative learning necessary to respond to what Graham and IFF term ‘powerful times’. We’re excited about that.
- We’ve already re-started the RADAR newsletter, a long-running but often erratic reading list for people interested in our work and the things it’s concerned with. I’m pleased to be joined by my colleague Sheetal in putting that together every other Friday. If you want to sign up to that you can go here.
- We’re increasingly opening up our lovely house/office in Shoreditch to partners and collaborators. We’ve been joined by Ten Year’s Time and the Roots Programme, and it’s been truly energising to be back in physical spaces with them and each other over the last few weeks. If you’re interested in joining us in the house please let us know here.
That’s it for now. Thanks for reading, and look forward to being in touch again soon.