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Dreaming of better times
It's easy to forget that things could be better than they are. That's why imagination matters.
If you don’t know Commoners Choir, seek them out. Voices of hope (and rage) at a time when it can easily feel like all hope is gone.
On my way back I rode past Bramley Baths, a wonderful swimming baths that has been run as a social enterprise since 2013.
I lived in Bramley from 2000 to 2010 - just down the road from the Baths, and I loved it there.
Better things for Bramley
Some time in the early 2000s I was invited to talk at an event - called Better Things For Bramley - organised by the then local MP (and all round legend) John Battle.
It was a Saturday morning event at Bramley Community Centre, aimed at local residents and community groups, to explore ideas to make Bramley a better place to live.
I liked - and like - Bramley a lot - but like plenty of places it had its fair share of social issues.
From memory, Morrisons had just announced that they were pulling out of Bramley Shopping Centre, which felt like a big blow to the area.
And there was a general sense that people were concerned about how things were going.
Imagining what Bramley could be like in 2020
I was given a broad brief for my talk - to help people to imagine what Bramley could be like in 2020 - thinking in particular about how it could be a better community to live in.
Obviously this is now making me feel really old, but 2020 felt like a long time away then…..
At the time I was Director of local social enterprise support agency Social Enterprise Leeds. John Battle was a big advocate of social enterprise and more broadly of people getting on and doing things to change where they lived - so he gave me free rein to imagine how things could be in Bramley.
Even if I say so myself, it’s one of the best talks I’ve ever done
Why did it go down well?
I think it’s because I was allowed to imagine how things could be.
I could create a vision for the future - a vision of a future that felt a long way away.
Unconstrained by all the usual stuff that stops us thinking big.
Like there being no money for this. Or appetite for that.
Or how we tried that before and it didn’t work.
People loved it. A vision for Bramley, tapping into all the good things about the place, and really making the most of them. Asset-based, if you like.
And in talking about good things in Bramley, of course I mentioned Bramley Baths.
And I said that in 2020 Bramley Baths is better than ever - and it’s now run by local people.
Applause rang round the room. My memory tells me there was a cheer too.
Who thought that one day it would happen?
Fast forward a decade, and Bramley Baths moved to community ownership in 2013.
But for now it’s important to acknowledge that the reasons for this happening aren’t all positive.
Brutal Government cuts to local council budgets meant that councils had to make difficult decisions about the services they could provide.
Swimming pools cost a lot of money to run.
So the council had to explore different ways to keep Bramley Baths open. Fortunately - and to their credit - they were open minded about alternatives to continuing to run it themselves.
And local people stepped up. To secure the future of a priceless local community asset.
Something we’d cheered ten years earlier - probably in part because of how fanciful it sounded - was now reality.
And Bramley Baths, after ten years of being run as a social enterprise, feels like more of a community asset than ever.
The power of imagination
Now I’m not suggesting there is any connection between my talk at Better Things for Bramley and Bramley Baths’ switch to community ownership ten years later.
But for me, this is a story of the value and importance of creative imagining of how things can be different to how they are.
I will be far from alone in often feeling a profound sense of despair at how things are in the world right now.
So in this context, we need to work harder to imagine how things could change.
To create visions of better times.
Something we can get behind. Be inspired by.
And then work towards.
This Tedx talk gives a quick introduction to his thinking.
Bringing more creativity to my work
As you might know, at the end of May I left the social enterprise I co-founded in 2010.
And since then I’ve been exploring what to do next.
I’m still not quite sure.
But one thing I’ve been reflecting on a lot is the value of creativity - and the importance of helping people to imagine what a better world will look and feel like.
Without that vision, and those stories, it can be hard to know what we’re fighting for.
And it makes it very easy to fall into despair. So nothing changes.
Similarly endless visioning exercises of distant utopias are no good on their own.
But they can be an important starting point - to help us come up with the plans to turn those visions into reality.
It’s one reason why I’ve recently started volunteering with a local theatre group, to help them to explore how they respond to the climate emergency.
I have knowledge that can be of use to them. But there’s as much I can learn from them as they can from me. Including about how creativity can change things for the better. And whilst I’m still not sure exactly what I’ll focus on next, I know I’m reflecting on the right things.
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