40 notebooks customised using headlines from The Daily Mail and Guardian newspaper on 24th February 2017.

A city where everyone matters and belongs.

Max St John
Feb 28, 2017 · 6 min read

My story is a common one. I moved to Brighton 10 years ago, from London, looking for a better quality of life.

I’d had a tough time in my first job in a massive company in a massive city. I was working in a fairly dysfunctional system, doing work I didn’t really believe in, and often in fairly adversarial relationships with colleagues. I felt lost and lonely. And commuting was turning me into a judgemental and angry young man.

After only two years into living in the capital and working for mega-corp I’d experienced a major episode of stress which turned my life upside down. I knew I needed a change.

So we moved to the seaside and I got a job with a small company. Me and my partner bought a flat, got pregnant and moved a little further out. We refurbished the house, had a second child and our eldest started school.

The same story thousands of people in Brighton could tell.

More than meets the eye

What attracted us to this city was its culture — it feels really unique. Deeply alternative and radically left, with a start-up economy that attracts international businesses and the kind of things that follow.

Walking around its centre — the quirky shops and 4 billion artisan coffee shops, you feel like you’re in a warm, safe, uber-hip world.

But during my time here, I’d become more aware of the dissonance between my privileged life, and what was happening around me.

Outside the doors of the office I had been working in for years, I’d seen a sharp rise in the number of people sleeping on the streets. Literally making their homes in abandoned shop doorways.

And I found out that at the edges of this thriving, digital hub were areas that sat in the top 5% of the most deprived in the country. Areas where — statistically — you might die seven years earlier than your neighbours on the other side of town.

I became aware that our public services were struggling under deep and consistent government funding cuts, most recently leading to the narrowly-avoided threat of 80% of youth sector funding being cut.

But unlike other aspects of this city’s character, these things aren’t unique.

Intractable problems?

Brighton is, in many ways, simply a microcosm of what’s going on across the UK.

And while we can see, feel and name the symptoms — from health and income inequality to a lack of affordable housing and job prospects for our children — the causes are complex and various.

Seismic economic shifts, the will of this current Government, a more connected and hungry global consumer society, population migration, the increasing outsourcing of work to developing countries.

All of the above and more.

For me, when I think about trying to understand, let alone address, those issues I feel overwhelmed and helpless.

But there’s a layer between the symptoms we can see, and the deep, underlying political or financial causes. It’s the set of cogs that connects the two. It’s both the ‘problem’ that keeps us locked in these cycles of conflict and powerlessness, and the possibility of escaping them.

It’s our ability to hold meaningful dialogue, to call and host conversations that matter, that reach beyond our current paradigm of right and wrong, judgement and blame.

And it’s our willingness to act, on what really matters to us. To stop giving away our power to parent-figure authorities and make things happen, together. To know when to step up and lead, and when to step in to help.

Hosting a city

All of this is why I’ve called an Art of Hosting training in Brighton.

For those that don’t know, The Art of Hosting is a practice, a philosophy and a self-organising system of people and resources.

Typically it shows up as three-to-four day basic trainings, run by experienced practitioners, with support from one of the ‘stewards’ (kind of ‘elders’ of the system).

On a training you’ll learn tools and processes for holding conversations that matter, harnessing the collective intelligence of any group. You’ll practice a way of leading that’s about knowing when to step up, and when to make space.

Fundamentally it’s about creating the conditions for everyone to lead, using the foundations of meaningful dialogue as the soil from which wise action grows.

It’s about redefining leadership — as a practice that starts with understanding self, learning how to be a great participant, before developing the capacity to be a leader that hosts.

And at a meta-level, then how we develop communities that learn, together.

I’ve been on a number of trainings and been part of organising teams. It’s been a practice that’s fundamentally changed my work and my life.

Why here, why now?

Organising a training for Brighton has been on my mind for years but — in the language of Art of Hosting — the call wasn’t clear enough.

A call is how you name the source of an initiative — whether that’s a project, business or a training course like this one.

I knew that it would be popular, but doing it for that reason lacked substance and meaning. It would be a training without the heart and soul needed to give it integrity.

But last year something changed.

With my eldest son approaching six years-old, I felt like an observer watching a car crash in slow motion as people tore themselves and each other apart, post-Brexit and post-Trump.

On both sides, judgemental, angry and fear-driven behaviour, going round and round in circles as the economic and societal problems we’ve been living with for years seemed to be picking up.

I asked myself:

I felt immediately clear. The city I want to live in is one where everyone feels capable of holding the conversations that need to be had.

And to lead the change they want to see, in their community or organisation.

A city where each person is able to find connection and understanding, within themselves, and with the people around them.

A city where everyone feels they matter and belong.

Initially I had this idea that we could systematically seed the practice of The Art of Hosting into the fabric of the city.

Find changemakers in each community and give them the tools and confidence to share the work.

Over the past nine months, since initiating this training, I’ve realised that it sounds lovely, but just doesn’t work like that.

Rather than try and get everyone to ‘learn Art of Hosting’, to really live the practice, ironically, is hold the space for whatever needs to emerge in the direction of more meaningful dialogue and finding connection.

Ego vs purpose

It’s very seductive, being a ‘caller’ — convening a training based on your personal vision and a deep sense of need. It really speaks to the ego.

And at some level, it’s important not to let go of this core, as long as you can distinguish between the deficiency needs of the ego (status, control, security) and those of the purpose (contribution, service, fulfillment). This is because the call, or purpose, is the organising point for a community of trainers and participants. The more authentic and ‘well-held’ it is, the more meaningful the work we do together.

But I’ve also come to realise that at the very same time, in equal measure, we have to honour the unique needs that each member of the team, and each participant brings to the training, and the meaning they make of it.

What this training has exposed is a huge desire for people to learn this practice. We had 60 people initially express interest for the 30 places we released, and a long waiting list for any future training that we do.

It seems that the world is calling for more people that can host the space for meaningful conversation. And this is to be celebrated.

It starts now

So, tonight, people are showing up from businesses, grassroots community groups and public services in Brighton and far beyond. People from London, Belgium and Germany. All in answer to this calling question:

And while this started nine months ago, sensing need in my head and heart, it soon became something shared, with the hosting team of Maaike Boumans, James Ede, Linda Mitchell, Charlie Peverett, Ieva Anciukeviciute and Marcus Pibworth.

And at 7pm tonight, it becomes the space for learning and inquiry for 43 people to share together.

We’ll be posting the harvest — pictures, video and other artefacts — over the week, to share the learning with the wider world. Watch this space.

Max St John

Written by

Showing people the way home by connecting to what’s there and working with what is. Get clear, fight well, move naturally. www.maxstjohn.com