On The Power of (Social Designers) Getting Away

A review of the Social Design Getaway by Leonie Shanks

Beginnings: A Bit of Background

‘Heart work is the hard work’ was the tagline for the first Social Design Getaway, a weekend retreat deep in the Hertfordshire countryside organised by the talented duo Fan Sissoko and Rebecca Birch.

After meeting as colleagues at the Innovation Unit, a London-based social enterprise specialising in public service innovation (where I also worked), Fan and Rebecca have since gone on to work as freelancers on a range of interesting projects, including many that they have instigated themselves.

The Social Design Getaway was a collaborative venture that emerged from a number of conversations that went along the lines of:

“Why do we so often sacrifice our own health and wellbeing in the pursuit of positive social change? What are the costs of letting our own wellbeing suffer?”
“There are enough conferences and workshops out there for professionals like us working in the social sphere — what about designing something different, that both stimulates our minds and feeds our souls?”

Ever the ‘do-ers’ who are not content to let good ideas languish, Fan and Rebecca put their heads together to come up with that ‘something different.’ And so the Social Design Getaway was born — a kind of social experiment, a hybrid event that would aim to collapse the too-rigid binaries between mind and body, work and play, serious and fun, the collective and the individual.

Having myself been part of some of those initial conversations, and knowing first-hand the kind of great work that Fan and Rebecca do, I was keen to sign up to the Getaway. I was attracted, too, by that tagline — a lesson that really resonated with me after 10 years of working in social innovation.

I know, through hard-won experience, that social change and good work cannot happen without the relentless efforts of conscientious, committed, passionate folk. Those qualities are of course positive and important, but they have their darker dimensions too.

We find it difficult to say ‘no’ to that extra project. We tend towards unhealthy perfectionism. We are inclined to allow work to bleed ever further into the time that should really be protected for sleep, relationships, and fun. And no one wins when we eventually burn out.

Some questions underpinning the Getaway were therefore:

‘What does it look like to really take our self-care seriously?’ And: ‘Is self-care a radically social act?’

Friday: The Warm-up — Fun, Food, Fire

The weekend kicked off on a cool Friday evening in early October. ‘Social design’ is a broad term, and it was heartening to find that the event had attracted people from a range of professions, from social entrepreneurs to those working at the frontlines of social change in the public and third sectors.

We were diverse, too, in our reasons for being there. Some people just wanted a bit of peace and quiet — the chance to switch off their phones, eat good food and unwind. Others wanted to acquire a set of practical tools and mindsets that they could take back into their professional lives. Still others were interested in the collaborative possibilities of the weekend — having the opportunity to meet new people and allowing exciting new conversations to spark.

The getaway HQ

The setting was well-chosen — a large, beautiful house nestled in a serene part of Hertfordshire, close enough to major transport routes that it was easily accessible, but remote enough that you could really feel you were leaving behind hectic schedules and gritty urbanity.

The rooms were all lusciously spacious, exuding a calm aura that was complemented by the smell of burning incense. As we filtered in, shades of eucalyptus and lavender filled the rooms, candles flickered and soft, lilting music tinkled in the background, all extending a richly sensory welcome.

Any events organizer worth their salt will understand that, for these kinds of occasions, the little details really do matter, and Fan and Rebecca had thought of everything. In the bedrooms, treat-filled bags sat on our pillows, offering organic cocoa butter hand cream, face masks and goodness raw chocolate energy balls. Each of these items felt for me like a reminder of all of the simple things that I tend to deny or simply forget to administer to myself during the course of a busy life. They were tangible reminders to slow down. Take stock. And when in doubt, eat chocolate.

The first evening was about settling in and getting to know one another. We played games until dinner and then sat down to an amazing three-course meal, prepared by our chef Tim.

The highlight for me, though, was the point when we all gathered outside around a cauldron of fire later in the evening, and had the opportunity to learn more about one another. Already, as I sat outside breathing in a cold lungful of fresh air and toasting marshmallows in the flames, I could feel the nourishing benefits of healthy food and the company of like-minded souls: a powerful, heady combination.

Saturday: The Middle Bit — Stroll, Listen, Go Sloe

What is listening? How can we best listen?

These were just some of the questions that formed the backbone of Saturday, which had been designed to be a day of listening and self-exploration that would help us to practice and develop skills that could be useful both in our own self-care and in the diverse jobs that we do.

There are, of course, different forms of listening, and this was a notion that we explored together over the course of that day. We agreed that, if you are unable to listen adequately to yourself, it becomes very difficult to listen to others. And yet our days tend to be filled with white noise, distractions and the confused voices of internal critics, so that spaces for clear-thinking, good decision-making and genuine connection with others can be elusive. Throughout the day, we spent time working out what those serene spaces might look like for each of us, and how we might access them.

The day began with a silent, single-file walk through the Hertfordshire countryside, during which we were encouraged to tune into our surroundings through mindful attention to our bodies and senses. After attracting curious stares from a grazing horse and some distrustful-looking locals, we finished the walk by picking sloe berries from a bush, in preparation for making sloe jam later.

Sloe berry picking

There was also a session in which we made our own ‘mantras’ using a vintage badge-making machine donated by one of the Getaway participants. Drawing inspiration from Susan O’Malley, an artist who built her career out of emblazoning thoughtful sayings in rainbow colours across billboards, posters and gallery walls (you can see her wonderful work here), we came up with our own personal slogans. The results were many-coloured and various, including messages such as:

‘Move! ’
‘Slow down! ’
‘You are good enough’
‘Embrace the zig-zag’
‘Enjoy your hair while you have it! ’
‘Me, My Mantra and I’

The food that we enjoyed on that day deserves a mention of its own — every meal was memorably divine. Tim, the dedicated chef, had been hard at work preparing our breakfast since the early hours, and when we returned hungry from our mindful walk, we were greeted by the sight of a table loaded with delights: plates of salmon and sliced tomatoes dusted with herbs; jugs of berry smoothie; toasted sourdough bread; baskets of croissants; grilled halloumi and dishes of scrambled egg. Lunch was a selection of delicious pasta dishes garnished with homemade pesto and fresh salads. In the evening it was an Asian-inspired tofu and noodle dish, followed by a range of home-baked cakes and more toasting of marshmallows around the fire.

Gigli con porcini from Tim’s Kitchen

Sunday: The Finale — Silliness, Story-telling and Sunday Feasts

By Sunday we were comfortable enough with one another to start the day with some silliness, and we warmed up by forming groups and creating fire-themed movement. By this time, fire had become powerfully symbolic of the Getaway experience and some of the conversations we were having: about the value of immersing ourselves in nature; about the importance of renewal and cleansing; about not being afraid to endlessly change and reinvent ourselves; about unleashing our potential by stripping back unnecessary clutter to access a wilder, simpler, more intuitive side of ourselves.

Sunday was all about developing the tools that are needed to tell powerful stories, about ourselves and other people. The standout activity for me involved getting into pairs and writing fictional stories about one another’s lives and how they might turn out.

We had been given some typical story arcs for inspiration, including ‘Getting Over The Monster’, ‘Rags to Riches’ and ‘Voyage and Return’.

It struck me that there was a great deal of trust involved in this activity (after all, what was to stop your partner from fictionalizing a catastrophic end for you??), but at the same time it also involved an act of letting go and seeing your own decisions and potentialities through a set of new metaphors and paradigms. It was refreshing and, I thought, potentially transformative.

Embodied storytelling session inspired by the Leadership Centre

Our final meal of the weekend was an Indian-themed bonanza of dishes: Dahl; roasted aubergine; paneer and spinach simmered in spices; wild rice. Extraordinary food had been one of the major features of the weekend, representing an opportunity to come together, reflect on the day’s activities and bond through our awe at Tim’s culinary abilities.

North Indian feast

And then, all too soon, it was time to say goodbye. We left with our bags of treats, our little jars of sloe jam, and a beautiful mug that Rebecca had painstakingly decorated herself. I was struck then, as I am now as I write this meditation several weeks later, by the sheer power of keeping things simple.

The unifying message for the weekend was that ‘you cannot pour from an empty cup’. If prompted, we would probably all claim to agree with this adage, and yet it is all too easy to allow unnecessary complications and stresses to creep into our lives; to shave an hour or two off our ideal sleep routines; to cave into external demands that we know deep down will ultimately do us — and the work we do — more harm than good.

Nonetheless, I still have my hand-decorated mug sitting on my desk, and I try to make sure that I drink from it every day. Change, after all, is made up of small steps as well as big — you have to start somewhere, and why not with a good old cup of tea?

My favourite bits of the weekend:

· Conversing around the fire and embracing my inner girl scout.

· Gaining new skills and creative ideas for effective story telling.

· The food — ALL the food.

· The collaborative style of the event — most of the participants had something to share, whether time, a tool or a skill. It gave us the exhilarating sense that we were all co-creators of this event, rather than simply consumers.

Wonderings for next time:

Is ‘Social Design Getaway’ the best label for this event? It seemed to me that the skills that we were learning and developing could be applied in a wide range of professional contexts, even if some people might not necessarily identify themselves as social designers.

How might self-care, listening and storytelling be used in the world to bring about positive social change? We never really got round to exploring this question, which probably would have required the weekend to be extended by an extra day or two.