A speech made at the 2017 Year Here cohort’s Gradfest, December 2017. [Repost]
Exactly one year ago today, I was perched on the edge of a sofa outside a meeting room in a swanky, start-upy office in Hatton Garden, hands clammy and heart racing. Unsurprisingly for those who know me, I was the first person there, having left myself far too much time to arrive far too early for the final round of my Year Here application process.
After a group workshop, I had my individual interview with Jordan and Cynthia. Somewhere towards the end of the interview, I remember Jordan asking why I wanted to do Year Here. Finally, a question I was sure I could answer. I had practised the response a thousand times, not only for the interview but also for the friends and family who couldn’t quite grasp the concept of the ‘masters that isn’t a masters’ that I had suddenly become so intent on doing.
I told Jordan and Cynthia that I wanted to do Year Here because there was so much that I wanted learn: I wanted to learn from the faculty, from my fellow Fellows and from the alumni. I wanted to learn about London, about homelessness, about social enterprise and business development. I wanted to learn how I could make an effective change in the world around me, and learn from those who are already doing that.
And now, exactly one year on, I find myself reflecting on how much I’ve unlearnt this year. How much of what I thought I knew, has been challenged, undone, unlearnt.
I’ve unlearned how to listen; I’ve unlearned what it means to fail; I’ve unlearned how to communicate and I’ve unlearned how to learn. I’ve learned that the best way to ask ‘why?’ is by not asking ‘why’, and that the best way to ask ‘how?’ is to ask ‘how might we?’. I’ve learned that a leader should be everything I thought a leader shouldn’t be, and that listening is hard, but it’s the only way to make real change. At various points this year, everything I thought I knew about myself, society and my place within it has been called into question, turned on its head, shaken around a bit and put back, slightly askew. It’s been an unsettling experience, but one that has undoubtably shaped the way I’ll go about understanding the world from now on, for the better.
But now I want to rewind back to January of this year, when, shortly after being accepted onto the course, I received the Year Here reading list. Again, unsurprisingly to those of you who know me, I quickly bought almost every book on it. The first one I picked up was John Paul Flintoff’s boldly named ‘How to Change the World’. I think I saw it as a sort of challenge; I wanted to find out how this man suddenly had the secret key; how everyone in the world was missing something that he was seeing so clearly, and had managed to fit into (quite a short) book. I finished the book none the wiser about how I was going to change the world, but with some great quotes, one of which I’d like to share with you tonight, because I think it sums up one of the central tenets of Year Here pretty well…
Compassion means to endure something with another person, to feel his or her pain as though it was our own, and enter generously into his or her point of view.
Flintoff also points out that compassion is hard work. It takes time, energy and genuine commitment. It can’t be magicked overnight.
I’d say Year Here has been teaching us compassion since day two of the programme, back in February, when we were asked by Sophie to pair up and spend ten minutes, uninterrupted, telling our partner who we thought we were. It was an intense start to the programme, but the overwhelming generosity that the exercise allowed us to offer someone who was, at that point, a relative stranger, was very special, and something few of us had experienced before. And it didn’t stop there. I saw my fellow Fellows demonstrate extreme compassion on their frontline placements, whilst young people threw chairs at them and old women asked their names for the fourth time that day. I saw copious compassion in each one of the incredible innovation projects developed on frontline placement, and again during the consulting phase, as five teams worked within vulnerable communities across London. And I saw compassion during each and every Fireside Friday check-in, when one of us was struggling on placement, or a particular session got a bit much and we all ended up in tears. To pinch Flintoff’s wording, we’ve endured this year with one another, felt one another’s pain as though it was our own, and entered generously into one another’s points of view.
I feel I should clarify at this point that it definitely hasn’t just been a year of tears and feeling one another’s pain. When I look back at the ten months our cohort has spent together, I think first and foremost of uncontrollable laughter: from that time we went paintballing, to Kevin arriving late under the projector screen to the one session we were told not to be late to, to improv at the Comedy Store, Benoit’s spoon-making courses, and a 23 person-strong moo off in Devon; I think of water coolers filled with gin and tonic whilst we sat in the sun on London Fields, an impressive number of boozy bowling trips to Rowans, and too many nights spent putting the world to rights in London’s pubs — where you’d usually find half the group dancing to cheesy 90s pop whilst the other half debates whether there is an ethical consumption under capitalism. It probably won’t surprise you to know that we quickly shed our reputation as the ‘mature cohort’ and became known as the boozy one, although I prefer to think of us as simply having a great team culture.
In reality, the Year Here team is to thank for this. Bringing a group of 19 opinionated, driven and fiercely passionate young people together harmoniously can’t be an easy task. But you did it. And it worked. We bonded over a mutual and unbreakable love of cake and caffeine, a shared frustration at the world around us and a collective propensity for action; we were patient with each other and generous with our time; we’ve learned — and unlearned — together; we’ve been open and honest, caring and, of course, compassionate.
We’ve ridden the ups and downs of the past ten months alongside one another; bringing our whole selves and trying our best to be towers of strength whenever possible.
There is so much more to say about this amazing group of people and the journey we’ve been on together for the past ten months. But no matter how many words I use, I don’t believe I’ll do it justice, so I’ve decided to play it safe and end with a quote from Jack’s favourite man, because we all know that a Year Here speech isn’t really a Year Here speech without a bit of Obama:
Anybody who wants to be a leader, I would advise you spend a lot of time thinking about “how am I helping other people do great things?”. I am dealing with so many issues and I can’t be expert on everything, and I can’t be everywhere. The one thing I can do is assemble a team of people who are really good and really smart and really committed and care about their mission, and have integrity, and then give them the tools, or get rid of the barriers, or help coach them so that they can do a great job.
So whilst I have huge amounts of sadness, and equal amounts of fear, about finishing Year Here, I know these things for sure: this is a group of people who are really good and really smart and really committed and care about their missions, and have integrity. And as Ally B so beautifully put it last week, we’re all painting our parts of a picture of a better world. So carry on painting your parts of the picture, safe in the knowledge that there are at least eighteen other people ferociously painting alongside you, ready to jump in if you need more paint, remind you what you wanted your part to look like, or just drink tea with you as you sit back and gaze at the picture together.