Spaces for change

Ellie Hale
Catalyst
Published in
5 min readSep 14, 2021

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Between the click of the light and the start of the dream…

It’s over a month since I last published something. Is that a gap or a space? Gap implies a deficiency, something missing, whereas space feels intentional, abundant, full of possibility. I’m going to go with space.

I’ve been noticing and thinking a lot about spaces, and how to more artfully inhabit and nurture them.

Catalyst exists as an ecosystem of people and things, and the spaces where they come together. It matters how these spaces are held, as that shapes the relationships that form in them, and the kind of change they can create.

A practical example: We know that peer learning spaces form part of a relational infrastructure that helps professional development — for both nonprofits, digital partners and grantmakers. Access to peer networks around digital enables individual and organisational change. So we want these to be widely available, and for everyone in them to feel they are a welcome and valued contributor, e.g. by considering who’s in the ‘room’, using audio descriptions to make them accessible, and speaking in rounds so that everyone gets a turn.

We also know that small, meaningful moments of connection improve our mental and physical wellbeing. So we can design spaces to facilitate those, e.g. via a fun simultaneous activity or a whole-person check-in. Small things add up to create the vibe, and the vibe gives people signals to be or act in a certain way in that space — sharing openly, showing appreciation etc.

Spaces across Catalyst are held by different people and have different purposes: learning, sharing, networking, co-creating, governance. But a few cross-cutting elements affect them all.

The space of paradigm shifts

I was lucky enough to be part of the inaugural Civic Futures cohort two years ago. Earlier this year they hosted provocation events for this year’s cohort; space was a theme. These helped anchor some of my Catalyst ponderings in the context of wider transformations happening across society and our collective consciousness.

Indy Johar of Dark Matter Labs set the scene, explaining,

“We are in the middle of a fundamental transition with ourselves and with nature. One of ownership vs stewardship. Also in our relationship with the future. It means a new relationship with what we are as humans… What are the institutional infrastructures required for an age of exploration based on care, creativity and complex cognitivity?”

He talked to us about enobling, rather than enabling, governance that will help us “transition in how we code the reality around us”.

I like that. How can we create spaces across Catalyst that are enobling?

He was echoed by Graham Leicester of the International Futures Forum, who argued that there are three emergencies we are navigating: real, conceptual and existential.

Big ideas. No wonder so many things are so baffling so much of the time.

Graham posed the question,

“What spaces are you creating for recovery and growth? How are you holding them, what do they need to be?”

He quoted child psychiatrist Donald Winnicott,

“Growing up is a natural process in a facilitating environment”.

In that case, how can Catalyst be a facilitating environment for our collective growth? And, on the flip side, how can we collectively create a nurturing and liberating space to help Catalyst (currently a toddler) grow up? This ‘we’ is in the broadest sense of anyone who has something to contribute, or gain — it takes a village to raise a child, after all.

Inclusive spaces

Two comments from my fellow cohort members stuck in my mind and keep coming back:

“We need to create spaces where people can show up bleeding and suffering and not being able to cope — that’s real inclusion.”

and

“There’s a Chilean phrase: ‘Some people have more time for the revolution than others’.”

When designing and holding spaces, we need to be aware of people’s challenges to participating, and recognise the (unequal) labour of having to show up in them.

There are a several spaces across Catalyst I’m currently excited about, where we’re testing some responses to this. I’ll talk about them in my next blog.

Regenerative spaces

Another shift it feels important for our spaces to embody/contribute to is that towards more regenerative systems and cultures.

The Catalyst Stewards group spent a session discussing what ‘regenerative’ means to us. I’m excited to incorporate rest, slowness, spaciousness and connection to nature into work cadences and rituals — not just the holidays that bookend them.

As an initial taster, and inspired by the excellent Earth Rhythms course I did at the start of the year, we’ve spent one in every four Stewards meetings in a nature sit spot. It’s away from the Zoom camera, in quiet individual contemplation of the world around us.

I was keen to see whether this experiment led to anything tangibly different or useful for us as a group. My hope/hypothesis was that it might enable something like this (from an article shared at a transformational governance event):

It is the time for unfolding, time for adaptation, time and opportunity for intentional and random bumping and connecting, time for creation and time for response, time for listening and reacting, and time for deconstruction. It is the space in between, around, behind, on top of, and underneath all the action, the commitments, the transactions; all these things are forms.

It’s certainly prompted good food for thought:

Some of the Stewards reflections shared after a week ‘off’

Collectively recognising this space as a different form of inhabiting and knowing has influenced our work together as a group, and how we connect.

It’s also an opportunity to simply be in nature, which is healing and important in itself. A good antidote to so much staring at screens, especially after months of intense home-working. Nature is such a good teacher.

Immersed in nature I notice the stories I tell myself, laden with value judgements — seeing either a tragic competitive struggle between bindweed and thistle, or a hopeful collegial entanglement to help each other reach the sun. Sat there long enough, both these stories dissolve — bindweed and thistle just are.

I’ve personally found this space valuable to gently integrate various changes happening in my life — for example, my role shifting from a team member at CAST to that of a more independent Catalyst Producer. And it’s been a helpful reflection space, too, for the changes I’m helping steer Catalyst towards and through. More on those in the next blog

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Ellie Hale
Catalyst

Connecting & nurturing relationships, communities and networks at Catalyst (currently incubated by CAST). Co-organiser of several tech for good meetups.