SDG Presents: Wayfinding in a Climate Changing World

SDG.org.nz is pleased to share the work of Dr Jane Riddiford and Global Generation as the featured work for SDG Presents: January (2022)

January 23, 2022

Global Generation Founding Director

Much of what I have brought to Global Generation’s work in London has roots in the group of islands 18,300 km across the seas that form Aotearoa New Zealand; the land where I was born. The covid pandemic meant that what might have been a brief trip for me and my husband, Rod Sugden, to visit my 95-year-old mother turned into a five-month stay. 

Like many others at the beginning of November 2021,  I was in Glasgow, taking part in a Cop26 Fringe event . I was there as an author; for the launch of the book, Climate Adaptation: Accounts of Resilience, Self-Sufficiency and Systems Change. This book, edited by the Arkbound Foundation, takes an unflinching look at climate change and what the next decades hold in store. Case studies and models from 16 authors around the world show ways that we can build adaptation and resilience, as well as what ‘zero emissions’ might really mean.

My contribution to the book was about Global Generation’s work in London. I described how in the middle of King’s Cross is two acres of land that two and a half years ago was an empty car park . The site which belongs to the British Library is looked over on four sides by some of London’s well known institutions ; St Pancras Station, The Francis Crick Institute, the Library and Ossulton Street which is a long road of housing estates dating back to the 1930’s. 

In that empty car park, as Global Generation has done in other concrete spaces in London, we grew a garden called the Story Garden, at the invitation of the Library and their development partners Stanhope. Along with vegetables and flowers; my colleagues and I felt the garden was a good place to grow and share stories that might guide us in how to be. Thanks to the opportunity to participate in the Climate Adaption book, I began to think about how the experiences of living through the pandemic has provided glimpses of how we might be in a climate-changed world. During this often fearful and confusing period, the natural world has been more appreciated than ever. At the beginning at least, the air cleared and in an extraordinary way, the birds flocked back into London. The doors of the institutions on either side of our garden closed, but local organisations pulled together and we drew more keenly upon the imagination and the resources within our local community.

In many ways our preparations for this challenging period began several years before, when we consciously adopted a Wayfinding way of being.  I particularly wanted to write about this on the SDG website, because even though the project I describe is in the heart of London, Wayfinding as a leadership approach has roots in Aotearoa New Zealand.  Back in 2016, a group of colleagues and friends of Global Generation gathered on a hot summer afternoon in the Skip Garden which at the time was one of Global Generation’s community gardens – so named because many of the garden beds were constructed out of builders’ skips (also known as dumpsters).

Suddenly the atmosphere in the garden changed and a Karakia, a traditional Maori welcome, rose up  through the air. This was a traditional Maori welcome brought to us by our guides that day,  Dr Chellie Spiller and her mother Monica. The wisdom Chellie brought would stand us in good stead in the months and years to come. In retrospect, one could say soul and survival work was about to begin. We were there for a workshop afternoon with Chellie who is of Māori and Pākehā lineage and co-author of the book Wayfinding Leadership (2015)  and currently Associate Dean Māori at the University of Waikato.

During the afternoon we were introduced to practices handed down from early Pacific explorers who had braved treacherous waters to unknown destinations. Deeply attuned to the interconnection between all things, these wayfinders paid attention to the subtle changes within themselves and their team. They learned to read the ripples of the seas beneath them and the movement of the clouds and the birds in the skies above them, adapting and adjusting as they journeyed forward. Chellie described how one must step beyond the knowledge of one’s own horizon to be a wayfinder. This way of being fully aware of the clues that arise in the present runs counter to the ideas of a pre-ordained world that many leadership approaches are based on. Wayfinding as a fluid way of being is well-suited to the unknown realities that now lie ahead of us in the face of climate change.

During the afternoon with Chellie, we explored our ancestral roots that spread around the planet. We were called upon to identify and find strength in these roots. As we told stories of forebears from long ago and of places in the lands that hold meaning for us now, we were reminded that there is a deeply intuitive and infinitely more creative way of being than the lockstep of a master planned process. Since then, viewing Global Generation as a wayfinding organisation has brought a sense of trust and patience to a journey in which we have become more aware than ever that the end is not yet written. It is very much a relational journey that depends upon the interconnection between all things.

Wayfinding is not easy when you are dealing with a system that has become embedded in risk averse ways of being. Not having a fixed plan can be confusing and to some seem unprofessional and we’ve definitely had our moments. It was not only because of the pandemic we needed to call on the old ways developed by the warriors of the water. The story garden is a temporary site on British Library land and over the next two years construction works will begin for what will become a major extension of Library, including galleries, community spaces and a new permanent home for the Alan Turing Institute.  Global Generation needs to find a new home for the local residents growing beds, our plant nursery and all the community activities and youth programmes that happen in the Story Garden. The Library and their development partners Stanhope are keen for us to be a part of the future public realm of the new development and have also raised the idea of us having a home on the main Piazza in front of the library.

The Piazza with it’s high walls and imposing metal gates, can seem, at least to some of the local community,  like a fortress; keeping some people in and others out. The library and Stanhope like what Global Generation do, however our wayfinding way of working posed something of a challenge. In our early discussions, we were asked to provide bullet pointed briefs to be submitted by particular deadlines. Rather than bullet points we wanted to draw upon wellsprings and rather than deadlines we wanted to feel our way into lifelines that might form a more natural and relational shape for what might come next. We wondered if our neighbours on the housing estates would like parts of our portable Story Garden garden to use beside their homes and we knew we couldn’t impose ideas; we had to find out together over time. At times it seemed the life blood was withering away from all we held true. It was frustrating and difficult and more than once we felt we should say no we can’t be involved in the future plans for the Library. The powers that be wanted to understand, and I felt they really tried, but in the face of intense planning constraints it’s hard to explain or even make the case for a wayfinding approach in which the end result is not yet written . Our gardens have always come about slowly and gently through the creative involvement of many different hands. We needed permission to move at the pace of trust.

In the most unexpected way, we made a breakthrough. Ever since we had been on the Story Garden site, we felt it was odd that we had never met the CEO of the Library. We had good relationships with Emma Morgan, the wonderful community engagement manager, but she wasn’t the one to do the work of shifting entrenched ways of being. Finally, much-delayed by Covid, a date was arranged where Roly Keating the CEO of the Library and his team came to lunch in the garden. It  seemed a great time was had by all, and we heard from Emma everyone was really happy about it . The only missing ingredient was that no thank you note came our way. We waited and we watched, we even hinted by sending them a thank you ourselves and still nothing came. Even though thank-you notes are often forgotten, something snapped inside me. I thought no, If they can’t say thank you it won’t work. Wayfinding needs genuine community and if the library can’t say thank you moving forward will be on shaky ground. Wayfinding also needs honesty and the kind of trust that enables us to ‘fail -forwards’. Emma called me and I told her so . She said thank you, I have been trying to communicate this kind of thing for a long time and she rang and told the CEO. To his credit Roly was devastated, he rang me and apologised and asked if I would be there later that day. He arrived with a card and a present and a whole new relationship opened up between us. Within minutes it felt like we fell through a portal; entering into a shared imaginative space.

Soon after we were standing on the Piazza of the library with Roly and his senior officers. Roly began by saying, “just to be clear this is not a ‘no but’ meeting, this is all about ‘yes and’ …”  Nothing seemed off limits and to open ears my colleague Sue Amos, who is Global Generation’s Head of Gardens and I described a kind of legalized occupy movement, local people including recently arrived Afghan refugee families, having gardens and a community kitchen on the library Piazza along with gardens that the library staff and their building developers might support in the courtyards of the different housing estates that lined Ossulton street. We described a green river flowing from the Library and all the way along the street; a river of hope, shaped by the whisperings from the now buried Fleet river that flows under the library. I suddenly heard Roly exclaim, “of course we are standing on what would have been the banks of the The River Fleet.” I began to feel the roaring of that river under our feet, the river that was once referred to as the Holy River of Wells. My imagination stretched back to the time when the Fleet flowed on the surface of the land. The time when legends and dragons and the sacredness of water was felt to be true. Then over time the river, the dragons and perhaps some of our spiritual sensibilities were buried and joined with the London sewer.

Since then I have been wondering what a dragon, or indeed a Taniwha, might think if she saw our world now. Would she fly to the top of our glass and steel towers? Would she ride in the slipstream behind the cars and the buses? Or might she cry and cry and cry and in her tears, might the light pass through?  Might her tears form a green river of hope; a river which might help us weave a vibrant community cloak.

Nearly 100 years ago, philosopher and palaeontologist  Teilhard de Chardin, described how we need to harvest all that we are in the service of all that lies ahead. I think about how wayfinding combined with rekindling old stories helps us create rivers of re-membering and re-connecting; rivers where the separations of our world are not held so strong. For me and my colleagues in Global Generation; finding excuses to build relationships across historical divides and different ways of knowing and most importantly relationships between people and green spaces, is an important part of preparing ourselves for the inevitable challenges and uncertainties of a climate-changing world.

References

Bolton, T. (2011). London’s Lost Rivers: A Walkers Guide Volume 1. London: Strange Attractor Press

Riddiford, J. (2021). Learning to Lead Together: An Ecological Approach. London: Routledge

Riddiford, J. (2021). Wayfinding in a Time of Covid in Climate Adaption: Accounts of Resilience, Self-Sufficiency and Systems Change. Glasgow: Arkbound

Spiller, C. Barclay-Kerr, H and Panaho, J. (2015). Wayfinding Leadership: Ground Breaking Wisdom for Developing Leaders.  Auckland: Huia

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