Six years ago, RSA chief executive for only a few months, I was invited to speak to the annual dinner of the Yorkshire region RSA. The event was held in a hotel in Skipton. While it was perfectly enjoyable and people were generally friendly to me, the image projected of the RSA was an establishment organisation of people who primarily enjoyed socialising together. I'm all in favour of Fellows networking and I have no problem with the idea that many Fellows are part of the 'great and good' but I came to the evening with a new message.
I talked about a gap between the aspirations most people have for the kind of prosperous, inclusive, responsible society they want to live in and the future we are creating based on existing attitudes, behaviours and capabilities. I argued that the RSA should focus on closing that gap, enabling - to use the cumbersome phrase I relied on at the time - 'people to become the kind of people they need to be to create the future they say they want'.
More than this, I described my idea - little more than a vague aspiration - that the RSA Fellowship itself might be part of how the Society attempted to close that gap. At the time Fellows tended to be kept at arm's length from the RSA's research work, Fellowship engagement levels were low and relations between John Adam Street HQ and the lay regions and nations of the RSA were mutually disdainful. 'Can't', I asked, 'we develop a unique RSA model of change in which our professional research and innovation combine with the voluntary activist initiatives of Fellows themselves?'
I thought my speech went OK and when I made my apologies and left a little early to meet an old friend in Leeds I felt I had taken another small step on the road of reform.
A few weeks later a letter arrived from the Yorkshire regional committee. I can't recall it in full but I do remember the key point: far from appreciating my speech - the content of which was pointedly ignored - I was informed that the Fellows were dismayed by me leaving before the loyal toast to the Queen. It was made clear that I wouldn't be receiving another invitation to Yorkshire any time soon.
The recollection of that rebuff is one reason yesterday felt so good. I was already in a positive mood as a result of events on Wednesday when I had addressed a conference to showcase Suffolk County Council's response to the RSA's 'No School an Island' report on raising children's educational attainment. The opening speakers were complementary about the RSA's work and the County keen to emphasise its intention to act on nearly all our recommendations. But the high point for me had been a presentation on 'Shout out Suffolk' a joint initiative of local RSA Fellows and University Campus Suffolk to bring pupil voices to the process of diagnosing Suffolk's challenges and developing solutions. This was a great example of RSA Fellows complementing work being done through our Action and Research Centre.
Back in Yorkshire I found myself speaking first to about eighty Fellows and then about two hundred Fellows and guests. A heating breakdown meant we were shivering inside the historic Todmorden Unitarian church but the sheer enthusiasm of the gathering soon warmed up everyone. Led by the inspirational Yorkshire chair (co-founder of the incredible edible movement and TED star) Pam Warhurst, a range of speakers described great RSA initiatives in York, Leeds, Hull and, of course, Todmorden.
My particular favourite was a project from Leeds Fellow Rob Greenland to bring the five thousand empty properties in the city back into use. Working with the local authority, which provides some sticks, the Leeds Empties group offer carrots in the form of an 'empty homes doctor' service to help people who own those properties bring them back into use or put them on the market. I am pretty sure there is a social enterprise model here which could be replicated in other areas. If you want to know more there's a Leeds Empties website and Rob is writing a piece about the initiative for the next RSA Journal.
I shared my delight at the Yorkshire event on Twitter and my colleague Rich Pickford tweeted back that the Wales annual conference is going well. Scotland RSA has also come on leaps and bounds and its annual conference is also today. I am hoping Rich and Jamie in Scotland might add comments to this post with highlights of their respective events .
Subjugated by the incompetent invasion of middle age, having been in the same job for nearly seven years (albeit a wonderful job) there is a danger of becoming jaded. Certain problems seem to come around again and again and I sometimes lose sight of underlying change. There need to be moments of affirmation when it feels like the work of many years really is coming to a glorious fruition. Yesterday was one of those days and I can only give my heartfelt thanks to the RSA staff and Fellows who have helped make this leap forward in the RSA's development come about.
Al Mathers Anthony Painter
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