Curating spaces of hope - RSA Comment - RSA

Curating spaces of hope


  • Picture of Matthew Barber-Rowell
    Matthew Barber-Rowell
    Temple Research Fellow. Project Manager. Entrepreneur. Author. Bid Writer. Founder of Spaces of Hope
  • Mental health
  • People & place
  • Communities

The pandemic plunged us into previously unimaginable uncertainty. Two years on, it is just one of the crises shaping our lives including Brexit, the climate emergency, the invasion of Ukraine, and a cost of living crisis. So… how to respond in these uncertain times?

‘Curating Spaces of Hope’ emerged from a personal journey of suffering and sensemaking, catalysed by austerity, unemployment, loneliness and isolation, abuse and discrimination. It was a journey exploring how what we believe and value relates to how we live, work, and relate to others. From 2010 to 2020 this journey changed from a personal piece of reflection to a social movement. And from there to shaping a way of working pertinent to producing good fruit in uncertain times. So how might Curating Spaces of Hope contribute to post-pandemic society?

In 2017 I was commissioned to deliver networked dialogues in diverse community spaces, using the Spaces of Hope approach. We engaged around 170 people from 70 or so organisations. They brought a huge variety of perspectives on what Spaces of Hope meant to them, and examined their perceived barriers, on a journey to realising those Spaces of Hope in their lives. The Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in England summarised these dialogues as bringing together innovative mixes of civil society actors – from professional community practitioners to individual community activists. It also explored ‘making meaning’ as a response to experiences of pointlessness and emptiness in personal, community and professional life.

Some 65 per cent of respondents associated Spaces of Hope with vulnerability, freedom and social connection. 40 per cent saw suspicions towards different cultures and worldviews as barriers to Spaces of Hope. A third of respondents said Spaces of Hope dialogues had helped catalyse something new within their work. And 90 per cent of respondents said they valued the dialogues and would participate in future.

Pandemic experience and lived experiences 

In 2020, a team led by the William Temple Foundation delivered research mapping the pandemic responses of faith groups and local authorities. We found that while uncertainty grew, so did links between local authorities and local groups. The research noted that ‘almost every local authority in the study endorses a commitment to build on this and to deepen relationships supporting long-term policy interventions and partnerships in ways that are different to the current practice and norms’.

Consolidating pandemic experience begins by drawing out lived experiences. During the pandemic, morning walks became both acts of obedience; adhering to laws prescribing one piece of exercise per day, and acts of defiance against the virus, glimpsing forgotten freedom, before returning to our Covid-induced confines. Loved ones died. Weddings were cancelled. Jobs were lost. Belts were tightened.

New frontlines emerged through pop-up hubs providing parcels of hope. Street-level organising and WhatsApp groups nurtured networked responses to Covid chaos, opening up spaces of connection, catalysing alliances and empowering local communities. We looked afresh for symbols of hope, we transitioned to the nowhere office, we mobilised as citizens, embracing the vision for levelling up society, too. Dialogue that draws on these different concerns is timely. But how do we take things forward through local leadership?

Contributors to Spaces of Hope ranged from refugees and homeless communities to religious leaders, to differently-abled volunteers, to CEOs, from community workers to academics, from council officers to foodbank users. Spaces of Hope research found that local leadership is characterised in three ways:

  1. It’s incarnational, where the potential we have is made real by the things we do.
  2. It’s negotiated, understanding what can be done together.
  3. It includes different roles and responsibilities.

So we might be specialists or generalists. Both are needed. Both have value.

Local leadership and worldviews

Local leadership is contextualised by wider concerns, by relationships with people and place, by our beliefs, values and worldviews. It needs communication online and in-person, as well as welcome and care through both voluntary work and professional services alike. The prophetic and authentic stories that we heard chart experiences today but also offer hope for tomorrow. Local leadership finds the flows of the world around us, nurturing networks, partnership and movements for change. 

Dialogue opens up these concerns and informs local leadership for a post-pandemic society. To guide this leadership, Curating Spaces of Hope offers the following principles:

  • Freedom - This is the potential we have within us and the ability we have to make that real and tangible. Put simply, taking responsibility within our circumstances and sharing the fullest possible expression of our personality.
  • Relationship - We are in a relationship with everyone and everything around us, from the people we love to the places we live, to the rest of the world as we see it. The principle of relationship helps us to understand the freedom that we have positively, in terms of freedom for ourselves and others, as opposed to freedom from others.
  • Service - The expression of freedom, in relationship with others, is service. Service is the incarnation of the potential that we each have and the expression of leadership in the multitude of different ways that this manifests itself.
  • Affect - Expressions of service can come in a wide variety of forms, each can be both subtle and significant and are simultaneously synonymous with hope. The principle of affect is a guide to be aware of and sensitive to everything around us. As the pandemic has taught us, the smallest of sources can bring hope.
  • Authenticity - Finally, we should consider if the freedom we are sharing through our relationship with others, and expressing through service that is affective and affected by what is around us, fits within our wider story. This is not an inward sense of authenticity that we decide upon for ourselves, but an outward question for others to answer about whether what we are doing is truly hopeful and hope filled.

Dr Matthew Barber-Rowell has been working in activism and academia in the northwest of England for the past ten years during which time he developed Spaces of Hope. He is a Research Fellow with the William Temple Foundation. For more information contact Matthew at [email protected]

Become an RSA Fellow

The RSA Fellowship is a unique global network of changemakers enabling people, places and the planet to flourish. We invite you to be part of this change.

Related content

  • Adaptation nation


    Alexa Clay

    The director of RSA USA discusses how a new breed of changemaker is finding ways to strengthen civic fabric and solidarity.

  • The economics of Citizen Smith


    Andy Haldane

    RSA CEO Andy Haldane discusses whether Citizen Smith's time has now come as the 'power to the people' rallying cry is embraced by the UK's two main political parties.

  • Calling all nature enthusiasts and curious souls in the Chiltern area

    Fellowship news

    Step into nature and embrace the beauty of the Chilterns countryside with Dadima’s intergenerational walking community, co-led and founded by RSA Fellow Subash Ludra.