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  • Writer's pictureKiran Kaur

Sustainable Actions through Dialogue

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

Written by Kirandeep Kaur and Jonathan Evans

A long take on what sustainability might mean in the post-COVID-19 world and our journey to build dialogue. Jonathan Evans and I started the sustainability action dialogues, which will take place on the second Friday of the month, in order to break down silos and create an engaging space with researchers, practitioners and those from the margins. Below we talk about our journey and experiences that led us to create this platform.

I finished my PhD in Law and Development contract last year but continued writing part-time as I first searched for a job and later began teaching at Leiden University Medical Centre. Writing a PhD part-time whilst working is no small challenge. It felt strange to be back teaching again and stranger still to teach academic skills to medical and biomedical students. But, I quickly felt more comfortable; I had returned to my education roots. I’d previously given up academic skills lecturing for my PhD, so I could finally engage in the key issues faced by voiceless communities on the margins of society. For me, my work in social justice and the concept of sustainability is deeply interconnected to education as a cornerstone of sustainable change. This is also how I ended up with my husband, who I met through my MSSc in Social and Community Development, Queen’s University in Belfast. Jonathan also a PhD (in Social Entrepreneurship and Co-creation) takes a slightly different view. Social and circular economy, rather than education, is the landscape he works in. For him, sustainability derives from the engagement at the grassroots working in collaboration with the private, public and civil society sectors. Despite our differences, we somehow always ended up back at the same point: communities create (co-create) sustainable change.

However, we never felt like we quite fit in our respective fields; myself in Law and Development and Jonathan in Social Enterprise. Given our community development background, we could see gaps visible in the fields we wished to work in. We wanted to step away from the ivory tower of academia, engage and connect with a range of actors. We’ve seen many barriers to collaboration and knowledge sharing in academic circles, even in platforms that seek to connect more widely. Although we both had a very specific focus in our work and PhDs, we could see the intersections with other fields and practitioners and wanted to connect. Yet, we did not see a safe space to build a dialogue on sustainability that is interdisciplinary. Increasingly, we had the uncomfortable feeling that even within our wider networks that we couldn't communicate across silos.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and we, like the world, were in shock. The world slowly ground almost to a halt and like many we began to take a real look around us. We saw many reactionary responses to not only the crisis but our ways of working and living. Workplaces from businesses, service industry to academia (and especially in healthcare) began operating in emergency mode. The approaches we observed were ones that reacted to circumstance and were developed in a mindset of command and control of the situation. It became clear to us that to snap out of survival mode that we, and more widely as a society, needed to start to think about sustainability.

But, we felt we needed to ask the question what could sustainability mean in a post-COVID-19 world?

Community Development and Sustainability

So, we reached out in April to our wider circles and networks. We connected with previous colleagues and new connections to ask them what they had been experiencing in these times. And, in doing so we realised we were not alone that despite the differences in our work we were all concerned with lack of action on sustainable solutions.

The concept of sustainability is usually composed of three intersecting pillars: the economic, the environmental, and the social pillars. Classically defined by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development sustainable development is that which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Expanding on this is the charter for the 2016 UCLA Sustainability Committee, who state that “sustainability presumes that resources are finite, and should be used conservatively and wisely with a view to long-term priorities and consequences of the ways in which resources are used.”

Standard definitions on sustainability, however, miss the question of agency; heart of dialogue and community-led actions. We decided to return to an Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) approach that we originally learnt all those years ago in Belfast. Community development has many potential ‘origins’ and strands of the theory and practice that have been adapted globally. A core strand deals with changing the structural inequalities that create socially, economically and environmentally unjust outcomes. Community Development deals much more directly in how transformative change is created with the support of many actors; those on the margins, in non-profit organisations, international institutions or decision-makers. But, this change is not geared solely towards entrepreneurial aims or the bottom-line nor service delivery thinking, instead focused on participation and community-led actions. Community development starts and ends (then restarts) with the engagement of people.

For us, sustainability can be understood through the same lens; as a process to create through dialogue and collaboration to a healthier, socially and environmentally just world for future generations.

It was this belief and the dialogues we already had with refugees, social entrepreneurs, researchers and more which led to the ‘sustainability action dialogues’. It is here we hope to begin to explore an inter-disciplinary and inter-practice dialogue on sustainability.

Sustainability Action Dialogues

Our first (virtual) session took place on the 15th May 2020. We discussed the broad topics of community development and sustainability and then focused on a participant-led topic on food supply chains. We brought together people who work in different fields and found everyone had a perspective and contribution to make on the topic. Food supply chains are seldom seen through an explicit sustainability lens, but we found interconnections to issues related to; human trafficking, visibility of producers and nutrition.

We learnt a lot from this first session. The first step was listening. The wide range of participants and members on our Facebook group from all over the world, each had something fascinating to contribute. This helped to co-create a document from one of our participants who presented on the day on sustainability in the global food supply chain and the link and connections with COVID-19. We also saw that despite our background, myself and Jonathan needed to continue to work to create an interactive safe space for dialogue. A challenge we will take up in the next session 12th June 2020 at 1pm (CET): Sustainability Benchmarking

Continued Heavy Price

Whilst we are slowly coming out of stasis and the world seeks to find a ‘new normal’, we are also seeing increasingly unstable employment conditions and reduced opportunities. As a society, our general wellbeing has been eroded by the effects of the pandemic and government responses. Depression and mental health issues have also seen an increase, whilst simultaneously, we a lack of access to mental health. We see a reaction from companies to fight against the reinvigorated desire for a more equitable world with zero-hour contracted workers being left not only without work but also little welfare support. COVID-19 has further shone a light on global inequalities. People of colour are more at risk of contracting and dying from the COVID-19 disease, including those in healthcare positions and from working-class backgrounds. Added to this we have the popularisation of false information and conspiracy theories that only sow division and further spread hate.

Despite physical distancing, we have also heard of many more collaborative efforts. From the forced migrant and undocumented groups I worked with during my PhD, I learned they had set up a number of projects including a food delivery system to the most vulnerable (refugee, Malaysian or undocumented) despite their lack of financial assistance. We have also seen a coming together, new ideas, radical innovations and the rekindling of hope through the community.

Connect, Collaborate and Create

Reinvigorated into the community development concepts underpinning our work, we’ve decided to go forward with the dialogues. We will be meeting the second Friday of every month for 90 minutes.

Each time we will ask one participant to present their work/topic/idea on sustainability. Our format will be similar for each of our sessions: an initial 20 minutes ‘fireside chat’, followed by the presentation and questions and final action dialogue. Action dialogue is where we will broaden out from the topic and connect the presenters' work with the work of other participants and perhaps find fresh ways to go forward or to create a new outcome. Feel free to join us by registering at this link or join our Facebook group.

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