Summat’s going on in Leeds

Ed Carlisle is a project manager with Leeds-based charity Together for Peace and one of the organisers of the Leeds Summat Gathering which took place in November last year – strapline ‘Get Connected, Be Inspired, Join in Action for Change’. BARRY WINTER interviewed him for the ILP and Leeds Taking Soundings.

Barry: The Leeds Summat Gathering on 26th November attracted over 1,300 participants and included a myriad of activities. I thought it was a great success and would like to congratulate you. What were the highlights for you as the one of the key organisers?

Ed: I think the process of organising what was a fairly complex and challenging event was, in many ways, full of highlights.

We set out to make the gathering as participatory and contributory as possible, to involve diverse people in its development and delivery. That meant our core partners and others co-delivering it with us.  Seeing how those efforts and resources flowed together was really positive. It meant the event really did embody, with some integrity, what we were seeking.

Leeds Summat logoWithin that, we also managed to organise it on a reasonably low budget primarily by blagging and borrowing equipment and resources. We delivered the first Summat for £12,000 or £13,000, and this one we did for £7,500. So we really were learning from our earlier experience which itself is positive. At no point did I feel that we were pushing against closed doors.

Two things about the event itself. First, it met our expectations in terms of our overarching themes, and probably met our best expectations. We wanted it to be a day that was serious and meaty but also fun and socially warm.

Secondly, we aimed to attract up to 1,300 people which we managed. What was interesting in looking through the list of the 800 or so people who pre-registered online, as well as the 500 who came on the day, was that I knew fewer than 10 per cent of them. It was not only the ‘paid-up activists’ who came, who we already know, people I see every week. It was not just my mates who rocked up. It drew in a whole bunch of new people and it’s partly a mystery just who they all were. So it will be interesting to use the feedback to find out more about them.

From the written evaluations and from people telling us about their experiences, people met and encountered other people. They also felt energised. These are summed up in two of the strap lines for the Gathering: ‘Get Connected’ and ‘Be Inspired’.

The third strap line is the interesting one: ‘Join in Action for Change’. We are going to try tracking and evaluating whether this is taking place. Will what was a fun and successful event lead to enduring change? It’s too early to say.

What were the original ideas behind the Summat initiative? How did it come about and in what ways have these ideas developed?

The story of the Summat goes back to the formation of Together For Peace (T4P) in 2003. T4P was created to arrange a 10-day festival of events across Leeds. Initially it was to encourage people to engage in peace and justice issues but this broadened out to looking at the big issues of our time. And it was very much about using creative means also used in later Summats – film, theatre, food, music and drama.

Because T4P has always been a low budget affair, we did not have the capacity to deliver the festival ourselves. So we sought collaboration with about 30 organisations. People enjoyed the festival, although some of it was a bit shambolic behind the schemes. We also held festivals in 2005 and 2007.

The reason we stopped was that people told us, very legitimately, that, while they liked what we were doing, they did not have the time to attend every day. Instead they looked for parts of the programme that already interested them. This meant we weren’t really enabling a general fusion of different people and ideas.

Some fusions did follow: for example, individual refugees began to volunteer for Oxfam which itself began working with the Catholic diocese. The most meaty and meaningful actions were being undertaken through such collaborations and we wanted to find ways to develop this further.

At the same time, from 2006 onwards, we were particularly inspired by the work of north American writer, John Paul Lederach. He has written some great books, including The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Social Peace. In it he calls for “web weaving”, enabling diverse people to connect and collaborate in their social spaces, be it a community, a city or a nation. This means making those spaces more resilient, more able to deal creatively with difficult things.

So we stopped doing festivals and condensed them into one-day events. These could then be more about enabling people to connect and collaborate and about integration and action.

Is if fair to say that Together for Peace and the events you organised come from faith-based initiatives, and I don’t mean that pejoratively?

Yes and no. The three original founders of T4P, who were amazing activists, were Christians. But as they handed over the organising, it became increasingly apparent that it was not appropriate to make it overly faith-based because it does not resonate with lots of people. We feel slightly misconstrued as an organisation in this respect but it happens less and less.

That does not mean that we don’t do such work. One member of the team who is Christian has been active for many years in facilitating a Jewish-Muslim dialogue and this is now gathering momentum.

What is it that you are hoping people take with them when they leave, given that the day’s activities begin with breakfast at 9am and continue into the evening with social events?

Our strap line ‘Get Connected, Be Inspired & Join in Action for Change’ encapsulates it. We hope people will take away with them a sense of the need for a better connected yet diverse Leeds, a better connected Yorkshire and a better connected north of England. This amounts to having a healthier place where ideas can flow between different interest groups, across different generations, ethnicities and movements.

For the more engaged activists, we wanted them to feel re-energised by participating, because many go through phases of being tired and fed up, feeling that nobody else seems to be bothering. To be in a space with a whole bunch of other people getting involved really helps.

And finally, while there is nothing wrong with talking shops, projects like Summat do need to hold a mirror up to ourselves. Are we just putting on interesting events or can our activities lead to different forms of action? Sometimes these might be short term, like joining an organisation such as Amnesty International or Greenpeace. But others will hopefully encourage medium or long term change engendered by a stronger community spirit.

As someone else put it, we hope to try to raise the temperature around issues of social change, perhaps even by half a degree, so that progressive social movements become possible.

When you talk about seeking change, what is the change you envisage?

As Lederach argues, you can’t force change, you can only develop the potential for change.

There is very much a resonance, or oneness, between personal change and macro-change or structural change. We want to enable people to make micro changes in their lives all the way to engaging in more significant activities and issues.

If they begin to wrestle with the idea that environmental, social, political and economic issues are inter-connected then that’s progress. We want people to almost intuitively start to grasp that sense of what a huge job is needed; to begin to be able to re-imagine our world. It’s fairly big stuff.

When I hear you speak, I hear echoes of what I would call ethical socialism, and what you do at one level helps to prefigure how you achieve your wider ambitions.

But how would you respond to the kind of criticism that says all this touchy-feely stuff is fine but what about fighting the system, opposing the cuts, tackling the hard issues, and not just sitting round feeling good about ourselves?

That question has to be asked. It’s far too easy for us to construct cosy spaces for ourselves, which we all do to a certain extent.

First, the Summat creates space for groups who want to tackle the big issues. We provide platforms for people to run their own workshops or stalls. This gives them the opportunity to engage with a whole bunch of new people. While Summat is designed to be mainstream and to have a broad appeal, we also want to create space for those wider ideas to be heard.

However, that cannot be the whole response. If that’s all we focus on we are hugely disempowering ourselves. We would be accepting the terms of the struggle defined by pre-established centres of power, by the economic and political system as it is.

Valerie Fournier, who talks a lot about social movements, argues that really crucial steps for developing social change are cultivating outrage. We need to be shining a torch on the centres of power and injustice but this has to be accompanied by creative alternatives.

That’s why the BBC reporter, Justin Rowlett, gave a deliberately provocative talk on the green movement, which he says should be a success but is failing. This, he says, is partly because it is too concerned with being negative (“anti-nuclear, anti-GM, anti-capitalist”) instead of offering creative alternatives. Cultural creativity has to be at the heart of social movements.

What plans do you have for the future?

Over the next few months, I want to research the participants’ responses to the Summat. In particular, it will be interesting to see whether we have encouraged any changes, whether individually or organisationally. If not, it will be useful to consider what the barriers to change are.

In this respect, we were particularly heartened by the comments of two of our leading participants, Maurice Glasman and Peter Tatchell, who were both very positive about the day.

We also have to weigh things up, look at whether the outcomes justify the all-consuming effort of putting on such an event. It will probably take us another six months to decide when and whether to hold it again.

If we go for it, then it will probably be during the summer so more of it can be outdoors. I’m intrigued by the idea of a 36-hour Summat, possibly over a summer bank holiday. We tried a little tester in May with a couple of hundred people, and it was good little event. We are also keen to have even stronger partnerships so we can take our messages to wider audiences.

More information from the Summat website:
You can also download the programme:

More about Together for Peace here.

Information about Paul Lederach’s book, The Moral Imagination, is here.