East London meets Findhorn

Jonathan Dawson describes what happens when youngsters from East London come to Findhorn

There is a vibrant good news story doing the rounds this week, in the shape of 24 school kids from the Rokeby School in Newham, East London and their deputy-head teacher, Willie Deighan. The story has its roots in a conference we hosted here in September last year with the title (appropriately given the solutions-based nature of what we are about), What Schools are Doing Right. Willie was a participant at that conference and left enthused at many of the positive approaches promoted.

How, he wondered, could these be applied in the context of Rokeby School? The school was not short of problems. It had a reputation as a rough school and for various reasons, ‘Special Measures’ – shorthand for new targets to be achieved urgently to avoid closure – had been imposed. The entire management team had recently been replaced.

Well, perhaps surprisingly, the positive methods learned at the Findhorn conference had an immediate effect. Recently appointed as deputy-head, Willie took on responsibility for developing a new ethos to improve the quality of the students’ unstructured time and specifically for addressing the perennial problem of bullying.

Rather than focussing on the problem, he introduced a method learned at Findhorn called Appreciative Inquiry – a planning tool based not on identifying problems that need solving, as in most conventional approaches, but rather on positive previous experience that can be built upon. The word that kept on coming up in the consultation with the students was ‘respect’ – they wanted more respect than they felt they were getting.

So, the ‘problem’ of bullying was reframed as the opportunity to request more respect. Definitions were sought of just what the students and staff meant by respect and these were synthesised into six core principles that are now posted on the school’s notice boards. In parallel, the students started studying and developing a taste for non-violent communication, another tool gleaned from the What are Schools Doing Right conference that aims at promoting more self-aware and responsible ways of relating.

A school leadership council has now been elected, with two representatives from each form, and this is playing a leading role in providing student input into the design of the new school that is to be built within the next three years. Even if they are not entirely clear what it means, the students do know they want it to be an ‘eco-school’.

Willie suggested the possibility of visiting a community that works with Appreciative Inquiry. One that attempts to integrate non-violent communication into the fabric of its operations and that is a good working model of an educational campus with sustainable design at its heart. And so, the idea of coming to spend some time at Findhorn was born.

There was still the small matter of raising the funding to make it all possible. In the event, the students exceeded their wildest dreams in raising £7,500 from the Newham Youth Parliament and a further £15,000 from the educational organisation, London Challenge.

So now they are here – 24 kids between the ages of 12 and 15 from a diverse array of ethnic backgrounds – engaged in educational sessions from 9.00am to 9.30pm every day for a week. They are studying non-violent communication techniques, making visits to local schools, studying how the various eco-technologies about the place operate and joining the teams in our own work departments..

One might have thought that these urban youngsters would stick out in such an alien environment – a good number have never been out of East London before. But they generally seem to feel at ease and are a comfortable, if somewhat unusual presence about the place. We people truly are less different from each other than we are sometimes inclined to believe.

The students’ time is now almost up – they leave on Saturday morning. The process of sharing what they have learned here begins almost immediately – the young people will be involved in training students from other schools in Newham in a little over a week.

It is a wonderful opportunity on so many levels for the community to host this kind of group. It helps us remain relevant to the needs of a multicultural 21st century Britain. It provides a great opportunity for us to exercise our privilege in service to something larger than ourselves. On a personal note, I find it deeply comforting that a community that is so nurturing to middle-aged, middle-class white people like me can also enthuse and inspire others that clearly do not fit this profile.

As the baby-boomers move into late middle-age, the perennial danger for ecovillages is that they become comfortable New Age, old-people’s homes. Weeks like this help keep us relevant.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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