Our Interstory in the Learning Futures Co-Lab

Aspen trees are deeply interconnected under the ground

Jean Gamester, Katie Teague and Maite Reizabal share their collective narrative drawing on  experience in the Learning Futures Co-lab.

BACKGROUND

Between May and July 2019, a group of people came together from all over the world – from UK, Colombia, USA, Zimbabwe, France – in a collaboration online. At AR+ these are called CoLabs. Our Learning Futures co-lab was “designed for scholar practitioners interested in generating, sharing and analysing transformation narratives related to climate change, re-generativity and learning”. The idea was that if our awareness was raised through exploring ideas, developing individual and shared narratives and experimenting with changes, it could help to shape our personal practices and contribute to “shifting meta-narratives towards planetary regeneration.” The co-lab was led by Thomas Macintyre, with help from Hilary Bradbury and drew on Thomas’ published and upcoming dissertation work. 

Over eight weeks we met four times as a full group, and between times we collaborated within smaller groups to carry out our own personal inquiries, using a framework based on an organic “living spiral” as our starting point and guide, (Macintyre, Chaves, & McGarry, 2018). Our individual narratives built on metaphors from the living spiral framework and then joined them up. We examined the roots of our context, through shoots, stems and leaves which represented actions, overcoming challenges and learning, leading us to blossoming outcomes and the seeds for the future.

In the second half of the process we moved from our individual inquiries to learning and reflecting together in small groups. This is where our team of Jean, Katie and Maite came together online from our bases in Wales, the US and Spain. Our blog shares the co-created narrative we brought together. We call it our “Interstory”, an inspiration from a novel about trees, forests and the humans that live amongst them called The Overstory by Richard Powers, 2019. Two of us discovered, as we shared our influences, that we had been reading this wonderful story in parallel. We found huge resonances that we explored in our trio. We felt that if The Overstory comes from the trees, then perhaps, as small creatures connecting below the trees, our shared narrative was like an Interstory within this shared nature we live in together.

OUR COLLECTIVE NARRATIVE

* Tree as Our Living Spiral
We came to the group with our individual narratives as they had developed in the first half of the process. The three of us related how we have felt the need to use trees as our living spiral metaphors. We talked about the complexity that they have, about how long it takes for them to grow and so on. We all struggled in some ways to follow the living spiral metaphor in a literal way and all found that we each had been drawn to bringing in trees as the basis for our narratives.

* Positive and negative experiences shaping the tree
We found that not all the rings, branches, and so on in the tree grows came from “positive” experiences, but that all experiences, good and bad, formed vital parts of it and shapes it somehow. Thanks to these tough rings, the tree still feels supported, more strong and resilient for taking on all experiences and building them into its self.

* Connections with others and with the roots
We reflected on the power of the connections both with the human world and the more than human world. The fact that we need each other, and were glad to explore how communities of trees connect with their roots and grow together.

* Connection between our trees: Aspen Tree Forest
The final metaphor we chose for this collective narrative was an Aspen Tree Forest. When looking to an such a forest, you can think that they are separated living beings that interact with each other on the roots. But Aspen Tree Forests are actually only a single tree connected below the ground. This served to show that our connections sometimes go further than what we have seen at first glance – shared histories, experiences, support and hopes.

MAITE’S LEARNING JOURNEY
* What did I learn?
This CoLab was very helpful to go deep and understand better the collective process I “analyzed” through the living spiral, to see which were also the barriers and “problems” we had to face through the process. At the same time, it was the starting point of a reflection about my own communicator role inside Orkestra’s Action Research Laboratory. For instance, it made me start to think about the way I work and how my voice is implicit or explicit when I create interviews, videos, and so on.
In addition, through sharing the experience with Katie and Jean, and constructing our collective narrative, I learned that even though we might be looking deeply at different processes, at the end and thanks to the metaphor we can find some common aspects we all share. This was very important, helping me in the CoLab to find myself within the diversity after all, I came from a background that had little to see with sustainability and climate change aspects, and I am not a researcher, but a communicator. Yet we could make connections.

* What are the next action steps?
In Orkestra’s Action Research Laboratory, we are working on a book entitled “Roots and Wings for Action Research”. I am working on a chapter that will be part of that book where I try to make visible my role as a communicator inside an AR for Territorial Development team, explaining what it is, and the positive aspects and limitations it has. The individual spiral and the process inspired by it will serve as a skeleton for my chapter.

KATIE’S LEARNING JOURNEY
* From Katie – What did I learn?

The co-lab working with the living spiral in our small group gave me a visceral experience of being a distinct being yet connected by a vast network of tendrils both below ground and high up above, that we are always found in the “interstory,” perhaps our unique position as human beings.

The partnership and living spiral reflection helped further growth where growth is life-affirming and let dead leaves fall from the tree to go back into a new iteration of life…or at least afforded me the framework to help my completion of a big film project.

*New practices/action steps: to adopt a practice of co-inquiry as a step in restoring our relational economy and a discovery process of much needed practical wisdom in these troubled times.

This stage of reflection happened at the same time as a dear project was blossoming, a project that was very personally important, as well as, I hoped, for others too. My documentary RE:MEMBER has since been released into the wild. The documentary concerns grief.

“Joy is secretly concealed inside grief.” – Old Proverb


Grief is a given in this life and a natural part of the human experience, meant to be experienced with others, communally not in isolation. Together, we can keep opening our hearts and metabolize our grief into gifts of beauty that are meant to be given back. Through tending our grief we increase our capacity to respond to the world with more compassion and emotional intelligence. In this sense, the film is an act of regeneration.

[Editor’s note: Katie’s Director’s Statement is a must read!]

JEAN’S LEARNING JOURNEY
* What did I learn?
This process involved a combination of learning and raising consciousness of what was already there.


In terms of connection, I felt much stronger connection with nature, having felt the connection, wanted to “defend what I felt” (Gioacchino, 2019). I was inspired by bioregionalism, (Berg, 2013); deep adaptation (Bendell, 2018) and the glorious bringing to life of trees in  the novel The Overstory (Powers, 2019). These trees – strong, resilient, giving, growing, interconnected! “Us as nature” seems obvious now that we humans are nature too, but yet I’d never seen it before.


From a human connection perspective it brought to life the challenge between perceiving and living in either hostile or safe environments – part of this is choice about what we attend to and chose to believe, and some if it is outside our control. I was inspired by relational action logics and the three cosmologies which will play further into my research (Bradbury & Associates, 2017; Korten, 2015).


The experience generated lots of reflections around purpose at a time of personal and professional change for me, and what I might focus on next in my research and practice – ideas forming around developing practitioners and enabling transformative / transgressive change in organisations, maybe even in society.


In terms of arts based research, metaphor and action I loved the use of these creative methods and it deepened my practice and confidence. When these tools are used to develop the self and to connect in community, my reflection is that we don’t need to worry about aesthetics, they are personal for us to know and to connect. When it comes to activism, well then the aesthetics matter – The Overstory being a perfect example of something so evocatively and engrossingly expressed, it infuses call to action. I discovered my learning deepening through the use of multiple forms and interweaving them – forms such as pottery, poetry, pictures & photographs of walks within “our” nature.

* What new practices did I adopt?
There were some changes to personal habits  – no more plastic bags at the checkout, no more plastic teabags, no more removing plants from the soil and putting them in pots to make my home pretty; Sharing food in the garden for squirrels, birds and perhaps others arriving in the night. Electing for my birthday present to be a donation to maintain a small piece of woodland here in Wales. Talking more about trees, nature, waste in conversation – small steps in raising awareness and being part of the conversation. Bringing the experience in later co-inquiry conversations, like a long walk through the forests of the Brecon Beacons.


There’s more confidence, variety and richness in my arts based research practice. It goes beyond the spiral, but the provenance of some of the new work stretches back to the spiral and the narrative we built together.
I’ve been setting up, facilitating and co-inquiring collaborative spaces myself, inspired by the practices on this CoLab – discovering ways that works for us as participants, making, I hope, spaces that, while not always comfortable, will be safe. Experimenting with balancing the facilitator’s framing of approach and method with the co-creation of content and ideas.


* What are the next action steps arising from this Co-Lab?
I’m exploring how to grow as a practitioner, develop others, using arts based methods and participative groups like this one. I want to build my practice of developing organisations and systems in the spirit of an ethic of care, inspired by of the generosity, connection and power of trees. I’m developing arts based ways of raising awareness / activism through fiction, art, storytelling with different audiences and age groups.

AND FINALLY
A big thank you to Thomas Macintyre, Hilary Bradbury and all who participated in this Learning Transformations CoLab, it was wonderful to co-inquire and create shared narratives together.

REFERENCE LIST

Berg, P. (2013). Growing a life-place politics. In Environmental Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillages (pp. 35–48). New York: Berghahn Books.

Bradbury, H. (2017). Relational Action Logics. In Cooking with Action Research Resources: For Self and Community Transformation (pp. 171–177). Website Alchemy.

Korten, D. C. (2015). Change the story, change the future : a living economy for a living earth : a report to the club of Rome. Oakland, CA: EDS Publications Ltd.

Macintyre, T., Chaves, M., & McGarry, D. (2018). Living-Spiral-Framework. Marco-conceptual-del-espiral-vivo.

Powers, R. (2019). The Overstory. London: Vintage Digital.