Talking politics, collaboration & the future

Madeleine Maxwell

In April, The Engine Room team gathered for our 2019 annual retreat, where we would regroup, reconnect, brainstorm and build new paths forward. This year, we were hosted by the wonderful team at the Fynbos Estate, an hour outside of Cape Town in South Africa. Think vineyards, mountains, that crazy Western Cape weather (dense fog to clear blue skies in a few minutes!), and abundant birds and wildlife. Our conversations were facilitated by Chris Michael of Collaborations for Change, who we’ve worked with on previous retreats, too. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect setting for visioning and strategy-building as a team.

This retreat was the first with Julia as our new Executive Director, which was an exciting milestone! It provided us with the opportunity to review how much had changed since our last retreat in August 2018. We also welcomed two other internal transitions, with, Zara – previously our Director of Research and Engagement – becoming our Deputy Director, and Paola Verhaert becoming our Knowledge Coordinator.

Visioning and strategy-building

With Julia now at our helm, she shared thoughts on where she sees the organisation going and her vision for what’s to come – drawing the contours of our “north star,” as we came to think of it. As she is already deeply familiar with the organisation – having served as our Deputy Director and Matchbox Lead in the past – much of what she shared was familiar to us and came from a deep understanding of the landscape we’re working within. With our north star set in the sky, we then had the opportunity to share thoughts and bounce ideas off of each other in person.

A bonus of doing this in-person strategising was the ability to incorporate ideas and thoughts in a more collaborative way than is often possible remotely. We prioritised this kind of collaborative space in order to both ensure that everyone could feed into the updated strategy, and also to make sure that our strategy reflects the realities of the partners and organisations with whom we work. Being able to work face-to-face also highlighted for us how valuable in-person time is for deepening our relationships with one another and for better understanding the varied contexts that we each work within every day.

Politics, language and values

This first retreat with Julia as ED also provided space to question and reimagine some bigger-picture questions around what we do and why. For example: in the past, we’ve typically framed our work as being in the sector of ‘social change’. But might ‘social justice’ be a more accurate description, given our desire to take existing inequities and power structures into account in what we do?

We’ve always made political decisions about the work we do and how we do it – for example, the decisions we make in who we work with (and who we don’t). Many of the team felt that being more explicit about what our politics are could send a useful message about what we aim to achieve. We discussed what different terms mean to people in different contexts and communities, acknowledging the difficulty in finding (and translating) language that perfectly captures and communicates our work, without alienating potential partners who might not use the same framing.

Finding a balance between being specific about our work while creating space for diversity and inclusivity is an ongoing discussion that is strongly supported by the development of our organisational values, which were another new development since our last retreat. These values acted as an anchor throughout our time together, giving us something to ground ourselves in as we talked about our future as an organisation, from conversations around recruitment to the political nature of our work, from how we manage projects to how we give feedback.

Cross-team collaboration and knowledge sharing

A recurring theme throughout the retreat was cross-team collaboration. As a remote organisation, without as many opportunities for serendipitous connections and collaborations between teams, we have to be intentional about creating opportunities for different team members to work together. There was a huge appetite for more of this, which makes sense when you have a team made up of lovely people, with such varied backgrounds and expertise.

With two of our team moving into new roles that have explicit mandates for making connections between people and projects across the organisation, it feels like there’s a lot of momentum around this. In Zara’s new role as Deputy Director, she’s overseeing all our programmatic work, including developing ‘structure to leave space for serendipity’, and supporting project and programme leads to build healthy teams around each of their projects. And Paola V as Knowledge Coordinator is developing processes and platforms for knowledge to spread more fluidly across the organisation. We have a feeling that all this cross-fertilisation and collaboration will strengthen both our direct support (Light Touch Support and Matchbox) and research work.

We’re keen to ensure that that knowledge sharing functions well not just within our organisation, but also more broadly within the sector. We have a couple of community calls coming up where we’ll facilitate a space for thematic knowledge-sharing, and we’ll be embarking on a website refresh this year too, to ensure that our resources are more easily accessible. Support with our latest cohort of Matchbox partners is well underway, too, and we’re excited to share more about them as we get to know our partners and their needs better.

If this all sounds like an organisation that you’d like to be part of, join us! We’re hiring for four positions – check out our announcement and apply by 8 July.



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