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  • Writer's pictureFyodor Ovchinnikov

Group Reflections on the Work and Teachings of Phoebe Tickell: a Collective Narrative

Updated: Jul 22, 2022

Produced by Fyodor Ovchinnikov

On Wednesday, July 13, 2022, a group of systems change practitioners gathered for the eleventh peer learning session of the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation program to discuss their reflections on the work and teachings of Phoebe Tickell.

Participants’ reflections were recorded and processed according to the Collective Narrative Methodology to create a balanced summary of key ideas that showed up in group discussions using participants' own words and giving every participant an opportunity to ensure that their ideas are included.

Here is the recording of the group call with Phoebe Tickell based on this collective narrative:


We found Phoebe’s work very inspiring and powerful as it opens the mind to questions that make us look deeper into our life, into our surroundings, into our communities, into everything, embrace the power to question our current reality, discover what is hidden, find meaning that we can relate to our situation and shape our future, the way we live our life, as well as the future of our societies. Looking at her work with children, we greatly appreciated this radical empowerment of the young generation with the skills of reimagining, seeing the world from a perspective that is different from the normal convention provided by education.

Taking responsibility for our collective future

In our conversations, we discussed how Phoebe’s philosophy of Moral Imagination is grounded in an understanding of the inevitability of change. As we “grow older together”, our world will be different in the future whether we want it or not just like today’s world is not like the one we had in the past. Far too often we take our world for granted and just design little pieces here and there to put into that world assuming that it will always be there for us while, in fact, it just cannot stay the same.

That means that we need to take personal responsibility for our collective future and not just what we create for ourselves and those who are close to us. And we really love the space that Phoebe paints between Moral Imagination—this wild activity of going beyond the normal—and being really grounded in where we are, especially as she talks about the crisis we are in and the existential threats to humanity that were at the center of our session with Dr. Chong Kee Tan in this program.

How do we bring our wildest imagination into our day-to-day life?

In that context, we would like to ask Phoebe to share her thoughts on how to be creative in everyday life because when we talk about imagination, creativity, and changes, some of us think about something great, something big, but not about something from everyday life while it looks like change starts with some small steps.

Also, how do we keep our visions, these wildly different, imaginative things evolving and enabling trans-contextual learning? We can have conversations, but in which groups, which stakeholders? How do we keep this imagination alive when we are back to the day-to-day, back to interacting with the power structures of the old paradigm? It is easy to imagine our world without money when we are just imagining with others, but when we go to a store to buy groceries, then we get back to a reality that puts pressure on us, that is connected to our biological, social, and emotional sustainment. How do we build that bridge?

How to deal with hyperscale entities as we seek to transform our systems of influence?

We also discussed how we deal with other barriers to bridging imagination with reality. Some of us brought up the distinction between ordinary people and hyperscale entities. Hyperscale entity is something like a transnational corporation, a large government with a huge military, certain billionaires, dictators, etc. These entities do not share the same kind of relationship that most ordinary people do. When individuals work as team members in, let’s say, a big company, they work together on behalf of the whole. Unlike people, hyperscale entities are not interested in working on behalf of the whole, they are interested in working on behalf of themselves and getting as much as they can which seems like a recipe for a complete and total breakdown. We are seeing exactly that kind of a breakdown in the world right now.

Some of us suggested that a lot of challenges in today’s change efforts come from attempting to create change in hyperscale entities by using the same tools and practices that we would use in communities. When some of us asked a man who works for the Carnegie International Peace Endowment, why don't more people in Washington embrace Bill McDonough’s paradigm of the Next Industrial Revolution—restructuring the world so that we close the metabolism of industrialism to ensure that nothing bleeds out into the biological metabolism—he said that it is way beyond the ability people in power in Washington to even enter that into any of their conversations. These ideas stay totally outside so it is never going to happen, which for some of us was a very disheartening thing to hear because that happens to be a really lovely framework.

Others who see Bill McDonough’s approach as pro-Capitalist noted that given that even his ideas embraced by the United Nations and the World Economic Forum cannot enter conversations in Washington, more radical ideas generated through Moral Imagination naturally face even more obstacles within existing systems of influence. This makes some of us think that the main problem is not in the lack of imagination for creating a better civilization—some of us argued that this can be found in lots of places—but where the rubber meets the road is the lack of the ability to engage that conversation in hyperscale organizations in ways where it actually creates the kind of change we are after.

Those of us who work with collective intelligence a lot shared that despite doing a lot of team building, a lot of facilitation work on how to get people to come together and collaborate more effectively on behalf of their group, on behalf of whatever that group represents as a whole, we still do not know how to do that when it comes to international relations, for example. What works with people does not seem to work with hyperscale entities and we wonder if Phoebe has any insight into that.

In that context, some of us wonder if Phoebe has ever encountered any institutional challenges when doing her work as it seems that at some point many people in positions of power in dominating systems such as governments might see her work as a threat to established institutions.

How to stay moral under the influence of others and of our own human natures?

On a personal level, we discussed how to be brave, to be creative, to have a wild imagination and how we find and keep our moral compass as we use our imagination. As some of us pointed out, morality is really important for working with large systems. As we work with all these large systems that are out there, each of us acts as the smallest but fundamental part of those systems: it is us who keep them functioning. How do we keep our systems healthy? Having a moral compass implies working with somebody if their agenda is moral. Since working with people always requires compromises, at what point do we decide that somebody is disqualified?

And even with working online being a total shift from how we used to do things, how can we organize digital communities around good? Things can start good and then get really bad, so at what point do we say “Okay, we are off, we need to fine-tune, we have gone off the rails here”? What do we look for? Who do we listen to? And as our brain can go crazy places, how can we see our own blind spots? At what point do we ourselves get disqualified? As all of us have to make at least some moral compromises, how do we set a threshold and go no further if we don't want to hurt the people that we trying to serve? How do we know that our moral compass is not functioning, that it’s broken? And how do we fix it?

One example that we discussed is the work with really vulnerable children which makes all the theories yield to the clarity of the heart. Speaking from our direct experience, some of us shared that having these children in front of us and their tears on our clothes makes us willing to give our lives for these children. The morality of that and the courage that engenders even for people who are otherwise not courageous, the “mama feeling” that is coming out clarify the brain. When we listen to people like these children it helps filter out whatever needs to go away and have the moral clarity that we need to move forward.

We also wonder what daily practices can Phoebe recommend making sure that our moral compass is working. For example, it can be something like “eat well”, “do breathing exercises to stay healthy internally”, etc. We are not just walking heads and there is so much now that is coming out about the whole body system, whole body intelligence. So we wonder what inspires Phoebe to undertake this kind of work, how she keeps her heart engaged, and what processes she uses to stay normal and moral as a young person navigating all this on behalf of the generation that coming up? Or how those of us who represent women of the older generation put it: “How you do it, girl?”

How can we create a culture that inspires people to use their imagination?

Another theme in our conversations was fostering and growing a culture where it is okay to use imagination and where we inspire each other to do it. How can we inspire more people to go on a lifelong journey of seeking wisdom? Perhaps the Hero's Journey instead of seeking the same simple route of what we would easily identify as a villain in any narrative. Can we talk about people—especially leaders—doing bad work, being lazy, not seeking perspectives, not asking questions, and not admitting that they do not know the key ingredients of the journey of wisdom? How do we use imagination, storytelling, and narrative to inspire more people to do something about that?

As many of us tend to go for very complex, unaccessible narratives all the time, some of us wonder how we can make our narratives simpler to help others see them and engage with them. And how do we do that in a way that does not lead to the Great Flattering that Phoebe describes in her Manifesto for Moral Imagination?

One example that we discussed is the book Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering by Rosemarie Freeney Harding and Rachel Elizabeth Harding. In this book, Rosemarie brings forth simple conversations around tea and cake with her grandmother about what happened to her. This brings forth a totally different narrative than what those of us who grew up as “white” in the United States may think of African American experiences. This brings the dialog into a different imagination through a much simpler way of looking at a very complex reality which feels very helpful. To some degree, what we are doing in these TLST conversations is also helping us make complex issues more relatable which is wonderful.

How do we break through the treacherous influence of hidden narratives?

Another question is how do we really bring forth heart into our culture? It seems that our next evolutionary shift is moving from the mind to the heart, the kind of decision-making that is coming from that higher intelligence within us unleashing our capacity to imagine and create a new world. Based on what we learned from the work of another TLST teacher, Mich Levy, one of the key questions that we articulated here is how do we break through the influence of hidden narratives of the past that are still keeping us in the old paradigm, even if we are trying to imagine a wildly different world?

We discussed the story of children in a remote rural community in India who—when asked to imagine who they would become if they face no barriers and have access to all the resources, and all the support they need—overwhelmingly said that they would become teachers or police officers which were the authority figures they saw in their community. So when we hear Phoebe sharing her experience of working with children in schools and seeing imagination as the inherent quality of these children who already know how to imagine things that are wildly different and beautiful, some of us wonder whether these children are mostly reproducing the ideas they learned about. Of course, we become more and more conditioned as we grow up in a certain culture, but every child is still conditioned by who they interact with, what privileges and experiences they have had, etc. So how do we tap into the natural creativity we have but still recognize these limitations? We wonder what Phoebe thinks about this and how that plays out in her work.

How do we honor differences and create visions that are inclusive but not too generic?

We also talked about how narratives are really different in different parts of the world and different cultures and how our dominating narratives such as that of development are very broken. For example, Pakistan is commonly seen in the United States as too dangerous for Americans to go but those who actually go there have a very different experience that is mostly wonderful and fun. So what kind of intuition and creativity can help us see and accept other people, other cultures, and overcome the differences that contradict our experience or our culture?

And also, given such diversity of experiences that impact imagination, how do we reconcile different visions? It is easy to come up with a vision that everybody would agree on if this vision is very generic. When we hear something like “Everybody will be happy in the new world!” we can feel inspired to just say “Yay, let's go there!”, but when we actually start working on that vision, we will soon have to deal with the fact that everyone has a different idea of happiness, of how this should be organized which, as a rule, leads to disappointment and struggle.

When we are trying to imagine grand visions, we inevitably leave out a lot of details. How does Phoebe choose the level of details that are healthy for the context? And how do we really look at things that are important, that are gluing together many stories that shape our social reality? For example, a lot of different stories that shaped our global institutions sprouted from the Christian story of the original sin, and even though that particular story is not explicitly espoused by the mainstream culture, its influence is still strong. How can we use Moral Imagination to dig deeper and reimagine this and similar stories to have different social realities self-organize around them?

What is your wildest imagination?

Finally, we are very curious to hear Phoebe’s most recent thoughts about her vision. How is her work is evolving? What is the wildest imagination, wildest vision of her work, and how it can play out? If the highest potential of that work is realized, what would it be for her, for humanity, for the planet?

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