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Imagination infrastructures

What is a New Constellations journey?

Kate McLaven shares her experience of working with people from different walks of life, discovering how their collective action can contribute to York's future.

Written by:
Kate McLaven
Date published:
Reading time:
13 minutes

Taking part in a New Constellations journey is an incomparable experience. It’s fun, thought provoking, challenging, intense, and notoriously difficult to describe.

The way in which these journeys have been designed completely challenges the norm, creating moments that ignite optimism and possibility. The Journey is definitely not a course, nor a training programme and it doesn’t feel like a ‘work thing’. It’s more of a collective journey of relationship building, imagination, and creative exploration, that challenges our ideas of reality and space. The 4 days are metaphorically a journey of travel, ending in the same place physically, but seeing the world through a different lens.

Participation in this experience was advertised through an open invite for all York residents through an in person launch event and online portal. The New Constellations team advertised the York journey back in May 2023 with an alluring invitation:

“For this journey, we are looking for a group of people who feel deep disquiet with the status quo, who look to the future and, through the fear, feel a defiant optimism that we can overcome the challenges before us. A group of people who desperately want to build a better world for our children and grandchildren and the many species we hope will live alongside them.

This journey is for you if you’re the kind of person who:

  • knows deep down that we’re in trouble and it’s going to take more than business as usual to meet the moment
  • questions how the ways in which we live and work contributes to the harm we are doing to each other and the planet
  • has experience of, or ideas about, the kinds of approaches or innovations the city could get behind that could make a transformative difference
  • is ambitious for yourself, your community and your city and able to put this ambition at the service of others 
  • is creative and imaginative and capable of thinking differently 
  • is prepared to take a risk, try something different, give it a go
  • is willing to step out of your comfort zone and open yourself to challenge.”

From a pool of 60 applicants, 18 individuals were selected based on a short application form, and in an effort to curate a group with a mix of world-views, racial and faith backgrounds, lived experience, class, age, and sexual orientations and identities. The chosen group features a rich tapestry of residents, including front-line workers, leaders in cultural and heritage organisations, local politicians, small business owners, community organisers, artists and makers, and people with lived experience of navigating oppressive systems.

The group of 18 arrived at JRF headquarters, the Homestead (previously Seebohm Rowntree’s house), on an unusually windy morning in early July. Each individual made their way to the Homestead lawn, following a chalk-drawn sign, reading ‘Welcome York crew, New Constellations this way’. Each person was met with the surprise of huge Nordic tents (clad with natural materials and comforting cushions) which were erected especially for the 4 day journey. Once brews were poured and pleasantries swapped, each person made their way to the main tent where founder and co-creator of New Constellations Gemma Mortensen, and co-facilitator Yasmin El Dabi, gathered everyone to take a seat, forming a large circle. People wrapped themselves in blankets and clutched hot water bottles that were provided (the wind and rain that greeted us on that July morning kept us on our toes!)

After making a few mutual decisions to stay off phones and take part with intention and curiosity, the crew were invited to lower their gaze and tune into an audio piece that Jo Barratt (Audio Wizard in residence at New Constellations) had prepared in advance. The audio piece is an amalgamation of the crew's experiences and stories of York, which was recorded separately by each individual in advance. Before any formal introductions had taken place, their narratives and insights echoed through a speaker, seamlessly intertwined, with common themes and diverse representations.

New Constellation teepees at the Homestead garden
New Constellation tipis on the Homestead lawn.

Following this unique welcome the group were then relocated to a cosier tent, one with sofas and cushions, where Gemma began to set the scene for a metaphorical journey out to sea. With closed eyes, 18 near strangers immersed themselves in a story of coming together as crew mates, whilst a speaker filled the tents with the soft lapping of waves. Following the cadence of Gemma's voice, beams creaked and canvases bellowed in the July winds. This seemingly magical moment of synchronicity transported all the participants onto an imaginary boat, marking the juncture of their collective leap forwards into the unknown, setting sail in search of new horizons.

The following 4 days were a mix of collective, small-group and individual activities guided by Gemma and Yasmin. They employed various experimental techniques, including guided visualisations, encouraging us to envision alternative futures for York, even imagining a child we know and the future we wish for them.

Local facilitator and coach, Yasmin guided us through grounding practices and embodiment work, exploring a shift from understanding through intellect to tuning into what we feel in our bodies, capturing the wisdom our bodies' hold. On day 2, each crew member journeyed to their favourite York spot, a slow start to the session that emphasised the significance of connecting with local land, spaces and nature. These techniques fostered an environment where profound reflections on the future unfolded, redirecting focus from daily chatter to deeper contemplation. All of these tools support the unfolding of the journey, which is bespokely crafted around each city or system that New Constellations work with. You can read more about the New Constellations journey methodology in Gemma's detailed blog here.

Menfulness Trustee, Sam Watling
Menfulness Trustee, Sam Watling with his daughter, Luna.

Sam Watling is a Trustee of Menfulness, an inclusive social community for men in York. He participated in The Journey and says this of his experience:

"So many of my visions for myself and my city are shared by those who I might otherwise have assumed felt different by some arbitrary measure. Overlaying the narrative of the archetypal journey out to sea and to a new shore, allowed us a shared experience and served as a poignant illustration of how important beautiful stories are in how we relate to ourselves, our fellow humans and the places we are fortunate enough to call home."

A new set of guiding stars

Whilst on the journey, the crew was supported to co-create a set of ‘crew stars’. These are carefully curated guiding principles, golden rules that will orient the crew in the direction they set out towards a flourishing York. The collaborative effort to narrow down these stars came from a process that initially looked at identifying and discarding ‘old stars’, values and approaches from the dominant system which don’t serve the vision of a just and equitable York.

This interlocking set of ‘stars’ (a new constellation, if you will) continues to guide the York crew in making collective, informed decisions for themselves, each other and the city we all care deeply for. The stars, 'Rehumanise Value' and 'Value Gaia (planet),' serve as reminders to shift away from profit and growth-centric success measures. Instead, they emphasise the importance of human well-being, longevity, and climate care as true indicators of success, a metric grounded in a healthy planet and people.

This is what Layla Grainger, owner of York Terrariums and Baha’i Community organiser said about the journey:

"There were people in that room that I really didn’t expect to be taking part in a project like this, and to me that was all the more exciting. Over 4 eye-opening days we went on a journey. We had all come to the tent with our own baggage; projects that we wanted to work on, problems that we faced in York and were passionate about fixing, but we seemed to take a step back from ‘doing’ and focused first on creating a shared understanding of the current reality in York. 

I re-discovered the power of storytelling. Sharing our narratives, experiences, and dreams was a catalyst for change and empathy. It's through these stories that we find our common ground and forge connections that transcend boundaries. We talked about our vision for York, how we defined ‘value’ and what values were guiding the decisions being made in our city. One of the most surprising aspects of the New Constellations journey was how it encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone."

Layla Grainger, tending to her mini ecosystems, for her York-based business, York Terrariums.
Layla Grainger tending to her mini-ecosystems, part of her York-based business York Terrariums.

What does it take to create a journey?

A big focus for the New Constellations team is building relationships on the basis of care, love, beauty and generosity. They invest a huge amount of time and energy in really getting to know the people that participate in the processes they run, providing tailored care and attention. They believe this is a vital element in order to create the conditions for transformation to occur.

Director and co-creator Lily Piachaud is responsible for handwritten letters, beautiful stationery, individual pre-meets, and meticulous pastoral care throughout the process. There is a reason why the team invests a huge amount of time in these details. They believe that when people feel valued, seen and cared for it enables each person to participate in the process as their full selves, not just as their professional personas.

Helen Jones, Chair of York Disability Rights Forum (YDRF), shares her experience of New Constellation's attention to detail:

"An important aspect of The Journey is the intentionality, by which I mean the little details that foster a caring and intimate environment. In particular, and probably of most importance, were the blankets and hot water bottles. 

An experience on the first day showed how they can bring people together in a different way, a more authentic and more caring way than traditional meetings. We were listening to a recording, my eyes were closed and at one point I opened them and looked round the tent for another blanket. Another person, who I'd never met before, saw me, grabbed the blanket off his chair and draped it over me. That was a small but valuable moment, facilitated primarily by the presence of the blanket!"

Helen Jones, Chair of YDRF protesting for accessible streets in York.
Helen Jones, Chair of York Disability Rights Forum (YDRF) at a York Crew Gathering.

What is emerging following the Journey?

I’m often asked ‘when will you start the doing?’ and ‘what are the outcomes?’. It’s hard to give the straight answer I feel people are after if you’re asking ‘well, what has this achieved?’.

As part of the York journey, we’re orienting away from the dominant ideals around ‘impact’ and ‘productivity’. In alignment with our star, ’Rehumanise Value’ we are pushing back on the measure of this group's work based on our project ‘outcomes’ or any success metric born out of capitalist needs for more, bigger, faster. Instead we are recognising the value of working slowly and making informed, democratic decisions.

Diagram of Self, Crew, City framework

When it comes to the ‘doing’ aspect of this work, the 'Self, Crew and City' framework has been developed to support the crew in making intentional commitments. Self, Crew, City is a framework which anchors the crew to a mindset around how we understand impact, work, and progress. Work on ourselves (walks, meditation, journaling, nourishing food, self development) is the foundation of our work. Crew work is the effort we put into how we convene, the space we hold together, interdependence, radical governance, compassion and trust we are building as a crew. City work is the project work we are doing, looking at changing the social, economic and climate architecture of the city, looking to build a better future for people and planet. 

Currently we are exploring exciting conversations around how this crew of people will come together and make some change at a root cause level. We spent the initial 6 months after the journey developing our ways of working, communication mechanisms and tools for anchoring our mission, and we are now in the process of building and organising.

The next chapter in the crew's journey features narrative building and storytelling to spread their vision for a beautiful future that promotes symbiosis of people and planet. Our key focus is looking at carving out space to create the conditions that allow us to explore and engage with complex interconnected challenges of our times: climate change, loss of biodiversity, social injustice and other impacts of the global growth economy. A quippy reminder we use is ‘systems not symptoms’. This is a reminder that our economy, local assets, ecological and social challenges are deeply connected through entangled systems that we need to navigate. We are using case studies from WeCanMakeCoLab DudleyAmazon Sacred Headwaters, and Sheffield Opus to understand how we can map a way forward that supports a generative and community-led solution.

Each month when we meet, as our mini microcosm of York, we aim to rehearse the future we dreamt up in the tents. By this, we mean we try to convene and work in a way that is in harmony with our stars, our 'Self, Crew, City' framework, and each other.

Our meetings go something like this: crew members enter the space (the Homestead Pavilion, redeveloped by Layla with a vibrant mural, homely touches and inspiring prints) and traditional meeting etiquette excuses itself at the door. The buzz of genuine excitement reverberates around the room. Frankie Sewell, local electrician and business owner initiates a grounding session, a moment to slow down and connect to the present.

Colourful meeting room at the Homestead
The newly developed Homestead Pavilion Community Room.

We check-in with a light but contemplative question and proceed to hear a ‘deep dive’ from a crew member. Recently we heard Felicity Palmer, who is a community organiser and writer from Planet Southbank, share their insights and knowledge on queerness and intersectionality. During a comfort break, we are spoiled with a consistent act of kindness from Helen, the most delicious home baked goods, before we move into more facilitated workshops. Last month Andrew Morrison, CEO of York Civic Trust, co-facilitated a session on vision and action where we practised using embodiment and democratic decision making.

The crew cultivates a space where rigidity and hierarchy are swapped out for challenging but care-centred debate, where emotions and tears are normalised. Our stars become a compass, paving a new way forwards for ourselves, our crew and the future of the city we all live in and love. We’re working on the basis that convening in this way invites the potential for a totally different outcome for the City.

Ben Porter, community organiser and videographer (and creator of our York video) shares his insights: 

"By avoiding focusing on outputs we managed to carve out space to question inherited assumptions we were carrying that weren’t serving the values we had all agreed we held. The impact of this cannot be understated. This isn’t for everyone, it requires a commitment to questioning assumptions you may have held your entire life, and to hold space for others to speak into. It is intentionally slow in comparison to the rest of modern life, which some may find difficult and frustrating.”

Ben Porter hosting the York Creatives community in SPARK.
Ben Porter hosting the York Creatives community in SPARK, a city-centre community and hospitality hub.

This work is deep, challenging and emergent

As we reflect on this transformative journey, it's clear that the value lies not only in measurable outcomes but in the profound shifts in perspective and the emergence of a shared understanding among crew members. The emphasis on slow, intentional processes, grounded in care, has allowed for a deep exploration of interconnected challenges facing York.

The ongoing work of the crew, guided by the principles encapsulated in their 'crew stars,' demonstrates a commitment to navigating the complexities of York's social, economic, and ecological landscape. The rejection of conventional metrics in favour of a more nuanced, holistic approach feels like we are starting to seed the shoots for an alternative future to emerge.

As the journey moves into its next phase, the crew continues to navigate working in emergence, fostering a space for innovative visions and collaborative solutions. The growing and iterative nature of this work invites ongoing engagement and contributions from those interested in shaping the future of York.

For those eager to share insights or who wish to contribute to this evolving work, please reach out to me at

The journey is far from over, and we welcome the collective wisdom that will undoubtedly shape the ongoing story of York's transformation. Stay tuned for more insights, tools and learnings as this unique journey unfolds.

Lastly, we extend heartfelt gratitude to Gemma, Lily, Yasmin, and Jo of New Constellations, for collaborating closely with us and bringing the New Constellations magic to our home turf.

Volunteers tidying a school garden.

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