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Imagination infrastructures

Reigniting our work in York as we look to our past to guide our future

In 2023, we are re-igniting the spark of Joseph Rowntree’s legacy and his visionary thinking to bring new energy and focus to our work in York, the birthplace of Rowntree and the city where our work as a Foundation began.  

Written by:
Victoria Hughes
Date published:
Reading time:
6 minutes

Written in York in 1904, Joseph Rowntree’s founding memorandum still guides our work today, urging us to focus on the underlying causes of poverty, rather than its ‘superficial manifestations’. And Joseph’s son, Seebohm, pioneered a new method of mapping Poverty in York. Alongside similar work led by Charles Booth in London, it influenced early 20th century thinking about the causes of poverty, showing how it was caused by deep rooted structures and systems, rather than the failings of an individual. 

Over a hundred years later, JRF’s analysis shows the scale of the problems we face with around one in five of our population (20%) in poverty in 2020/21, equating to 13.4 million people.

We have an unshakeable belief that poverty can be solved in the UK. Urgent action is vital, of course, as shown by our recent call for it to be made law that the basic rate of Universal Credit can never fall below the amount needed to cover life’s essentials such as food, energy, toiletries and cleaning products. But now, more than ever, deeper and more radical change to our economic and social models is also required. Rowntree acknowledged that as a Foundation we need to adapt, commenting that ‘new occasions teach new duties’. We don’t claim to have a clear blueprint, but we are looking back to our past and using this inspiration to light the way to a brighter future. 

Joseph imagined, then built, a better future

One of the gifts of Joseph Rowntree’s legacy was his willingness to not only highlight social injustice, but also to propose and build alternatives. His response to the low-quality housing that sustained ill-health and destitution in York was to imagine and build New Earswick, a village made up of high-quality housing, decent gardens, shared community spaces and a commitment to shape a ‘self-governing’ community. Experiments like these, and other efforts he made to improve the living standards of the workers in his factories here, influenced life in York, but also influenced the development of national housing and employment policy.

Within our Emerging Futures programme we are seeking to support pioneers and changemakers who are imagining and building different visions of the future. We know there are people up and down the country who are working hard to expand our collective sense of what’s possible and show in their communities how we might move towards a more equitable, ecological and just future, free from poverty. Given we remain anchored in York, we want to redouble our efforts to back work of this sort here.

A new collaboration focusses on York

As one of our first steps, we are partnering with New Constellations on an exciting new collaboration.

New Constellations helps people imagine and begin to create futures of human and planetary flourishing. They do so by bringing together diverse groups of people from different sectors and fields of practice across the UK, to explore what it will take to meet the challenges of these times. In the face of climate and ecological breakdown and the failure of our economic and political systems to deliver for so many, they ask what transformation is needed for ourselves, our communities and our systems to be in alignment with our boldest visions for the future? You can learn more about their journeys on their website.

With our support, and with generous funding from The National Lottery Community Fund’s Bringing People Together Programme, they are designing a bespoke journey for a small group of people from different walks of life in York to explore how they  can contribute to the city’s future through their own work or social action. The journey will be designed so that the group can connect deeply with and learn from each other, cross-pollinate ideas and experiences, and find common ground and common purpose. 

In the journey, the group will help each other examine this moment in York’s history - where we are, the challenges we face and how we got here. Moving beyond the dystopian narratives of the future that surround us, New Constellations will support participants to  imagine a thriving future for the city - one in which all of its people and the natural world are able to flourish together - and explore what it would take to move towards this. JRF is committing financial and practical support for the group to continue to work together and support each other's service to the city following the journey.

Can you imagine, enable and inspire?

We believe that, in these unprecedented times, new ideas and approaches will come from our communities. The people we'll be looking for are leaders of a particular sort: we see leadership in the strength of a person’s ideas, their capacity to partner with, enable and inspire others, and ability to try new things and learn. We are looking for people who feel deep disquiet with the status quo, who look to the future and feel a defiant optimism that we can overcome the challenges before us and build a better world for our children and grandchildren. People who are open-minded - towards new experiences and people who are different from them. We know we won't reach different destinations if we follow the same old routes, so this is an opportunity for a group of people to go on an adventure of discovery together in service of the city they love.

The application process to be part of the New Constellations journey will be launched in the coming weeks, and we encourage applications from people from all walks of life who want to be involved in making a positive difference to the future of York. This could include a range of people working in communities, the public sector, business and enterprise, non-profit, education, academia, and creative industries - who are interested in exploring bold visions of the future and playing an active role in creating new pathways to reach them.

Details of the application process will be shared on New Constellations’ website and twitter and we’d love you to help us spread the word and give people the chance to be part of this. 

And a new role at JRF - come and help us to grow this work! 

We are recruiting a Local Lead to play a key role in the development of our Emerging Futures work in York. The first year of the role will focus on the collaboration with New Constellations. The post holder will be part of the team creating the collaboration and will then work with and support the group who take part in the process to form a community of practice. This role will enable the post holder to develop an understanding of how JRF can support and fund Emerging Futures work in York on an ongoing basis, in a way which contributes to real change for the city and the many communities who call it home.

This is a rare opportunity to bring together a group of wonderful people from different walks of life in the city and to do so in a way that can help make a difference for the city on some of the most pressing challenges of our times. 

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