A few thoughts as I start my new job.

Sophia Parker
11 min readSep 1, 2021

I start my new job as the Emerging Futures Director at Joseph Rowntree Foundation next week, after several months of decompressing and recovering from a pretty punishing couple of years personally and professionally (something I wrote about here). I’m excited and nervous in equal measure; itching to get started and worried I might have got a bit too used to a life free from email. I’ll be working alongside Paul, Frank and Graeme to guide JRF into its next chapter.

This last week, I’ve had a few days alone and immersed in the gorgeous scenery of the moors around Hebden Bridge. That time away has given me some peace and space to reflect on what’s really important to me as I shift gears, sharpen my pencils and start to say hello to the wonderful people who make up the JRF team.

The view from the Moors just beyond Haworth earlier this week.

A few starting points

I want to ensure we are operating from a place of honesty about the scale and nature of the change that’s needed if we are to live in a society free from poverty. We need to grapple with the ways that technological change, longer life expectancy and of course climate crisis are intensifying insecurity, inequality and polarisation. Each of these challenges alone would put enormous pressure on our economic systems and social institutions. We won’t move towards a fairer, more equitable future if we pretend that a few tweaks to the welfare system here, or a well-landed public awareness campaign there, is sufficient. I want us to feel accountable to the scale of the task, daunting as that may be.

I also want us to operate from a place of serious ambition, fuelled by a strongly-held belief that despite what we are confronting here, the future can indeed be better than the past and the present. I don’t know that we will get there, but we have to believe that it’s possible and operate from that position. I’ll be pinning this wonderful definition of hope, from Rebecca Solnit, above my desk:

“Hope … means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is not possible without hope.”

And I want us to bring a spirit of curiosity, collaboration and openness to our work that embraces the uncertainties and complexities of the world around us. When it comes to addressing poverty, so much of what seemed to work in the 20th century doesn’t feel fit for purpose in today’s world. But we don’t yet fully understand the tools and ways of living, working and governing that will do a better job of looking after the planet and people’s wellbeing in the future. In this place of transition — a place that feels disorienting, confusing, messy — we need to be learning from each other, working together, plural in our perspectives. I love this comment from Geoff Mulgan about the nature of the work that’s now required:

“The conscious, deliberate, iterative design of a better world, fed by imagination, systemic analysis and experimentation… we need a dynamic way of thinking that grasps tensions and contradictions rather than wishing them away.”

Seeding emerging futures — what this means to me

I am so proud of the community that continues to grow around Little Village, the charity I founded and ran until earlier this year (psst — you can contribute here to their vital campaign to support Afghan families arriving in the UK). What I was trying to do with my work at Little Village was to seed an alternative future — one that was based around reuse, community and connection, rather than extraction, consumption and individualism.You can hear more about all this in a recent podcast I recorded with Tom Hughes-Hallett at the LSE’s Marshall Institute.

I didn’t fully appreciate it until later in our journey, but it was important that the people who were part of the Little Village community could see, touch, feel what that future might look like. Giving people an embodied experience of community and connection — as well as inviting people to reflect on the poverty on their doorstep and our collective patterns of hyper-consumption — seemed to really stay with people. It mattered, in a different way perhaps, but just as much as the more immediate and direct work we were doing to support families across London who were struggling.

Seeding and nurturing a fairer, more equitable future has never felt more important to me. It’s painfully obvious that we’re in a period of deep transition whether we like it or not; we are facing a set of social evils that we seem unable to tame with the resources and tactics we’ve used in the past. To end poverty, I think we need to be working at a deep level, addressing the fact our political and economic paradigms are no longer fit for purpose in a world where we need to face up to climate change, rapidly ageing populations, and where technology is profoundly reshaping every aspect of our lives.

This work won’t be tackled through policy papers and campaigns alone. While those things are likely to be crucial ingredients, I think we also need to imagine and actually start to grow the kinds of future we want, just as I tried to do with Little Village, but at a much bigger scale, and at the level of institutions and governance as well as community. I’ve been enormously inspired by the work of Graham Leicester in this space. His quiet radicalism is an energy I learn a lot from. He introduced me to Bill Sharpe’s three horizons model and it’s a really important foundation for how I think about the task in hand. Kate Raworth offers an excellent six minute summary of the model here.

Fragments and scraps from these last few months

I’m sharing these fragments of work I’ve been drawn to, in the spirit of how I want to operate as I move into this new role — openly, honestly, collaboratively. Maybe you’ll get something from them too, or maybe you have lots of leads to add — please tell me if so. I’ve not even tried to craft them into a coherent framework that shows how they relate to JRF’s core mission yet. That’s work for the next 6–12 months.

Hope, and refusing to accept the status quo

Read Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful book for a call to action based on the forward-looking energy of hope. James Plunkett’s excellent new book offers a backwards look to the great social reforms of the 19th and 20th centuries in order to inspire greater boldness in today’s efforts to build a fairer and more equitable future.

If hope generates action, imagination seems to be an essential muscle we need to build if we are to escape the gravitational pull the status quo and dream of a better future. There’s a lot of interest in this space, with Geoff Mulgan writing a book as I type, based on this paper he wrote for Demos Helsinki. The Imagination Infrastructure website brings tonnes of thinking and practice together, including recordings from the day long event recently hosted by the many organisations building coalitions round this work. Also see Rob Hopkins’ book, and the pioneering work that New Constellations are undertaking.

Centring care and connection

The way we talk about poverty is more often than not based on 20th century contours of the labour market and welfare state design; and yet the welfare state was itself built on the slippery foundations of free female labour. An ageing population and the need for two incomes to stave off household poverty mean that care (both elder care and childcare) is a central feature in household economic security, transfer of wealth between generations, and opportunities for career progression. Talking to anyone visiting Little Village, and care was often the most important thing in people’s lives emotionally too.

I don’t think we’ve found our way fully here yet: the way we talk about social change doesn’t really allow the messy, human, undervalued, non-linear nature of care and connection to show up. And I have yet to see an account of how care and climate change are deeply intertwined (I believe they are). The closest thing out there for me is Silvia Federici’s book Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons. I love how she moves between the personal and intimate nature of care-giving, and the way it might translate into systems and structures of society.

Beyond Federici, Robin Wall Kimmerer offers an indigenous perspective that underlines the reciprocal relationship between people and planet in Braiding Sweetgrass. There are many other second wave feminist texts that hint at what the world might look like if care is something the economy was built around, rather than something that is invisible, unvalued and off the balance sheet.

Related, JRF’s own Trustee, Hilary Cottam, explores the significance of human connection in her recent book, and it’s a theme that Iona Lawrence and Madeleine Bunting both pick up in the context of the question of what it would take for everyone to thrive in society. I’m looking for more perspectives here.

Tackling the ‘hidden wiring’ driving rising inequality

By hidden wiring I mean the systems and structures that we often treat as fixed and immutable, that combine to reinforce and sometimes augment contemporary patterns of inequality. These include land and our relationship to it; ownership and how that is shared across society; capital and assets and how they flow between people, households, businesses and institutions; governance, regulation and the law and the way these things temper some behaviours while incentivising others.

Dark Matter Labs have been ploughing this furrow for some time now. I enjoyed this brilliant thinkpiece from Alastair Parvin of Open Systems Lab. And Kate Swade and the Shared Assets team have recently published a fantastic provocation which you can read here or watch a video about here. Edgar Villaneuva’s book is really significant; on my list but not yet read is also The Asset Economy. The work of CLES and Democracy Collaborative on community wealth feels rich with potential and I enjoyed the latter’s recent book.

Other people exposing the hidden wiring through their work — from researching and writing about it, to showing an alternative in practice, to building energy and movement around a new way of looking at things — include Carlota Perez, also Mariana Mazucato and Rowan Conway at UCL’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, Henrietta Moore at UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity (on our economic models). Rachel Coldicutt at Careful Industries and Anab Jain at Superflux (on technology and how it is driving patterns of inequality). Farzana Khan at Healing Justice and Natalie Creary at Black Thrive (on the intersection of racism, justice and healing). Roger Harding at Reclaim (on class). Emma Stewart and the team at TimeWise, Jennie Winhall at the Rockwool Foundation and Gavin Kelly, Louise Marston and team at the Resolution Trust on patterns of work and the labour market. I know there will be more people and more movements to add to this list.

Rethinking the role of Trusts and Foundations in social change

I’m new to the world of Trusts and Foundations so will be on a steep learning curve in these coming months. Get in touch if you can help me understand more! I do already know from my time at Little Village that foundations still struggle with funding risky work; too often they default to funding organisations rather than coalitions around the cause, or infrastructure; and in many cases the power dynamics between Foundations as the money holders and their grantees as the grateful recipients is alive and unhelpfully kicking.

This just won’t do for the work that’s now required. Working with others, I want to embark on a period of rapid but deep thinking at JRF about what it could mean to be a radical, transparent funder focused on seeding alternative futures that show us how the world could be better beyond the powerful orbit of the status quo. I’m struck by the fact that while JRF has a signifiacnt endowment, historically it hasn’t seen itself as a grant maker. I want to explore our potential role here.

And however that role evolves, I am looking forward to finding fellow travellers in the grant-making world who aren’t just looking at shifting power or making grant-giving more slick, but want to find ways of transforming what it means to be a funder. I think we should be talking about a shared role as funders — to be field-builders for a more equitable, sustainable future.

I’ve got a few leads to take inspiration from, not least the work Cassie Robinson has planted at The National Lottery Community Fund over the last couple of years. Through funds like Growing Great Ideas, or the Emerging Futures Fund, she is showing the sector what it kinds of intiatives need backing now, if we want to see a different world emerging from the pandemic.

One big challenge for all of us, but funders in particular, is that everything I’ve written here suggests we might need to think about impact in new ways, rather than falling back on more familiar models of linear theories of change. I’m a fan of this critique of those models and their excessive certainty. You know that when former Bank of England governors start penning books called Radical Uncertainty, it might be time to look again at our traditional models of assessing risk and impact.

That said, I’m struck by how little work there is out there on ways of understanding impact in a more honest way, given the complexity of the world and our tentative understanding of what the outcomes are we want, and how we might get there. Cassie Robinson and Indy Johar are curating a discussion series on impact which you can read more about here. The first conversation was recorded here, and includes reflections from Gen Maitland Hudson from the Social Investment Business and Kieron Boyle from the Guys and St Thomas’ Foundation, as well as Indy.

Finally, I think Trusts and Foundations have a role to play specifically in relation to helping us manage this period of transition we’re currently in. They need to be investing in growing a particular and distinctive set of skills and infrastructure organisations that can help us navigate this period towards a more equitable future. In particular I think we need to be putting more time, effort and money into capabilities to build our collective imagination, to lift our ambitions, to manage the conflict and fear that are provoked by destabilising cultures and norms and to find new ways of creating dialogue and connection across difference. I’m excited by the emerging body of work in ‘transition design’ and transitional finance, and I suspect there is much we need to learn from this work in the coming months and years.

Going back to our roots

One of the things I love about JRF is its history. From building model communities, to pioneering new social research methodologies, to public attitudes and narrative work, we have a rich legacy of work to build from. And our founding Memorandum throws down the gauntlet when it comes to the scale of ambition Joseph Rowntree himself had as he created the family of Rowntree trusts back in 1904:

“Charity as ordinarily practiced, the charity of endowment, creates much of the misery which it relieves, and it does not relieve all the misery it creates.”

I’ve spent the last six years working up close to poverty in London, a city where nearly half of all children are growing up below the breadline. I saw how these huge economic, technological and social trends are playing out in the reality of people’s lives; the injustices people are experiencing make me furious. My time at Little Village has left me with a new sense of urgency about the work we now need to do. I want us to look back in 10 years’ time, 20 years’ time, and feel confident that we focused our energies today on changing the world for the better, rather than trying to fix broken systems that are no longer fit for purpose.

So: let’s get started. If you’re inspired or even just intrigued about what we’ll be working on at JRF, and feel you have something to offer, please get in touch. We can’t do any of this alone.

“You have to act as it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” — Angela Davis



Sophia Parker

Emerging Futures Director at JRF. Founder of Little Village. Point Person. Mum of 3 and lifelong feminist. Dot-connector, question-asker, change maker.