Podcast: Elizabeth Wainwright on Local Politics, Climate Change & the Need for 'Generalists'.



In 2019, Arukah Network mentor and coach ELIZABETH WAINWRIGHT was elected to represent her rural community in the south west of England at local government level. In this episode of our How To Build Community podcast & radio show, she shares some of her story, from nearly becoming a doctor, to unexpectedly becoming a politician. Read some highlights from the interview below, or listen to the full interview here.


Elizabeth’s interest in community development started as a student. Before her third year of study to become a doctor, she volunteered with a charity in Zambia, and began to realise for the first time that health means more than just physical health. “For people to be truly well, they need education, and good governance, and an ability to share their voice and influence power.” When she returned to continue her medical degree, she found that her heart was no longer in it. Instead, she completed a biology degree, and while doing it she continued to volunteer for various charities.


She describes herself as a 'generalist'. Many people are specialists - experts who know a lot about a specific subject. While those people are important to society, Elizabeth thinks that we need generalists just as much. “We need people who know a bit about quite a bit, and who can make the connections between them”. These generalists can know enough about different topics to facilitate conversations between experts on those topics and work on where they interact, bringing together communities or organisations.


After university, Elizabeth returned to Zambia with a charity she was working for. She describes this work as very "donor-instigated", and while she learnt about this model she started to see the problems with it. Her favourite part of that role was when she had completed her official duties and was able to have informal conversations with teachers and other community members. “It was in those moments that were off-record, but full of humanity and genuine questions or ideas, that I felt more alive.”


Later, she became involved in Arukah Network, which was then known as CHGN. “I got more and more into the idea behind CHGN/Arukah… There was something really exciting here that I wanted to be more involved in.” Elizabeth was tasked with taking the Cluster model, which was working well in northern India, and applying it to other local places, including Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia. She describes the idea as “people coming together and creating a vision and working towards it, in a way that's completely unique to their context… starting with relationship and listening and collaboration rather than with money or donors or other people's agendas.”


Since May 2019 Elizabeth has been in a new role. She is still part of Arukah Network, but last May she also – unexpectedly – became a local District Councillor in rural Devon for the Green Party. She represents a rural ward made up of villages and farms, particularly dairy farms. She is also a Cabinet Member for climate change within the council. “It’s tricky,” she told us, “but I’m enjoying it.” Some might identify a source of conflict in her trying to tackle climate change and representing dairy farmers, when dairy farming is a large source of greenhouse gas emissions. But she sees this as an opportunity, and says that there is more common ground than you might think.


She told us that relationships will be crucial to tackling climate change. “Any complex challenge like that, you've got to start by coming together and discussing things openly, and using your collective skills to try and tackle these challenges. With that in mind, we need farmers, we need conservationists, we need everyone playing a role.” While combatting climate change will need to involve technical and financial solutions – the work of specialists – generalists also have an important role. Just as crucial, she told us, “will be skills in conversation and listening and collaboration. I think if you get that stuff right, then the finance and the technical stuff should come easier.”


Elizabeth hopes to bring her learning from Arukah Network to the council. She is taking some of her thinking about 'forest networks' to the world of local politics. “I think a healthy society is one that's well-networked and where information and knowledge flows well, where strengths can be spread out, where challenges can be overcome collectively.” By the end of her four-year term, there are some practical achievements she’d like to see – for example, building cycleways so that villages can be connected without cars. But she also hopes to see a cultural change in “conversations being opened up, relationships being formed, elected members and paid officers thinking about new ways of working together.” She says that she has experienced a spirit in rural Devon that reminds her of her time with local communities in Zambia and other African countries – one where hospitality is a priority and people always have time for people.


Finally, she reminded us that we are all human. Her advice for starting dialogues with policy-makers and decision-makers is to be well-informed about the research and work that is being done on the issues you want to talk about. She suggests an approach of understanding and humility, and above all, “asking questions, creating invitations, remembering that we're all human - we were all children once, we're all curious, we're all looking for answers.”


You can listen to another podcast interview with a member of Arukah Network here.

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