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  • Rachael Owens

New ACAN group Climate Literacy launches



ACAN’s Climate Literacy group was launched with ‘Communicating the Crisis’ an event equipping practitioners with new skills in communication and storytelling – to enable them to engage more people in the action needed to tackle the climate crisis.


One of our three aims at ACAN to tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis is Cultural Transformation – to redefine the values at the heart of our professional and educational systems, and to do this we must bring our colleagues, clients and collaborators with us. Working away as individuals or within silos will not get us where we need to go anywhere near fast enough. We must take every opportunity to engage and activate everyone’s agency, to build will, momentum and power. This engagement won’t come from facts and figures, graphs and percentages, talk of carbon budgets and nationally determined contributions, but from the creation of deep and lasting connections between people, the natural world and the human impact of the crisis we face. As activist architects we need to become better communicators, better storytellers and better listeners.


On the 28th April we invited 4 speakers to share with us their insights on how to engage, communicate and listen: Esther Obonyo, Executive Director of the Global Building Network and lead of the international, Penn State-led consortium to improve infrastructure resiliency, sustainability, and public health in disaster-prone, low-income communities; Merryn Glover, Novelist, poet, facilitator, storyteller and Guardian Country Diarist; Artist and film-maker Hilary Powell; and writer, conceptual illustrator, theatre designer and workshop leader Susan Cartwright-Smith.



Themes discussed included storytelling, art and finding common ground. We hoped that this event would empower those already engaged in the climate crisis to go out and talk to their collaborators and swell the army of those taking action. This event launched a wider series, called Practice Action, which aims to support practitioners transform towards more regenerative forms of practice. The series is produced in collaboration with Architects Declare and includes practical workshops, talks and activities – the learnings from which can then be taken by architects into their offices, projects and beyond.



Our first guest Esther Obonyo spoke to us about effective engagement and communication at a community level. She emphasised the value of active listening, to understand the people you are speaking with, find out what is truly important to them, and the need that we may face to step out of our comfort zones to meet people where they are. We explored the links between the global and local, considering what international discourse can be applicable and useful at the local level. When producing information we should seek to make it relevant, timely and actionable.The conversation progressed into more detail, with the acknowledgement that climate change problems are broader than we may think, and include, for example, the increased prevalence of malaria in some countries. We should better understand the link between the built environment, communities and health and must also start to seriously talk about resilience for those places already undergoing climate shocks. Conclusions from the conversation included that often the best action we can take is to help strengthen what communities are already doing, rather than jumping in with a new idea, we should listen to their experience and knowledge of a specific situation and consider how we can be of service.


Putting theory into action our next speaker Merryn Glover told us the story of a boy in Bangladesh who’s life was irreversibly impacted by climate change. This beautiful, powerful telling was accompanied by origami – with each of the listeners creating their own origami boat, as a physical and metaphorical reminder of the story and it’s message. Merryn used the boat as a symbol to guide our decision making, and to create an emotional bond between ourselves and those already being impacted by climate change. Those participating in Merryn’s breakout room were so moved by the whole storytelling experience that this served as an example of the power of storytelling, when carried out in a way that is focused on the listener.


We are all on the same planet, but not in the same boat.

Sink the carbon not the people.

Don’t turn away, don’t turn your back,

Don’t send them away, don’t send them back.

Think hard, think deep, Feel it in your heart, Dream it in your sleep.

This child in a boat, In a story lost at sea, Needs a better ending

So what will it be?


Merryn Glover, 2022



We then heard from Hilary Powell who talked to us about community organising and radical, political art, full of action. Hillary talked us through projects Bank Job and Power, produced alongside partner and collaborator Dan Edelstyn. Bank Job, which became a feature film available to watch here, saw the pair set up HSCB (Hoe Street Central Bank) where they printed currency emblazoned with portraits of leaders of the local foodbank, homeless kitchen, youth project and primary school. The sale of the currency enabled the pair to buy-up and write-of 1.2 million pounds worth of local predatory debt, and contribute to the causes depicted on the notes. An exploration of money, debt and our failed economic system, this collective act brought together the community and began to spread vital economic literacy. For their next endeavour Hilary and Dan are making community energy happen in the place they live (Find out more here). In our breakout chat Hilary and Dan shared tips on how to engage with and work alongside diverse groups from the community to learn together and build a team. They talked about how to make big things happen on small budgets and the need to value participants' labour and ideas. Their work relies on finding common ground with the people they speak with – a lesson for us all!



Finally Susan Cartwright spoke to us taking inspiration from the environment and talked about an example of her work ‘Mind Trees of the Urban Forest’ – a community installation including exhibition, film, anthology & spoken word. She implored us to start our work with clarity on our aims and a vision of who the work is for and should include. Proposals must seem genuine, normal and organised – without too much jargon. First impressions should be practical and engaging, and allow space for people to include part of themselves within the project. We discussed the importance of balance between structure and flexibility – there always needs room to listen and adapt – enabling people to have a voice, their own agency, an ability to express their fears, needs and hopes. A great way of doing this is by engaging in art, creation, word games or quick poetry tasks – we started our breakout session by writing one aim for action we take to tackle the climate crisis on a triangle of paper – by holding these up we instantly created a ‘bunting of hope.’ This set the tone for the discussion, creating common ground and promoting openness amongst participants. We explored the potential of communicating with the next generation, children who are so often keen to hear more about the environment and the world they live in. Children have not only the potential to shape the future, but their parents' minds today, so if we can start the conversation early we can build greater momentum to tackle the crisis we face.


It was fantastic to have this group of individuals, from different fields, come together and openly share their passion, drive and inspiration. The event showed us that there are so many different ways into people’s hearts and minds, all of which are rooted in listening, finding common ground and making active space for participation. However you take inspiration and connect with the crisis we face - there is space for you within ACAN and so many ways to get involved.


Following on from this event we held a ‘Climate Conversation’ on Action Beyond Practice with Future Architects Front, Becca Thomas from New Practice and Raheela Khan-Fizgerald of Hawkins Brown – recording coming soon.


The next ‘Climate Conversation’ in the series, on Thu, 23 June is “Transforming Practice – Where to Start?” where Diana Dina of Haworth Tompkins, Tara Gbolade of Gbolade Design Studio and Zafir Ameen of DRMM will talk through real examples of how they have engaged colleagues, resourced sustainability teams, embedded protocols and planned climate events (sign-up here).


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