As all my work dropped away in 2020, my vision what Hackney Tours needed to do became clearer. Living off savings, pondering where to go next, a haze dissolved and a focus developed: 2020 would be about giving back, helping others and – crucially – more doing and less thinking.
In tough times, ask not what your borough can do for you, but what you can do for your borough? It sounds cheesy and yet at the heart of many great philosophies about how to achieve fulfilment, you’ll find an encouragement to serve others. Could there be, I wondered, an opportunity to fulfil a social mission, support others and still afford to live in an ever-more expensive East London?
What does the borough need, I pondered? There were the independent businesses, many already struggling, who needed us to spend locally. The railway arch people were already up against it as I’d discovered touring business students; Covid19 is likely to be the straw that breaks many of these indie biz backs unfortunately.
Hackney is a Social Enterprise Borough and these trailblazers were already working hard. It’s already more difficult doing the right thing in business without the added restrictions and complications the Corona Virus has brought. Though there’s a big irony there: many would say it’s our rampant exploitation of the planet from conventional business that causes these ‘shocks’ in the first place.
So business needs a hand, if we’re to keep East London quirky and interesting; the word ‘sustainable’ can also be applied to communities. Then there are the residents. There are those who can’t travel as they normally would this year. There are parents, wondering how to amuse their kids after an exhausting season of homeschooling.
There are others who could never afford to leave here anyway and need the very basics of leisure, often provided by those youth clubs that avoided the huge cuts by government that affect all London councils, regardless of party.
Then there are the elders, offline and isolated in their flats, slowly deteriorating from lack of social contact. They need our help. At the other end of the spectrum are the youth, uncertain of their future and often maligned by the media. So there are all sorts of groups united by one thing: the need to feel better about being stuck at home.
At the root of some of those same sources of wisdom I mentioned earlier is this idea, known to counsellors and Stoics and Buddhists and many more: if you can’t change the situation, you might have to settle for changing your reaction to these external circumstances.
So this year more than ever, I’ll be following Proust’s suggestion that we can see our surroundings with fresh eyes. If you can’t go away, then maybe get excited by discovering the hidden layers of where you live? It’s a state of mind. It’s not easy though and of course some of us have more on our plates than others. Check your privilege, for sure. But at least meditation is free and our brains have neuroplasticity. And local travel is sustainable travel; every element has been thought through.
I’ll be running the Changemaker tours with the express purpose of addressing all of these issues (see link at end for July booking for the general public version). They’ll be outdoor, small groups and feature some more than a dozen local iniatives doing good, from clean energy suppliers to foodies with a heart.
At the end of tours, locals say things to me like: “I had no idea this was here,” or “You’ve made me see my road in a whole new way.” I’ve been here 10 years and I’m still finding new places. And there are so many communities to discover. I like to signpost people on my Changemaker tour so that this is only the beginning of a journey. You can volunteer with the homeless, the young, elders, migrants and on and on.
Volunteers know that it’s win-win: I’m happier since I increased my volunteering level. It gives a sense of purpose and you meet the most inspiring people who energise you. In a world of defeatism, they offer action and a path forward.
I’ve never censored what I say or been afraid of difficult conversations with people who like simple answers to complex questions like regeneration/gentrification. More than ever, I’ll be trying to amplify the voices of those doing important work (see the new Hackney Changemakers blog series).
My paying activities this year will support free offerings for those who need them, such as fitness classes for youth clubs. Most work this year – in the absence of foreign tourists – will be social. It’ll encompass fitness for young and old and using history to bring the socially isolated together.
So if you’re doing okay too, you can help me do more for those that need a little hand in a tough environment by joining a paying tour or hiring me privately. After 14 years in tourism and decades in the Arts I’ll be getting less squeamish about asking for money from those who have it, to help those who don’t.
I’m not naïve. This won’t change the world (though I am working on another project to ask questions about the ethics and sustainability of global supply chains called Container Cult). But I’ve met enough Arts-makers and youth workers to know that if you reach just a few people, that counts for something.
If we all do a little bit, the ripple effect can be enormous. There’s never been a better time to rediscover your back yard, spend your money ethically and with local business.
If nothing else, do it for yourself. There’s a ton of cognitive dissonance about, but when we act in accordance with our values, we’re happier and more fulfilled. Who knows, maybe those wise ancients were on to something.
(This post is dedicated to all the brilliant people working away unseen in all the boroughs in all the places, to make better worlds. You inspire people like me to do something. Thank you. If you want more of this, join Saturday’s tour for a revolution you can dance to.)