Reflecting on an amazing year

Amazing year

Our founder and CEO, Eugenie, looks back on 2011 in an open letter to our community…

Dear buddies, backers, well-wishers and everyone else who comes across this page:

This time last year I was in South Carolina with my husband Bud, our 8-week old baby Otis, and lots of friends and family. Bud and I were both searching for something to do once we got back home. I’d been enjoying making brownies and tiffins, meeting up with fellow new mothers and walking the dogs. But Bud and I both had this nagging feeling that we needed to turn 2011 into the year of years.

We’d moved from California to the UK in 2009, found a place in Brighton, gotten dust in our hair and bungaroosh on our overalls, found work, and delved into long conversations about the UK, how it differed from the US, and where our place was going to be. So many of these conversations centred around the social inequalities we saw, particularly in education terms. It’s not that America is perfect—that’s far from true—and it’s not as if it’s equal either. But here the rigidity of social hierarchies is so fierce. And people ‘lower down’ aspire to work their way up, while people further up disparage those who have those aspirations (and those who don’t). I’m not against aspirations by any stretch—but I am against the framework that they are so often set in over here. In other words: screw the ladder.

Back in South Carolina, just before New Year’s Eve. We’re in its capital, Columbia, with friends. Buying fireworks and the makings for tamales. We’ve been drumming up resolutions for days, most of mine revolving around eating less of the tiffin I’ve been making. I have no idea that in a few days’ time we’d both lose ourselves to The Wire—only emerging from our curtain-closed living room three dark weeks later. And I have no idea at all that The-Wire-induced chrysalis of early 2011 would actually result in the crystallisation of all my ideas and work up until this point.

It’s February 2011. I’ve just read yet another article about the problem of social mobility in the UK. Why it strikes me more than any others, I don’t know. But somehow it is the flint for the spark of the idea that now is this, Spark+Mettle. I write:

I am ten days into trying to start a charity and I am going mad. My mood lurches from idea-conjuring exhilaration to confidence-sapping exhaustion. I’ve got CIOs and CLGs running in circles round my eyes. And right now, as I sit in the dark in front of my computer (with my five month old asleep nearby) I’m wondering if the real reason I want to do all this is to have a valid excuse to avoid vacuuming.

[Update: I have done barely any vacuuming since.] I quickly realised that social mobility doesn’t get at the heart of what I intended to do. Thanks to a a compelling article by Owen Jones on the Guardian newspaper’s website, and further pieces by Rebecca Hickman, I become familiar with the concept of social egalitarianism. An idea that is too radical for some, but spot on for me.

Fast forward 9 months of learning everything from accounting to Twitter to how to ask someone to be a trustee (and fail), and here we are. And when I say we, I mean the amazing 6-strong, utterly voluntary team that are helping to run the show. Plus the constantly-inspiring 13 young people who are co-creating our Star Track programme with us. Plus the 50+ dedicated volunteers who’ve given their time, energy and insight to both the team and co-creators. Then there’s the countless others who have engaged with our work, from reading our newsletter, sending through a recommendation, retweeted, or high-fived. And none of this would be anything more than imaginary if it wasn’t for the 49 backers (and counting) who have allowed it to move forward and, er, flourish.

The thing about this thing is this: nothing is fixed. It’s all in flux. I revise the business plan once every couple of months. We shape the programme, responding to what’s happening externally and internally. We are all to aware that we haven’t found the solution. But we’ve taken an idea that I had, collectively turned it into a workable guess, and now together are discovering what works and what doesn’t and refining as we go. Some people call this action research. I think I like those people.

Successes? Firstly, it’s early days. Secondly, we’ve failed in places. For example, we referred initially to our young people as ‘disadvantaged’, they told us that was disempowering and preferred ‘less privileged’ or ‘overcoming obstacles’. We didn’t realise that Google+ was for 18+ only. We didn’t have a back-up plan for co-creators who weren’t able to access internet for a period of time.

But yes, we’ve had successes. By the end of the first term, two of our 13 have found jobs that they enjoy (one part-time, one full-time). We’re not taking the credit (although Arfah kindly credits us a bit for hers). Our agents have already donated 149 hours of their time to provide personalised support to their co-creators. Other volunteers have collectively contributed over 200 hours of their brain power to support the work that we do and the avenues our young people want to pursue.  And the team has been subjected to goodness knows how many gigabytes of documents and designs, as well as near on a thousand emails from me, as we try to steer Spark+Mettle on into 2012.

Here’s what 2012 is going to have in store. Our Star Track programme will remain centre stage, but there are other projects in the wings that we are really excited to bring out.

  • The first is a profile- (and potentially fund-) raising event that we’re launching on the Most Depressing Day of the year, Monday January 16th. It’s called flour-ish, and you can find out all about it right here.
  • The second is a super-exciting collaboration between us, the RSA and the Design Museum, which is going to result in a groovy range of products for anyone who aspires to do anything.
  • The third is an utterly non-exclusive series of talks, launching during A Good Week 2012, for people from all walks of life.
  • The final one is a mirror-mentoring project when our co-creators become mentors themselves to Year 6 students this summer.

All of these pipeline projects go back to our original mission, which is to help people flourish. By inspiring creative thinking, collaboration, learning and sharing, we want to help as many people as possible, from primary school students to entrepreneurs and everyone in between. And by helping people connect with others they wouldn’t otherwise come into contact with, we hope to bridge some of the social divides that permeate our country.

I need to finish by sharing with you what my old boss (and international hero) Dave Eggers recently said about Spark+Mettle:

Giving opportunities to youth born of fewer choices takes a stunning amount of work. There’s no one formula. No algorithm or one-size-fits-all program. What it takes is caring individuals who will work shoulder-to-shoulder with young people, guiding them, sometimes for years, until they reach a new plateau of better chances and choices. Spark+Mettle understands all this, and is doing this essential work with humble hearts and fierce dedication.

My resolutions? To stay humble and to stay fierce. To keep up my energy, focus and drive. To send fewer emails. To do more vacuuming. I tend to get desultory and glum around New Year’s Eve. But not this time.

See you in 2012!

Eugenie