The magpie warbling outside my window waking me up this morning is such a comfort. The familiarity of the song holds me in place and time. Magpies remind me of my Dad, father energy. There are doves in the tree across the road holding a conversation and developing tactics to deal with the miner birds. I live on a suburban street about half a kilometre from a beach, but the seabirds don’t come by at all. Everyone seems to know their place and their territory. Very good instruction for the human world! All the lessons for us are in nature.
We had quite a discussion this week in Council about the tree canopy and it got me thinking about life underground too. (How all the trees connect up is well documented and perhaps Peter Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees is a good place to start, if you are new to this kind of thinking. As he writes “a tree can only be as strong as the forest that surrounds it.” This is an interconnectivity that brings strength, not just life. We too need each other and help each other be strong and lively. Communities are a human version of a forest.
One of the communities that has sustained me over the past five years is Coralus (formerly SheEO) and this morning I am reflecting on how this community has built a canopy for me, nourished me by growing strong trees I too could draw nutrients from and rely on to keep growing, when I needed a rest or to hibernate for a while. Some of the life of the community is hidden, the impact can’t be measured, but I can see the forest, I can see tall trees, I can see green shoots and I can see a canopy where there wasn’t one before. There is a forest, an ecosystem of female founders and funders who have found new ways together, having mindsets with an arc of potential and enough, globally connected and pivoting on shared values, hope and love. There is a spirit of what it means to be landed in the story of past generations, the wonder of what kind of ancestors we might want to be, deep respect of ancient wisdom of Aboriginal peoples from all lands and the power of the collective and business to transform, unlock, unleash, amplify and accelerate each other’s potential for the common good.
I have missed this community over the past six months as I have been busy with my own canopy building in my place, and it is good to be back in their company this week end. Women and non-binary folks have come from all over the country and some from other parts of the world. It feels like a harvest, it feels like a hug, it feels like I might have forgotten canopies get built by planting trees, letting the nutrients find their way to each other, communication under the earth bubbles up through the branches and the leaves …. where eventually the magpie finds its home to wake me in the morning.
I am going to hang on to the thought of the canopy above and the conversations below and give thanks for all the nourishment I receive from the human version of trees, and trees, that keep nourishing me. I honestly can’t by without any of them. Please be trees so we can be canopy and forests for one another.
“The trees in a forest care for each other, sometimes even going so far as to nourish the stump of a felled tree for centuries after it was cut down by feeding it sugars and other nutrients, and so keeping it alive. Only some stumps are thus nourished. Perhaps they are the parents of the trees that make up the forest of today.” Peter Wohlleben
Fifty one Mayor’s gathered at the Local Government Association on Friday and Saturday, coming from all points of the compass around South Australia. Men and women who had been elected as community leaders to preside over decisions impacting on their community, some with years of experience in local government, and about 25% of them we like me first-time Mayors and about 20% of that group, also like me, elected to the role without ever being a councillor before.
I was inspired by the Mayors who have been leading in the Riverland through the flood and who all were first time Mayors. Daily interaction with the public through the media, State members of Parliament, minister and the Premier, and tourists coming through their towns and building not just levies, but conversations and bridges for collaboration to support their people, economies and environment. The rising waters uniting them all day in and day out. Amongst the group women like Mayor Simone Bailey, who has done almost 50 media interviews before her 100 days as a Mayor, Mayor Ella Winnall who found new friends and allies in unexpected places. Their candid and compassionate reflections, encouraged and inspired me and everyone else in the room. Dealing with natural disasters was a theme of many new and re-elected Mayors, early in their terms. For some it was bushfires … ironically, it was the 40th anniversary of the Ash Wednesday bushfires so that wasn’t far from many people’s minds or memories. Those fires changed our State forever.
I’d been given a spot to reflect on working with conflict and building resilience in the context of community and while that might seem a little pretentious having only been officially declared on 22 November 2022, our council had faced a community protest that required our second meeting to be adjourned on 17 January 2023. (There is plenty in the press and a quick google will catch you up on this if you are new to this blog.)
I didn’t say everything I would have liked to, or could have said, and do feel there is a core of a quite a good TED talk emerging. The kernel is around trust, the sanctity of our democratic processes, citizen engagement and social media algorithms.
How do we work with others who we don’t agree with, don’t trust, or in some way radically different to us? Many of the mayors shared challenges in their chambers with councillors, but that was not my focus. Elected bodies, including local government councillors, will always have to deal with community groups who disagree with them or who protest against decisions, intimidate and challenge decision-making along the way. Some of those behaviours will be civil and organised, others will be disruptive, and some others may be more terrorist, anarchic, well-organised and well fuelled by resources and radicalised online and mobilised with social media tools and techniques. We are well equipped to do with the civil and organised and ill equipped and don’t fully understand the radicalised, with potential for violence.
The very first Council meeting I presided over, began with a minutes silence in solidarity for police officers in Queensland lured to their death by what has now been called Australia’s first Christian terrorist attack. With three former serving police officers in the chamber I preside over, it was an appropriate action to begin in this way. I also wanted to draw a line early in the piece and set the seeds for what I believe is the relationship between all the incidents I had personally experienced in the election campaign, and expected to play out into the term …. I am not gleefully prophetic, however it is all coming to pass.
I wanted to not just warn my fellow Mayors, but rather offer up some ways of building resilience and also not to take the organising of the disruptors as isolated incidents, but further evidence of the polarisation that is happening in our country. Collaborating with the enemy, standing up to dictators, inoculating yourself and your communities is part of the gig of being a Mayor. Safety will always have primacy and that includes psychological safety. Building resilience is part of leadership, and needs to be embedded in systems, policies and processes – it is not the work of programs or reports.
Without trust in our democratic systems we undermine and provide fodder for the toadstools to pop up. The recent mismanagement of lodging of administrative forms, meaning some elected members have been stood down while this is being investigated, is fuelling those who don’t trust our systems. While each incident is an individual error, it shows the vulnerabilities of the system and feeds conspiracy theorists. I am angry that administrative errors as tiny as this put so much at risk.
The next thread in the needle is algorithms. I waved around Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Maria Reesa’s book How to Stand up to a Dictator to all the Mayors and asked them to read it. I want them to understand and learn about the relationship between social media platforms, fake news, breeding grounds for radicalisation. I also encouraged them to read Algorithms of Oppression. We need to be building good, hope, optimism and citizenship in our online discourse and presence. I gave an example of one of the failed candidates in my mayoral campaign trying to divide the community with nationalistic jingoism, or as Samuel Johnson said in 1775: Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Another failed mayoral candidate on the same ballot as me, was in the District Court on Friday being advised by the magistrate to come back in a month with the paperwork required to back up his claims that the election was out of order and the vote was “illegal”. Interestingly both of these candidates have mycelium leading to Senator Alex Antic, and who has distanced himself from those protesting against local councils.
I asked my fellow mayors to consider the time might have come for compulsory elections in local government. And in local government elections, you don’t need to be a citizen, you could have just arrived at an address into your place and been there for a month before the elections and registered to vote. This is also a dreadful anomaly and puts the democracy of local government at risk. In our capital city there are students who arrived and were registered in time to vote, with little or no relationship to our country or place they are living. This has all the hallmarks of elections being able to be hijacked by external entities. In the case of the City of Adelaide there are implications, yet to be fully tested and scheduled to be before the courts that may implicate a foreign government.
We must be vigilant and ready to adjust and strengthen our processes and institutions. We need robust engagement processes to support participation, online portals will not do it. We need to build and rebuild trust. The 2023 Edeleman Trust Barometer is out and shows Australia is on a dangerous path as high socio-economic divisions grow. Business is more trusted that government and seen as more ethical and competent than any tier of government, Business has stepped in to fill the void of lack of government action over many years – and we have seen this in the leadership offered by corporate Australia in the vacuums around climate action, Uluru Statement from the Heart, sustainability.
A recipe for restoration and in my view transformation is for governments and businesses to work together to build consensus and collaborate on policies and standards that co-creates a more just, thriving, safe and secure future. With huge numbers of SMEs in our communities and our sphere of government, I think to build more resilience we need to work more effectively with our local economies and build more resilience there – surely this is one of the key lessons from COVID – we can’t leave people behind, we need to equip them to make the transformations to the new economy and new energy environments, we need to step whole heartedly into our leadership – be bold and irresistible to attract and create the conditions for collaboration – in our communities, between each other – that’s my theory of change for resilience and managing conflict. I also have my mayoral companions to draw on and a playlist to remind me that singing and dancing is essential for my own resilience!
We cannot avoid others whom we find challenging, so we need to focus simply on deciding, given these challenges, what we ourselves will do next. – Adam Kahane, Collaborating with the Enemy.
What are you going to do next?
CIty of Adelaide, Lord Mayor, Jane Lomax-Smith captured me in full flight 18 Feb 2023 on her instagram account.
I’ve been looking up the origins of the proverb “familiarity breeds contempt” and trying to get into the undergrowth of where this comes from. Thanks to the never-ending mycelium threads that have built information online, I have discovered the phrase was first seen in English in the 1300s in one of the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. It is in the Tale of Melibee and digging into that tale it is a story of a wife insisting and eventually convincing her husband to forgive his enemies and not go to war for the brutal slaying of their daughter and her own beating. It is quite a tale of advocacy, discernment, gender politics, pacifism and justice. It is not a tale that is highly regarded by scholars and nor was very popular in its time. Further digging, the phrase was attributed to a citizen of Rome who began life as a Syrian slave and live about 50 BCE. His name is known as Publilius Syrus. Other well-known phrases are attributed to him such as ignorance is bliss, honour among thieves, necessity knows no law.
Following a line of thought is a reminder to me of the way our brain works just like mycelium, wandering and picking up fuel along the way before fruit is born. I went looking for the meaning of familiarity breeds contempt on a hunch it might provide me with some guidance, to a whole series of events, completely unconnected that I was involved with during the week. They were all very different – a presentation, a mediation, a public announcement, a menu choice.
I am constantly reminding people that every time we do something we are doing it for the first time. We are never the same person as we were the last time, we might have done the same thing. I first discovered this truth in re-reading books as a young person, as I grew older I found new meaning in exactly the same words as I had previously read, as I was not the same person as I was the last time I had read the same book. New phrases stood out to me, I understood the characters because I had more life experience to draw on, I even saw words I hadn’t seen the first time round, because my vocabulary had improved. It taught me to go back to texts often and be curious about what I might find. It also helped me discover the value and harm of holding assumptions.
We will miss the small, subtle, nuanced changes when we dive in as if we “know it all”. I have done that to my own failing many, many times and it is perhaps why “familiarity breeds contempt” is a phrase I to describe my own behaviour from time to time – a bit like being my own valet – there is nowhere to hide when you are being stripped down to bare truths. I have had deep bruising and still hold much scar tissue from not testing assumptions, suspending judgement, keeping expectations low or making excuses because of the familiar. A good lesson to be reminded of this week in all the quirky and unexpected ways that I might take things for granted. So, while I was seeing this is situations and people around me this week it is reminding me of the Jungian concept of projection. “Although our conscious minds are avoiding our own flaws, they still want to deal with them on a deeper level, so we magnify those flaws in others.” I’ve had a gift this week, to be a little less judgemental and take wise counsel from the wife in the Tale of Melibee, to hold back on the counsel to war, and look for ways to pacify my internal chat and avoid a spill over into a contemptuous tempest. I am enjoying find the mycelium threads and taking a moment to notice what feeds them, how they have the potential for both nourishment and poison and everything in between – after all a food source for one creature can be poisonous to another and that does not have anything to do with the integrity of the either the food source or the fruit.
The red carpet was rolled out, the photo booth set up with the mandatory backdrop of promotional logos, drinks and nibbles ready to be poured and consumed and behind the scenes hundreds and hundreds of hours of voluntary contribution of time, talents and skills were deployed to deliver the opening of the Fleurieu Film Festival on an unseasonal cool February evening. The full moon rose and clouds moved around until she found her way over the vines of McLaren Vale. A fully formed wow, the appropriate response from people like me turning up to take in the harvest of others labours.
These moments remind me of the depth of the mycelium needed to pull off such an event. Greeted on the red carpet by a friend and colleague I worked with last century who retired and became a film maker, followed by a big hug from the man who would at the beginning of the program give an acknowledgement of country, he being from another part of the Fleurieu and a First Nations man from outside Kaurna and then a pouring of bubbles from grapes I have passed in their vineyards, long before they left the vine. I was with a dear friend who connected with sojourners I had reacquainted with recently through the local government election, and whose offspring lives a couple of doors down from my brother and sister-in-law’s house where I had spent the night before.
This litany of one off connections are the map of the mycelium made visible on the surface. I am finding being out and about in different settings in my role as Mayor, this is happening to me over and over. I am being constantly reminded of pathways and relationships I have had, revisiting or making new, are connected and however random it might appear, in reality there is nothing random. These connections have been fertilised by shared journeys, values, beliefs, and the courtesy of hospitality. Hospitality that act of being welcoming and friendly to all who come your way.
Earlier in the day a very well-known leader in local government thanked me for showing her all kinds of ways to lead and I had no idea! She told one of my new colleagues how much she had learnt from me. I was astonished as we hadn’t really worked closely on any common project, more like moving in each other’s circles from time to time. Her kindness was a beautiful act of acknowledgement of what she saw above the ground and her ability to know what was under the surface, between us. This is a kind of hospitality too, a way of noticing, a way of welcoming, a way of building and strengthening threads.
Mycelium finds and breaks down food sources, collects nutrients and water in order to create the mushroom – fruit of the mycelium. This process requires a lot of hosting too, transforming waste, gathering energy in optimal environmental conditions. All the connections and relationships made visible at the Fleurieu Film Festival were in the most perfect conditions for fruit to burst forth, and in my neon orange jacket, vintage print dress, on the stage to open the Festival I was happy to be one of the fruits and all the energy that had pushed up from generations of interconnected threads. To hear my name and applause when being welcomed on to the stage was a bonus.