The Bristol Elders Project

Inspired by the Global Elders project set up by Peter Gabriel and Richard Branson, Pale Blue Dot started a project here in Bristol to look at what it might look like on a city scale. The following is taken from www.theelders.org :

Elders no longer hold public office; they are independent of any political party or other vested interest. They should have earned trust, demonstrated integrity and built a reputation for inclusive, progressive leadership.

The Elders bring with them a wealth of diverse expertise and experience. An Elder is also a changemaker – someone who can lead by example, creating positive change and inspiring others to do the same.”

The Elders represent an independent voice, they are committed to promoting the shared interests of humanity, and the universal human rights we all share. They believe that it is important to listen to everyone – no matter how unpalatable or unpopular this may be. They aim to act boldly, speaking difficult truths and tackling taboos. They don’t claim to have all the answers, and stress that every individual can make a difference and create positive change in their society.

The Global Elders is an unusual organisation with a distinct way of working. Global Elders work strategically, focusing on areas where they are uniquely placed to make a difference. This can mean engaging in private advocacy, using their collective influence to open doors and gain access to decision-makers. At other times, Global Elders work publicly to promote neglected issues and speak out against injustice. The group decides collectively where there is the greatest opportunity to make a real impact, whether this is:

  • Opening doors to gain access to decision-makers at the highest levels
  • Listening to everyone, no matter how unpalatable or unpopular, to promote dialogue
  • Providing an independent voice that can speak out, challenge injustice and break taboos
  • Bringing people together to catalyse action and forge alliances
  • Amplifying and supporting the work of people affected by conflict or working for peace
  • Creating space for campaigners and policy makers to broach difficult issues
  • Connecting people with decision-makers, ensuring the needs of ordinary citizens are always represented
  • Highlighting neglected issues to generate media coverage and political attention

The Elders are cautious not to claim all the credit for making a difference. Much of the Elders’ work is dedicated to supporting the efforts of other campaigners and advocates, giving them a platform to make their voices heard.

What might a City Elder be?

In considering local elders as distinct from global elders, the action research group explored the following attributes:

  • Someone who is in ‘second half of life’ (no longer fighting to climb the ladder) but has energy and dynamism to continue to fight for change
  • Holders of the story, with a deep understanding of the city, its history, culture, tensions and unique opportunities.
  • They speak truth to power
  • They walk together with ‘youngers’ as companions
  • They give the gift of discernment
  • They think long term (100 year business plan) and are the people who will maintain the vision in the face of short term pressures.
  • They should be the cause of people wanting to ‘grow up’
  • They should represent the city (as opposed to being representative)
  • They should continue to have self-doubt and be questioning
  • They should bring their experience and expertise, but not their vested interests
  • They should have high degree of self awareness and capacity to work together, acknowledging differences and creating consensus
  • Have demonstrated the highest levels of integrity

Role of the Elders

It was suggested that the primary role of a group of City Elders might be to: explore and develop a set of city VALUES, and in doing so be the holders and defenders of the long term view. In order to develop their thinking the City Elders need listen carefully, enquire and record the results of that enquiry using a new language of hope. They would also promote community and city resilience & entrepreneurship and find space and sponsorship for action.

The Bristol Elders Project Results

Over a period of 12 months, some of Bristol ‘elders’ met to discuss the ideas above and to see if there was merit in a similar city sized group. The need for long term thinking was shared by all, and there was a feeling that in general terms, our politicians were failing to address the difficult issues. Over a series of meetings, they agreed the following set of values:

  1. Every citizen of Bristol has the right to personal well-being, living in peace with others as equals.
  2. Citizens will understand the history of Bristol, feel proud to live here and take pleasure in being part of the on-going story.
  3. We will acknowledge our place as part of the natural world, respecting the need to live in harmony with it, and seeking to reverse the damage that has already been done.
  4. We will approach change positively and creatively.
  5. Decisions will be made on the basis of what is best for our children’s children and should seek to increase the resilience of individuals, families, and communities.

The pilot group of Bristol Elders came to a number of conclusions:

  1. Eldership is an extremely important concept that has diminished in recent times, but that shows significant benefits in cultures where it is still recognised and valued.
  2. Everyone who gets old isn’t necessarily an elder. There are personal skills and attributes that an elder exhibits – patience, humility, strength of character, discerning, questioning, self aware – in order to build trust and promote understanding.
  3. There should be no ‘club’ of elders, but a greater recognition of the need for elders to be visible and active across all our communities
  4. Elders should be in touch with youngers – helping them, learning from them and breaking down the barriers between them.