Using the power of collective imagination – a story from Hout Bay

It’s not often that I meet a champion – someone with a great big vision and a great big heart – a bright spark that lights other sparks and makes big fires. Such a person is Bronwen Lankers Byrne, coordinator of the “Imagine Hout Bay” initiative. “Imagine Hout Bay,” as I discovered, is all about getting diverse community groups talking together, dreaming together and creating together. Read on to find out more.

Bronwen Lankers Byrne

Originally a fishing village, Hout Bay, about 15 kilometres from Cape Town City centre, is the place where I grew up in the seventies. Then it was a pristine valley. Now it is ravaged by rampant development. A microcosm perhaps of what has happened in the last 30 years across the globe. Hout Bay is also the place I first had to grapple with that bizarre apartheid logic – whites lived anywhere they pleased in sprawling houses with large gardens. The “coloured” township was crowded up above the Hout Bay Harbour – 3 story blocks of flats, or tiny dwellings, swirling in the dust of the prevailing winds. In the 12 years post 1994 this has not changed, but now clinging to the hillside as you come into Hout Bay is the rapidly expanding “black” township area known as Imizamo Yethu. The result is that in this little piece of paradise ringed by sandstone mountains and the flashing blue ocean, live three separate divided communities. Divided by colour, divided by class, divided by geography, divided by the differences in the services delivered and the opportunities afforded to the children who are born.

For Bronwen Lankers Byrne, living as a Buddhist nun close to Imizamo Yethu, her introduction to the “Imagine!” approach, through a workshop, suddenly offered a way to start bridging all these divisions. Bronwen describes a trauma experienced by many who were children growing up under apartheid, who in the natural unprejudiced state of children made friends “across the colour bar” and who felt the pain of separation as they were forced to follow different dramatically inequitable lifestyles according to the grand scheme of “separate development.” For Bronwen, the back yard room where the family domestic worker lived with small son Thabo was her safe space, and Thabo her child hood friend. She was heartbroken when they had to attend different schools. So has followed her life marked by a wide range of work and places but all with same common denominator – to unite people. Now in a small monastery Bronwen was so inspired by the possibilities of the “Imagine!” approach that she disrobed as a nun and began work as the coordinator on a small stipend, living in a single room and riding a bicycle for transport.

“Imagine!” came from a method used by Bliss Brown in Chicago in 1992 when she was distraught by her own divided city. It is rooted in what is called an “appreciative inquiry approach” – this is an organisational development approach where change begins with valuing and appreciating what is working and wonderful amongst a particular group or community. This gives people energy for change in a way that talking about problems and everything that is wrong does not!

Hout Bay Community After valuing what is, the next step is where the dreaming and imagining comes in. It asks different stakeholder groups to imagine what can be in their community. Bronwen told me just how they went about this. In 2004, the “Imagine Hout Bay” initiative trained 70 community volunteers from the three divided Hout Bay communities in interviewing skills and how to administer an interview questionnaire.

Sometimes for the very first time, coloured interviewers went into the shacks of black interviewees, or black interviewers went through the remote controlled gates into the houses of white interviewees. But more than this, youths interviewed the old, the unemployed woman interviewed the corporate director and the Rastafarian interviewed the Christian. In short, people who did not usually talk to each other started having conversations. And that conversation began with valuing each other: One of the interview questions is “what do you value most about yourself as a human being? A member of your family? A member of your community?” Just out of these conversations people started making connections and linking the dots between each other and things started to happen.

  • Themba Makau partnered up with the bicycle empowerment network (BEN) and local mentors and now has a bicycle repair and maintenance shop in Imizama Yethu.
  • A holiday programme was started involving adult volunteers and children from all the communities.

These were opportunities that arose simply from the discovering of what is happening in and around in the area and making the obvious links.

But the interviews were more than about the healing that goes with people from different groups valuing and talking to each other and the possibilities arising from networking. They asked people to go a step further into imagining a future together. The highlight of the interview schedule is the ‘dream’ question where the interviewer invites the interviewee to:

“Please close your eyes and imagine Hout bay 10 years from now. The year is 2014 and extraordinary and wonderful things have happened. Hout Bay is a community of which you are extremely proud. Describe this community that you are living in.”

Following 300 interviews, Research Surveys, a local research company, helped with the capturing, analysing and synthesising of data. The results were presented at a huge gathering and celebration of people from all the communities with joyful displays of dance and music and including the mayor and other local government stakeholders. What “Imagine Hout Bay” had found was that all its inhabitants appreciated the same things about where they were living – its beauty, its diversity. They all wanted the same things too – equality, justice, and to nurture the incredible fragile interdependence between themselves and the Hout Bay environment. Bronwen’s eyes are bright as she describes this celebration, “the mayor,” she says, “was moved to tears and put aside her prepared speech.” I think I can understand why, there is something especially moving about the energy of ordinary people coming together — with and for each other — with no designs on office or power or money.

What followed this celebration, undoubtedly the high point of the “Imagine Hout Bay” initiative so far, was the establishment of an inter-sectoral development forum with 8 flourishing sectors which involved over 1000 people in 80 different meetings. Some of the dreams realised by these sectors were:

  • The youth rehabilitating a park in Imizama Yethu — they renamed it Ukujika Park which means “turn around park.”
  • The establishment by a “Back to your Roots” walk by the Rastafarians who take people on mountain walks and identify medicinal herbs and the like.
  • A “From Street-to-Stage” concert where local young dancers and musicians from the different communities took to the stage and brought the house down with their enthusiasm and passion.
  • A recycle caravan which exchanges recycled goods for donated stationary and second hand clothes and goods for the children in Imizamo Yethu and Hangberg.
  • A “Heritage Day” street parade and soccer match involving the different communities.

In reflecting what had helped her as a leader in the “Imagine Hout Bay” initiative, Bronwen doesn’t hesitate, she says it is “recognition of the value of inclusivity.” She explains that part of her training as a nun was to “recognise and let go of judgements. As soon as you get into judgements you start to separate from people,” she says, “instead I keep asking, “how can I bring them in, what can they offer?” In the “Imagine!” approach, difference amongst individuals and groups is seen as a strength rather than as a barrier to working together. Inclusivity is not only the method or the way to do things, however, it is also the goal and the vision – a united society where is everyone is valued for their unique contribution.

Another big part of being a leader is sustaining belief and enthusiasm, in holding this vision. When I ask Bronwen about the challenges they are facing, I realise just how tough this can be. There are the usual blockages to the “Imagine Hout Bay” initiative: Greed. Power. Corruption. In all the communities, the powerful and the rich hold the reigns and it is often in their interests to block development. The greedy continue to manipulate themselves into leadership and use their connections to get government tenders. It’s also in their interests to keep an ignorant community. There is propaganda about the “Imagine Hout Bay” initiative in the Hangberg community and Imizama Yethu. People are claiming it is a “white thing”. The old pain from years of division and inequality resurfaces. “The blocks happen,” says Bronwen, “when people go back to the hurt.”

Bronwen does not seem daunted by these challenges, for her the vision is as it has always been through her life, clear and bright. She says that the way forward is to go back to the healing and back to the story telling. She is excited about the possibilities that a little extra money will bring which will allow for three field workers from the different communities to work for a year with her and “Imagine!”

She explains that the trick to sustaining the energy of “Imagine Hout Bay” is to “keep creating the results and letting people seeing them.” Certainly for me, who was a child in this place, hearing about the celebration and some of the outcomes of the “Imagine!” initiative has lightened my heart, inspired and excited me. I must feel like all the Hout Bay residents who have participated in the “Imagine!” initiative — that if these small things are possible amongst these different divided groups, then so is much much more.

As we part, I take a photograph of Bronwen and her bicycle in front of the Sentinel Mountain which has stood marking the entrance of the bay for millennia. There is something of that stillness in Bronwen too. Driving again out of Hout Bay, I am left with her words ringing in my head: “hold the vision and keep inviting people in.”

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