Braziers is a conscious experiment in living together. It was founded in 1950 to explore how a group could develop more harmonious relationships and more effective group structures. The founder of Braziers, Norman Glaister (a social psychologist) had a vision of substituting organisations of knowledge, understanding and sympathy for organisations based on power, avoiding too great a concentration of power in a few hands. Needless to say this was somewhat ground breaking for that period of time.
Amusingly, six people answered the door! They were curious about who could have knocked on the door since no one ever did that! I introduced myself and they did the same, everyone smiling and happy to introduce me to the people I needed to speak to regarding all the practicalities of staying there for a few days. It’s incredible how any pre-meeting nerves can dissipate so quickly just as soon as the present takes hold.
What I want to share about Braziers Park is simply what stuck in my mind in the short time I was there. For all the details about the history, main areas of responsibility and details on their publications ad research see the website (above).
I had hoped to stay for 2 or 3 weeks but was told that they were full at this time. Despite not needing a room in the beautiful Strawberry Hill Gothic house (see pictures in gallery), as a volunteer I would be eating food and using electricity, all of which adds to the strain on the community’s finances. I was visiting instead as a paying member of the annual summer school on ‘Understanding Groups. Most of the volunteers were young Europeans, there to experience community living and develop their English. Braziers has a long history of hosting young foreign volunteers who want to learn English and in my opinion it is a great asset to the place having all these different cultures mixing within the community. The summer school coincided with a reunion which brought past residents and volunteers from as far back as the 50s together again to celebrate, remember and work once more within the community.
At Braziers Park decision making is by consensus with agreed levels of autonomy. They meet twice a week as a community, in the sensory meetings they ‘contemplate’ any issues on the contemplanda and on Thursdays they have a decision making meeting informed by the feelings of the Tuesday meeting. There are also daily morning meetings where the community checks in by sharing anything on their minds, followed by an allocation of the practical tasks for the day.
My, perhaps stereotypical, view of these kinds of communities was of groups of young people living together pioneering alternative social models and practicing low impact living. It had not occurred to me that there would be communities whose members and residents are of much older generations too. Of course Brazier’s has been in existence since the 50s so one might expect this to be the case. There are children and young adults, families and one lady in her 90s still resident in the community. It is a beautiful thing to see a community able to support its residents through the full cycle of life.
In the opening phases of the summer school it was great to hear some of the reunion participants speak of their time at Braziers. One Japanese artist lived in the community for 17 years (1985 – 2002). About Braziers he said: “I had the best time and the worst time of my life here in this community”. He now lives happily in Japan, alone! Another lady said that when she comes back to Braziers she just feels like she can be herself. Despite all the talk of difficulty in living communally, the fact that there was tension and confrontation clearly on display in one of the morning meetings I attended, and even the opening question asked at the summer school on the theme of how we deal with conflict and difficulties in groups; people love this place. They keep coming back to revisit the place, see old friends and remember how special the time was spent in this community.
One of the most fascinating parts of the summer school was a workshop on Empathy. It had been mooted that ‘empathy’ as a quality whose power to ease conflict, dispel fear and shift perspectives could go a long way to solving many of societies current social problems. Indeed one lady spoke of the need for everyone to be injected with 7 doses of empathy on a daily basis! We watched a fascinating Ted Talk by Roman Krznaric:
Following this we took one of the themes of the talk which was about striking up a conversation with a stranger. We broke it down into the conditions which act as a barrier or an aid to doing this. I have included a picture of the list that we came up with. We then went into a series of exercises. I’ll only talk about the one which had quite a profound effect on me.
We were asked to go out of the room and then return in silence. We took our seats as an audience on either side of the room. A scarf was laid across the centre of the room and we were told that it represented a water course that 2 volunteers would have to cross as they walked their life’s path (from one side of the room to the other passing each other at a certain point along the way). Without any guidance as to how we should cross the water course or the pace at which to walk, people would just use their imagination, for example by role playing a rowing boat to take you across the river. Being my usual sceptical self I was not first, but last in a pair with a lady called Sue. As I walked quite slowly towards the river (for me it was a river and I was pretty sure I was going to swim across it because I love to swim!) I could of course see Sue walking reasonably slowly towards me on the other side of the river (if indeed it was a river for her). I looked at her mainly to acknowledge her from a distance and to begin to get an idea how we might pass one another. Would there be an exchange, a friendly smile and nod, or would we just walk past each other without acknowledgment. Sue was not looking at me. She was looking to the ground. When I arrived at the river I tested the water, jumped in and swam across. When I stood up on the other side Sue was just approaching. We shared a gaze and I offered a passing smile whilst continuing to move along my life’s path to the other side of the room. After just passing her, my eyes swept round to face my destination once more. I had noticed something in the way Sue was behaving, she was hesitating and she looked anxious. I had a rapid realisation that she was in need of help. I made the decision to go back (not knowing if that was against the rules or not!). Not knowing what the problem was, I offered her some help to cross the water course which seemed to be troubling her. With a hand to lift her across she was on her way and I continued on my way.
At the end of the exercise Sue had tears in her eyes. For her it had reminded her of the difficulty she has faced with asking for help. I felt as if someone had just put a mirror up to my behaviour and showed me something quite revealing about myself. You see, in silence, in the middle of an imaginary exercise in front of 12 onlookers, I had connected with Sue. But it might not have happened. Had I not walked slow enough, had I not paid enough attention by being preoccupied with my own actions as opposed to trying to understand Sue’s, or had I not been feeling strong enough to break the perceived rules of the game, then I might not have turned round and the moment would have been missed and gone forever. This simple exercise slowed down a daily occurrence and made me realise how many opportunities to connect go sliding by (too fast in real time to turn back!). It forced me to ask the question: What will I do to stop these opportunities to connect from passing me by in the future?