In January we published our Manifesto for a Collaborative Society. Here we explore a ‘green shoot’ that helps demonstrate what a collaborative society looks like and the shifts in mindset and behaviours it requires.

Inthis interview, we hear from Theodora Cadbury, founder of Xenia, a community group in Hackney that brings together women from all countries and backgrounds to connect with each other, share experiences and practice English. Theodora talks about the multiple types of collaboration at the heart of Xenia’s work, identifies how working in this way has challenged traditional structures and hierarchies and explores the wider implications for a Collaborative Society.

Where did the idea for Xenia come from?

It started as a search for something I was convinced must surely exist already. In 2015 I was working in Brent to support people into volunteering, and I was meeting plenty of people who couldn’t find a volunteering role that was right for them.

The majority of people fell into two main groups. There were women from migrant backgrounds who wanted to volunteer to improve their English, meet people, feel less isolated and contribute to their local area. It was a real struggle to find something that was sociable to meet their needs, and didn’t require high levels of English. Then there were British women who had become aware of the migrant crisis and wanted to help, but who wanted to do something more human than providing office support or packing aid parcels. For both groups of women flexibility was an issue as so many volunteering opportunities require a level of commitment that didn’t fit in with their work or caring responsibilities.

Xenia started with the simple question of how to bring together these two groups of women to meet each other’s needs. And how to do so in a way that disrupts the traditional power hierarchies in volunteering — so that all women participate as equals to learn and make connections, not to be categorised as ‘volunteer’ or ‘beneficiary’.

I reached out to organisations involved in migrant support and English language learning to test the idea. The response I got was unanimous — there was a role for the kind of group I was suggesting, and there were similar groups but none currently running that had such a strong focus on learning language through social interactions, particularly in a women-only setting.

We ran the first experiment bringing together women in Hackney in June 2016 based on the premise that ‘everyone is a student, and everyone is a teacher.’ It was a great success, so we went on to hold monthly, and then weekly sessions. This was enabled by a free venue and support with connecting to local networks from Hackney Museum. We use the Museum collections to bring objects and stories to life in conversations between women from different backgrounds, and to create new experiences together. To date we have welcomed almost 400 women from nearly 60 countries to our sessions in Hackney. The group is known as Xenia — a Greek word for hospitality and love between hosts and people who are far from home.

What role does collaboration play in Xenia’s work?

Xenia is all about fostering connections between women. There is a distinct sensation when you’re involved in conversations in Xenia sessions — that you’re part of a family made up of differences, and your main aim is to understand each other. You’re united by this shared aim which is ultimately about communicating, developing relationships and learning about new cultures. It’s this sense of connection and openness to learning from all participants that creates the safe space for women learning English to start expressing their true selves in a new language.

Xenia sessions are made possible and enriched through our mutually beneficial collaborations with partner organisations. We work with partners to get new participants to come along to sessions (through outreach and referrals), and in turn we signpost participants to local services, activities and support that might benefit them. We encourage and support participants to facilitate sessions on skills and topics they want to share with others, and we also deliver sessions in partnership with local organisations. This enables a collaborative approach to supporting women: giving partners the platform to engage with women they might not normally, and providing participants with a diverse range of experiences, from gardening to cookery to art to campaigning to accessing services.

In your experience, what does it take to collaborate effectively?

It’s important to let go of ego — both individually and as an organisation. There’s a lot of humility that naturally goes into how Xenia works with others, as we always value others’ opinions and expertise. We are also always generous with our voice when we collaborate. If someone gives us something in kind or is doing something we think is great, we shout about it — by appreciating others and not taking support for granted, we are nurturing really positive partnerships.

Our focus on shared aims extends to how we operate as an organisation. Xenia is run by an Organising Team, the majority of whom give their time voluntarily. These volunteers don’t fulfil a formal externally-defined role. Instead, they have responded to a call to support something they’re passionate about and develop their role based on their interests and skills. This is one reason I think we’ve had such good volunteer retention. The Organising Team is non-hierarchical, with volunteers and paid staff having an equal say in decision making, always informed by participant involvement.

It hasn’t always been easy. Traditional ways of organising aren’t as inclusive and collaborative as we want to be so we’ve had to think really hard about things like employing staff and registering as a charity. By thinking carefully at each stage we have found ways to stay true to our values rather than just accepting the ways things are traditionally done.

What are the implications for a Collaborative Society?

The best collaborations come out of meaningful relationships between people. We model the values that underpin Xenia sessions — everyone has something to share and something to learn — in our relationships with everyone, from local partners to large national charities. Connecting as people first, focusing on shared values, and being humble and generous in what we offer has enabled us to achieve far more than we would have ever thought as a small, new organisation.

To be part of and help create a Collaborative Society, we need to create spaces that bring people together to make everyone feel that they have a voice and can make an equal contribution. It might be harder work, but I think it’s worth it to get to where we want to be as a society.

To find out more about Xenia, watch our video, visit the website, connect on Twitter or contact [email protected]