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How human connections can form a solid foundation for social change- Lessons for the Unusual Suspects Festival

Author: Duncan Collins-Adams
Published Date: 17 May 2017

At times it seems no wonder that social isolation and loneliness are on the increase. Quite frankly it’s tough out there, with rising inequalities in health, education, housing and public services that appear to be closer to breaking point than ever before.

Tough times can also be tough on our relationships as human beings. We find it more difficult to build new relationships, to admit that we don’t have all the answers, to collaborate, to empathise, to understand, to help others, and to ask for help from others. It’s all too easy to start looking inward. If we recognise that strong, positive relationships, are the key to solving issues we face during tough times, then why are human connections so often overlooked when attempting to tackle and address social challenges?

This was the main area of focus of the Marmalade event that I attend at the beginning of April. Marmalade is an annual, informal, dynamic and free event that takes place every year in Oxford. At its core, Marmalade is a series of events in which participants generated solutions and content to tackle some of society’s most pressing social and environmental challenges.

The event was run by Camerados, Arts at the Old Fire Station and Mayday Trust. These three organisations, all supported by Lankelly Chase, constantly ‘do’ and advocate innovation as a means of tackling social challenges. Throughout the day, our own prejudices, experiences and opinions were challenged, provoked and tested. We began the day as a group of 47 people who had little connection between us, but by the end, we had collaboratively crafted and designed, a number of practical solutions to tackling social isolation in Oxford.

Although the event was Oxford focussed, there was a large cross over between the purpose and values of SIX’s Unusual Suspects Festival. Both emphasise the importance of putting human relationships and connections first. There is far more that connects us that there is that divides us as human beings, and sometimes it is too easy to retreat into our echo chambers and comfort zones. In these times of uncertainty, powerlessness and frustration, we have to establish and consolidate positive relationships as a platform from which to work, if we really are committed to tackling chronic social challenges

I left the Marmalade session with similar conclusions to those I took from my Unusual Suspects Festival experiences in Glasgow and Northern Ireland. Reaching out can be hard. It’s not easy to admit that we don’t have all the answers and to try and empathize with people holding views that challenge your own. Getting out of our own comfort zones can be difficult and it’s not for the faint hearted. However, given that positive relationships, as well as hearing unusual perspectives, can have a hugely transformative effect on the way in which we work and think, it is important to keep the following in mind:

  • That we often share more than we initially think we do (this was highlighted to us during the Marmalade event through an “All that we Share” style icebreaker)
  • Stigmatism should always be challenged- We have to let go of any pre-existing judgements
  • A mix of people, voices, perspectives and lived experiences is crucial to any conversation
  • Learning from failures is far more important than learning from successes
  • It is ok to make yourself vulnerable, and to accept we might not have all the answers
  • The importance of letting go of personal agendas, and accepting uncertainty – which can be liberating and, potentially, transformative


Looking ahead to the Unusual Suspects Festival next month, we’ll be revisiting these themes. We’ll also be creating space for exchanges to take place, which will challenge participants and catalyse fresh ways of thinking and behaving.