10 year undercurrents

Louise Armstrong
12 min readAug 6, 2021
Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

Taking the time to reflect and take stock of the work I’ve done over the last decade has enabled me to see some repeating patterns and themes — or consistent undercurrents — that have shown up in many different ways through the different projects and areas of work.

I’m being quite intentional about undercurrents too, as they are strong forces that aren’t always seen or grasped but whose presence is felt. They have the power to lift up and support, as well as sometimes feeling overwhelming and too much. The use of metaphors of water and flow has in itself been a recurring and increasingly frequent theme of the work I’ve been part of, in contrast to more linear and mechanistic metaphors that have been dominant before.

These undercurrents have been generated largely through playing a part in a spectrum of collaborative initiatives and inquiries seeking systems change and a more sustainable future. My work has been predominantly about designing, facilitating, organising and supporting the spaces and approaches to bring people together to explore, embody and live out alternative futures, through projects like Sustainable Shipping Initiative, Civil Society Futures, Boundless Roots and the Peckham Coal Line. Key characteristics have been that they have had a future lens and ambition; have brought people and groups together who haven’t worked with each other before; have involved a commitment over a series of years; have an intention and ambition to create a more sustainable world; and value the process and experience of doing as much as any outcome.

I’m sharing these as a way of reflecting and bringing closure of this cycle for myself. Naming them and giving them form is also a way of making sense of where I am intuitively putting my attention now, and where much of my energy and work is flowing as this next cycle begins.

I’m also sharing them because they may give form and a frame for other people’s experiences, in the hope that they may resonate or perhaps give ideas for things to pay more attention to for fellow changemakers.

Each of these areas has a whole lot more to be unpacked and explored. I could talk for hours about each of them. I’ve found it easy to speak and name these undercurrents — so if you want the raw thinking, here are the reflections in process audio. This written piece below has turned into more of a messy and imperfect personal reflection than originally intended, but I am sharing it nevertheless.

Governance as a root to transformation

The transformative potential of collaborations depends on how effective and enabling the governance and ways of organising are.

So much of the last decade for me has been about backtracking and patching up misunderstandings about values, expectations, ways of working, roles and decision making. Many of these could have been avoided if more attention had been paid to these aspects of governance early on — or more consciously through the work together.

Many collaborative endeavours — including those I’ve been part of — start by creating a vision for what could be, then rush to set up a fixed structure or start to ‘do the work’ of making the vision real. Often this means little attention is paid to how they need to organise, or who is and isn’t part of the journey and decision, and risks simply creating new silos with fancy new words and ‘innovative’ processes. This fast pace of going with the energy and getting things moving can exclude people who might have things to contribute and recreate oppressive and unhealthy systems of power, undermining the collaborative intent.

Part of the route to shifting this undercurrent is to think about how we understand, think about and view governance. Governance isn’t static but an evolving journey — and as such has the potential to be transformative, if we pay more attention to it. As a contribution to this, we’ve looked at the different elements of governance to be designing from and reflecting on, and explored some of the governance myths that we need to shift to really do this:

Elements of governance figure

Question now: How do we create the spaces to learn, inquire and pay attention to governance in order to unlock its transformative potential?

How resources flow

Funders have an undeniable gravitational force and impact on the landscape of change and what is possible, and too many funding organisations don’t recognise that

This will be a familiar story and dynamic for many who are doing collaborative work. The resources made available for system change endeavours have to fit in a predefined box, yet so often they don’t feel available for long enough. After a year you know what you’re doing, you know who you’re working with better, you’ve built relationships and the trust is there; you start to do stuff, the true potential is now understood and then the funding stops and so does the legitimacy to act. The fate and future appears to be determined by those so often not part of the process and journey. The trauma of the projectification is not to be underestimated. Start, activate, rush to create impact. Stop. Repeat.

At best funding provides the enabling resources and conditions, accountability and mutual learning relationships — I’m seeing this happen more and more. As with everything, there are some pockets of hope and inspirational practice with the likes of Lankelly Chase, Edge Funders, London Funders Network and New Profit, among others, and I’ve just been supporting the team at The National Lottery Community Foundation to bring their Growing Great Ideas programme to life.

These approaches are possible when those in funding organisations understand more about the nature of how change happens and their role in enabling this. So to really shift how resource flows we need to build the capacity of funders to understand change in a systematic way and to be either actively participating in it, or truly enabling it by listening to those with the practice of making it real.

Sometimes it feels like there is too much focus on money being the answer, but really it’s a whole wealth of resources that is needed. True systems-change work takes time, well beyond 1 or 2 year project cycles, and resources and energy that go well beyond money. It’s about investing time, a commitment to a shared journey, co-learning, and processing the messy, unknown and uncomfortable parts of the work which is only possible through mutually supportive relationships.

Question now: what are the funder learning spaces to develop this practice? How do we create co-learning spaces for all actors needed in change?

Endings as beginnings, a full cycle of change

Endings as an investment and key learning for new beginnings

The thrill, novelty and adrenaline of starting something new is addictive. I love the start of a new project when everything feels possible and the messy, complicated complexity of relationships hasn’t yet hit. In contrast I have realised I’ve paid very little attention, time and energy to the closing of the work I’ve been involved with (until recently- BR link) and that now feels like an oversight. There is a pattern in that we pay so much attention and investment to the beginnings of things, and we don’t invest in the learning and closing of things. Not supporting the people or work and ideas to find new ground or seed into the next places can create shame, pain and trauma, and inhibit the future ability to act.

The end or close of a project is too easy to ignore. Much simpler to brush aside the tricky conversations, sweep away the tough bits, and not have to face up to our role in the ending. It’s far easier and less vulnerable not to really think about what you did or perhaps didn’t achieve and be confronted with your limitations, but in doing this are we denying insight for others? How can we learn from different initiatives and what has come before? How can we value the learning and reflective process so we can make new mistakes rather than repeating old ones?

A big part of this is being unwilling to confront our own mortality, in which, wider cultural factors play a role — there are few spaces in which to talk about death or loss, or to process the inevitable grief in a shared or healthy way.

If we were more learning- and ending-literate, would it help us to see loss, closure and death as part of a whole cycle of change? Paying attention to the endings as much as to the beginnings might be a start, being more intentional about closing and ending in the life cycle of change — be that a project, programme, an organisation, or an individual and their role. Initiatives like Stewarding Loss are starting to develop framing and practices around this, and there is a burgeoning community of grief tenders hosting spaces for people to process their grief. These spaces help to reframe learning and loss as necessary and positive forces that can ultimately drive change and impact. And in turn this can create a reflective learning culture and practices that run throughout the life cycle of individual projects or work, rather than just reflecting at the end.

Questions now: How can we allow the collective wisdom that has been created to seed and support the future endeavours yet to come?

What are the practices forworking with loss and grief and intentional endings that are needed to enable truly regenerative cultures?

How can we shift to a healthier relationship with — and culture around — loss, closure, grief and endings?

Support and nurture the people

Supporting the people living and enabling change

It is easy to focus on the outcomes of the physical manifestations of change and forget that so often a team of people is what lies underneath all of that. Supporting the people that are running, hosting, designing, facilitating, doulaing the change feels so key.

“we need to find a way to better guide people through — using feelings — in tune with the people we’re working with. Orchestrating change is like a performance — we need to acknowledge just how much this takes out of you as an individual — make the safe space to do this and recalibrate, have time — really nurture people”
Team away day reflections, 2013

Living the change you’re seeking to influence more widely gives more grounded experience and authenticity in engaging with the topic. It can feel hypocritical if your practice is not grounded in that.

“This is about people — not projects
We need to care for each of us involved
We need to trust each other”
2017 reflections

It’s tough, holding space for multiple different people and a whole raft of varying activities, while you yourself are changing. All the while challenging the way things are done or understood, and supporting others to do the same. It’s exhausting… It goes well beyond the neat confines of a ‘job’ or a ‘role’ — it requires you to invest your time, your energy, your life to explore these different elements. And it can be a very lonely place. Too often there are only a small handful of people really paying attention to the design and the process, and that is not always healthy over the long term. How can we feel less alone? Create spaces and approaches that mean that we don’t have to invent new things every time, but that allow/create the support that has sometimes felt quite scarce when doing this work.

But when I’ve felt supported, it can be really life-giving. It has helped to have people to coach, allowing you to take a step back, zoom out and reflect on the bigger picture. Having people you can be brutally honest with and can talk with as peers, without judgment or misunderstanding or having to justify why you took that approach in the first instance. Who will ask questions to help make sense of the experiences, rather than jump to ideas and solutions about what is needed. Boundless Roots was a game changer for me: a supportive inquiry community that helped me to navigate through the pandemic — feeling my shoulders drop and feel more relaxed and able to be myself when I joined the calls and always leaving feeling nourished.

Question now: where are / how can we create the spaces, communities, platforms for the true learning and inquiry experience amongst peers?

Power awareness — cultivating healthy power

From a blindspot to a life’s practice

This is the strongest of all the undercurrents — as it manifests and impacts all of the above. Effective systems change has to be cultivating healthy power and shifting the unhealthy dynamics.

This one has been both a blindspot for me and a real learning edge over the last 4 years in particular. Really understanding the prevalence of systemic racism and injustice,my own role in this and the role the work I’m doing, has been affronting, disparaging, deeply uncomfortable and a release for so much that is latent, implicit and unspoken. Unlearning and dismantling your own supremacy and understanding and paying attention to your own behaviours, biases and assumptions is the starting point for fellow white people and those who hold some form of privilege. Without doing this as changemakers we’re just perpetuating the systems we’re seeking to shift.

‘The climate crisis has been created by historical processes of injustice that have created power dynamics that affect our ability to make changes in our own lives. It has left us with structural and relational blockers to radical changes in how we live. We need to name and reframe power in our messaging and embody healthy power in our relationships and invest in process leadership to design and facilitate healthy power”
Boundless Roots inquiry

This is work that will outlive us and will always be part of the backdrop to our lives. It’s too easy to not do this hard work; it’s not an option to not engage any longer. It’s not comfortable or easy — that’s the point. It can feel so big it’s hard to know where to start — and like nothing you can do is ever going to be good enough. There is a sense that you need to change everything immediately, but this unlearning and rewiring will take time. But the more we practice speaking about it in the everyday, the more we’re nurturing a culture to work with and really shift this. It must be part of a consistent practice and part of our lives.

Question now: how can we be accountable to this work over our lifetime? How can we ensure this is a consistent part of our life’s work?

Where the currents flow

The last decade has been about the practice of change, learning by doing. Some of these themes are the next horizons that I can see. I’d love to know if these resonate or are useful for those working in the wider field of change.

In one sense these undercurrents are enablers of all of the different system-change endeavours and transformations that are underway. Without paying attention to these things that cut across all of these different areas it is going to be impossible to create this change.

— — — — — -


I mentioned that I’m following these threads into my next cycle of life and work. While I am open to where and how I do this, I do have some starting places and people to be inquiring into these with, so for each undercurrent, I’m sharing some of the links to the projects, people and places that I will be learning with and from and am inspired by.

— > Governance as a root to transformation

Intentions for next:

— > How resources flow

Intentions for next

  • I’m working to design and facialite the Investors in Change program, co-initiated by School of Systems Change, Forum for the Future, Ashoka, Catalyst 2030, Garfield Foundation and Lankelly Chase. There is a bubbling need for more co-inquiry and the creation of mutual learning space beyond the formal learning programs
  • The work of the Transforming Capital Initiative is really inspiring to think about how to frame think about this differently
  • Supporting funders and investors to design and develop innovative funding practices, supporting as a learning partner and as a coach and facilitator
  • Underpinning all of this is a very personal element — wanting to understand more about my own relationship to money, make it part of early conversations with people I am working with. Being intentional about designing the relationship I want to have to money.

— > Endings as beginnings, the full cycle of change

Intentions for next:

  • I’m planning to work with Iona Lawrence to support the next iterations of Stewarding Loss and Care-ful Closures. are starting to develop framing and practices around this
  • Grief in Community is a source of inspiration and home of the inspiring Apprenticing to Grief program
  • I’m wondering about hosting monthly grief tending sessions for change makers
  • Hoping to support the connecting of a burgeoning community of grief tenders hosting spaces and for people to process their grief.

— >Support and nurture the people

Intention for next:

— >Power awareness — cultivating healthy power

Intentions for next:

  • Have this as a lens for the decisions I take, the work I do
  • Finish reading My Grandmother’s Hands and start Braiding Sweetgrass
  • learn more about my own trauma and what a healthy human culture looks and feels like for me



Louise Armstrong

#livingchange / navigating / designing / facilitating / doula of change