What’s 1,200 miles long, takes 20 weeks, and involves a couple of thousand people? …The outworkings of a mad idea to walk from Cornwall to Glasgow to witness to COP26, the UN climate change conference, due to be held in the UK for the first time.
Now it’s all said and done, everyone is home, and the evaluation report is just about written, what follows is my own personal evaluation report.
At the beginning of 2021, I and others wondered how as a group of 18-30s we could draw attention to the decisions that our government were going to be making, and we decided to organise a pilgrimage-style journey as a way of getting people to take time to prepare and notice COP26.
I can’t remember now what first made us think about doing this first, but I do remember talking with Josh Evans, who would become the other co-lead organiser, and realising that we were both ‘all in’ on making it happen. On 23rd January 2021, we formally decided to undertake planning.
Given the context at this time, with the UK in national lockdown as a response to coronavirus, with government confirmation of COP26 only expected in April, and our own work and study commitments as a network, we decided to organise this as a Relay. The idea was that people would join in the journey locally and for periods of time which they could manage.
This idea evolved into a 1,200 mile journey, through 10 major cities in which we were to organise a programme of events. We wanted to invite others to journey with us: physically along the route, spiritually in prayer, practically in the organising and campaigning. We hoped that as a group of young people we would act as a friendly messenger for churches and people of faith who would otherwise not necessarily engage in climate activism, to take action in an easy and relevant way in the months ahead of COP26. We had a particular focus on climate finance, which we knew would be a major issue during the COP26 negotiations. We hoped this focus would help churches connect with climate change in a new way, linking it to issues of structural debt and global justice.
Just 8 weeks after deciding to organise the Relay we had defined the route, separated it into 20 route sections, and created volunteer descriptions. We needed 30 key volunteer team leaders for each route section (Route Section Team Leaders, RSTLs) and every major city (Residency Hub Team Leaders, RHTLs). We set up who they would report to internally, a sign up mechanism and corresponding data tracking spreadsheet for all the roles across the route which was GDPR compliant, email addresses for correspondence, and it was also during this time that we sought funding. Information about the Relay went live on our website in April.
The Relay to COP26 began on June 14th 2021. The send-out service from Truro Cathedral was itself a huge achievement. The 5 YCCN members who attended constituted the largest in-person gathering of the network at that time.
Over the following 20 weeks of walking, we built relationships, hosted events, preached at church services, gave radio interviews, convened local politicians and faith leaders, and 2,500 people carried the Relay to COP26 flag as we journeyed up the country.
The arrival of the Relay to COP26 on October 30th 2021 was an incredibly emotional day. Many of YCCN remained present in Glasgow throughout the 2 weeks of COP26 itself. Our closing service at St George’s church will be something we all remember for a long time to come.
I walked three sections of the Relay to COP26 (Bath to Salisbury, Sheffield to Manchester, Edinburgh to Glasgow). I walked across beautiful meadows in Wiltshire, got interviewed by school children for their magazine, learned to be a lead walker and navigate with OS maps, was given a tour of a dovecot, was made breakfast at 5am in morning because we were walking in a heatwave, enjoyed a ride in a Tesla, stood on the roof of Salisbury cathedral, met with at least 15 local councillors, 3 bishops, 2 MPs, a Baroness, a mayor, and the Deputy First Minister of Scotland, addressed 150 people at Sheffield cathedral, was invited to give impromptu speeches in a number of church halls and services, and was interviewed 8 times for radio and TV.
There are many things I have learned along the way, whether it be lost person protocols, reimbursement procedures and public liability insurance, or regional differences, banner-making, march logistics and protest songs. But beyond the practicalities, I learned some other lessons too –
- A small team of committed people can do anything. There is no way that on paper the group of us organising the Relay should have been able to do what we did. I have learned that ordinary people have all sorts of extraordinary skills. There are lots of things that I learned on the Relay, but considering I was a co-lead organiser it is perhaps surprising that I did the route-planning for precisely 0 miles (!). I gained a huge appreciating for the multitude of extravagant gifts that people brought to the Relay in a thousand forms that I hadn’t ever considered. The lavish cake presented to us by a URC church in the South-West was the first indication I had that the Relay would not just be a masterclass in how to give, but also in how to receive.
- Celebrity is a dehumanising force. The first question we would be asked by hosts or the media would be “so, who here has walked the furthest?” I have come to understand the driver of celebrity in a new way, encountering both its strength and its inhumanity. Celebrity lies – it seeks to fixate on one attribute and fetishise it for the sake of narrative simplicity. For this reason, it must reject the nuance of truth, and whoever it ensnares finds themselves transfigured into an entity which is necessarily not who they really are. This year has been the first time (in the smallest of ways) I’ve met people with some sort of preconception in their mind about who I am, and I have found this stifling. People’s admiration is a barrier to real friendship, it interrupts genuine connection. Celebrity is based on exceptionalism, it estranges, it doesn’t unify.
- Leaders are shock-absorbers. I have a new appreciation for those who lead. Previously I viewed people ‘at the top’ as invulnerable. I now appreciate the ways in which people leading will always see many more problems, and therefore feel that much more precarious, than those tangentially involved in something. This can make leading lonely – the activity of shock-absorbing is often not appropriate to share, and this introduces distance between you and others. It can also make praise easier to dismiss, because you have a much more intimate understanding of all the areas of weakness, and criticism harder to accept, because you know it is offered by someone who doesn’t have the same set of data points that you do.
- Crowds show up for the show, not the struggle. The hardest part of organising the Relay by far was February-June. During those months (which also ft. 3 jobs and a house move) I would have been so immensely thankful for additional support. It felt like the main response to asking for help was to be reminded about the dangers of burnout, and I was surprised when people subsequently turned up for events and marches and social occasions or wrote their congratulations, having been unresponsive to prior requests for practical support. It stung because it felt like I myself wasn’t enough of a reason for someone to decide to act, but my being able to offer an opportunity was. I don’t have any regrets about the choices I made, despite the level of stress I experienced for many months of this year (at least 10 times more stressful than Cambridge finals), because I know why I did what I did and it has given me a far greater self-awareness of my ability to cope under pressure. I also understand now that crowds show up for the show. It’s not personal (“the world is not ungenerous, just unimaginative and very busy”). I will be much better able to anticipate these dynamics in future and for that I am very grateful. (I also now really understand the value of people spontaneously messaging to ask how they can pray, or thinking about what they could offer a project and going ahead and making arrangements).
- You can’t wait for consensus. You need to get a read on shared feeling, and listen carefully to every opinion, especially those going in the opposite direction to you. But I promise you that if you let negative opinions operate as a veto, you will never take a single step (YCCN would never exist, that’s for sure). The flip side of this is that decision-makers must readily admit fault, and accept that they will make the wrong calls on occasion. Those helping prior to a decision need to accept the final call made by the person whose responsibility it is and cannot play ‘I told you so’ cards, but can only help out afresh on the subsequent situations that play out. The Relay would be virtually unrecognisable if I had called all the shots (not to mention far worse: no boat, no tributaries, no Welsh leg). Everyone is CEO of their own role and they shouldn’t be left waiting for instruction and permission.
- Inaction isn’t neutral. Not making a decision is a decision. Taking managed risks is a necessity. Things always go wrong, and so long as there are people involved these things won’t be predictable. In the same way that just because the surest way to avoid to carbon emissions would be death, doesn’t mean death is the answer; just because the only thing you can get full agreement on is inaction, doesn’t mean that inaction is the answer. The root of indecision is often a fear of suffering consequences. Not only does indecision not avoid suffering, it robs you of ever knowing how to live.
- Be more Newcastle Cathedral (it’s all about attitude). Along the course of the Relay we essentially made the same invitation hundreds of times to different churches, and received a vast number of different responses. It was amazing how the same request was an impossibility to some, and a welcome invitation to others. In some places the set-up of the boat caused upset and concern, and in others it was a giant jigsaw and opportunity for team-bonding. I want to be like Newcastle Cathedral when I grow up: upon arrival I found the boat already assembled, without us having asked, and they shrugged and said without consternation they’d actually had to do it twice because they realised they couldn’t get it under a particular archway. There have been a million problems to solve to get the Relay to Glasgow, and a million opportunities to declare it all too much. A spirit of willing problem-solving will get you a long way towards solving problem.
- Good communication is a lot about expectation setting. People will tolerate a much greater degree of chaos than their baseline if you tell them well in advance that you are going to impose a large degree of chaos, are clear about how this will likely affect them, remind them about the chaos and its effects before it strikes, praise their capacity for chaos-toleration, and then profusely thank them for their receipt of chaos. (This is linked to one of my 100 lessons for life: acknowledgement is a form of justice).
- Accepting loss of control is the only way to participate in grace. You don’t get to know and you don’t get to decide the impact of what you do. The most you can do is choose to participate and offer up your gifts best you can in the same spirit of fun and conviction as waving to a train which is too far in the distance to determine whether or not anyone waves back.
At its best, the Relay captured what is made possible by people of faith acting in faith. It’s been quite the journey, and there is no way that we started out with the skills or resources needed. It is the generosity of people around the country helping us with route-planning, venues, offers of accommodation, banner-making, and huge quantities of cake, that got us to Glasgow.
Along the way, we learned that parsnip wine tastes like ‘fortified straw’, we joked that this was secretly a ‘five star relay’ because of the incredible hospitality we were blessed with, and we were also deeply touched by the church in the North East who replaced the traditional lump of coal they put on the altar at Harvest with a mini solar panel.
It’s been quite the journey.