New Narratives for Wild Times

Commonweal’s latest resilience project fosters a global community of practice

The Omega Resilience Awards (ORA) is the newest addition to Commonweal’s growing body of programs working to promote resilience and healing in the face of the global polycrisis. As political, social, and economic stressors deepen and amplify one another around the world, ORA’s work to find new narratives to demystify complexity and inspire hope for these turbulent times has acquired a keen sense of urgency. It does this through executing an innovative fellowship program focused on supporting emerging leaders, thinkers, artists, and activists in the Global South. ORA also manages a research grant portfolio directed towards projects interested in field mapping, narrative strategies, and new models of economic development.

ORA is hitting its stride moving into its second full year of operation, so we asked ORA Co-director Mark Valentine to share his reflections about this exciting  program.

You just got back from visiting ORA Partners in Argentina and Kenya. What is Commonweal doing in these parts of the world?

In grappling with the complexity of the polycrisis, early on we came to the realization that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to describing how it manifests on the ground in different parts of the world—nor what constitutes durable, resilient responses. So we made an important early strategic decision to identify key partners in priority regions and work with them to design a flexible fellowship structure. This approach allows for regional customization and also teasing out cross-regional themes.

Our partners, which we refer to as Anchors, include Start Up! based in Delhi; the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) based in Benin City, Nigeria; and Colectivo de Acción por la Justicia Ecosocial (CAJE) based in Buenos Aires. While the majority of work at both the regional and global level is online, we believe it’s critical that the Anchors and Fellows meet in person at least once during their year-long fellowship.

Visiting the small and beautiful Liberation (Ukombozi) Library in Nairobi, with one of the ORA Fellows. Photo: Susan Grelock-Yusem.

The ORA Africa community just met in person for the first time in Kenya. It was truly invigorating to join this gathering and get a deeper sense of each fellow—who they are as people and their unique work. And also to see how they have gelled together as a community. In November of last year, ORA Fellows in Latin America met in Buenos Aires under the aegis of our Latin American Anchor, CAJE. As was the case in Africa, it was wonderful to finally meet the fellows in person. A trip to India is planned for the fall of this year. I can’t stress enough how lucky we are to have such wonderful partners who create these cross-cultural intersections.

As you’ve described, ORA Is a dynamic global program. Participants in the fellowship include an award-winning photojournalist in India, young movement builders in East Africa, and an indigenous healer fighting a global mega-dam project in her ancestral lands in Chile. What brings these diverse people together?  

One of the comments that I’ve heard from a number of fellows is how much they appreciated the thoughtful application process, as it helped them place their work in the larger context of the polycrisis. They also have told me how much they appreciate the diversity of the cohorts. It’s rare in their experience to have such diversity in one small cohort. For example, in Africa, there is a journalist, climate activist, reproductive health advocate, scholars of traditional knowledge, and a researcher focused on the concepts of rest and resilience from indigenous African perspective.

Though the fellows work across disciplines, they have shared values around promoting resilience and healing in these times, as well as working across divides. They tend to be biocentrist systems thinkers, visionaries and champions for a more resilient future. They’re thinking about how we can thrive, rather than simply survive, together.

A fellowship program isn’t a novel idea. What is unique about the ORA fellowship model?

In my time working in the philanthropic and nonprofit realms, I’ve become familiar with dozens of fellowships. And compared to many, we’re modestly resourced with the ability to make $10,000 awards to each fellow. In studying the field, we decided to adopt a non-traditional approach.

Fundamentally, we’re deeply rooted in the Commonweal values of healing, resilience, and justice. We’re introducing the concept of healing directly into the work, through the use of Healing Circles in the ORA community, as well as how we think of resilience narratives.

We also use a non-hierarchical operation model. Early on, we decided to empower our regional anchors to drive the recruitment and cohort formation process. We’re actively consulted, but they make all final decisions. We believe this regional community-building process is more resilient when it is led by regionally rooted organizations with deep history in the regions and a commitment to sustaining the work, rather than by us, a nascent global initiative.

ORA also uses a trust-based model, which is still quite uncommon. We’ve designed the program to be quite flexible. The Fellows are invited to participate in a series of structured conversations—we call them Catalyst Conversations—probing how the polycrisis and resilience manifest across regions. Topics have included: Collective voices—How do we build community and support youth in incoherent times? and Seeds of knowledge and preservation of wisdom—How can we envision and act in the face of the polycrisis? These are powerful conversations that build community and help us all advance our thinking.

ORA is based on the idea that we need new narratives. What exactly does that mean?

Across the globe we are seeing worn out ideas that simply are not working. In the meantime, more and more people are coming to understand that these narratives do not acknowledge how profoundly broken many of our systems and institutions are. The stories we tell shape our culture and the communities we cultivate.

We have too many examples now of failing systems, in all parts of the world, from wars to violence against other humans and the earth itself. We need new narratives to support the creation of more resilient societies, and we recognize that the most compelling narratives are coming from a diversity of perspectives, especially younger people in the Global South. The African fellows, for instance, are challenging old colonial narratives about Africa and re-asserting Indigenous African values and truths, including Ubuntu and the deep care that Indigenous Africans have shown for the Earth.

In the confusion of the current moment, where the daily newsfeeds that bombard our inboxes invite us to focus on myriad crises, we believe it is important to take a step back and look at the larger system. Otherwise, we end up playing a cosmic game of Whac-a-Mole and nothing ever changes.

To facilitate this understanding, we need to tell ourselves a better story of the true drivers of dysfunction, so that we can generate a robust aspirational tale about the desired future we want to co-create. In other words, as a storytelling species, if we can’t imagine a better future we’ll never organize our resources to achieve it.

What exactly is ORA trying to accomplish—what does success look like?

Our overarching goals are to identify and amplify effective narratives around resilience and to build a community of practice that is equipped to employ them to maximal effect.  

We’re three-quarters of the way through our first full operational year. In May, we begin a new fellowship year, with 21 more fellows joining us. As the new Fellows arrive, we hope the first cohort will continue to contribute to our digital storytelling platform, the Space. As one of the ORA Africa Fellows recently said, the end of the fellowship year is a beginning. It’s an entry point into a community of interdisciplinary people who are working together to, quite simply, just help this world be a better place. We want to change the trajectory we seem to be on and move towards a brighter future.

What exactly is a community of practice?

As we envision it, it is simply a group of people working and learning together to shape an emergent worldview. We are all holding the questions of how to most effectively respond to the challenges of the polycrisis using narrative as a means of mobilizing and inspiring action.

We could all use good stories of resilience right now. What do people do if they want to know more about the Fellows and their projects?

A core piece of ORA is sharing the narratives and stories that come from our community.. We are about to launch a new online magazine and a print magazine that pulls together the work of the ORA community. We are excited to share it with the Commonweal community this month via Commonweal channels.