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Beccie D’Cunha Greenbelt CEO

by
26 July 2013

'We need to focus more on young people and young adults'

This is a picture of me in Jerusalem in May, where I was doing some facilitation work with a team from the UN Relief and Works Agency, which provides services for Palestinians in refugee camps in the region.

I went to Bethlehem, for the first time in over ten years, to visit an inspiring organisation called the Holy Land Trust, which Greenbelt supports and which was organising its inaugural Bet Lahem live festival in June.

I was shocked and angry to see at first-hand the eight-metre wall that now cuts Bethlehem off from Jerusalem, and the economic, social, and cultural hardship it has caused. Many streets that were bustling on previous visits are now ghost streets.

I've been CEO of Greenbelt for just seven weeks now. The job involves leadership and management of the staff team, strategic development of the organisation, business development and financial oversight, working with the board of trustees, and generally ensuring the organisation runs smoothly.

It's a very significant time in the life of Greenbelt. This year's festival is our 40th. It will be a creative celebration of Greenbelt's journey to here, and its vision for the future - and a great birthday party, of course.

I hope that Greenbelters will increasingly take the spirit of Greenbelt back to their communities, so that we can build a movement and be far more than a great festival. We've already begun this journey with various events we are hosting or collaborating on throughout the year.

My first experience of Greenbelt was about 20 years ago, when I was in my teens. Greenbelt had moved to Deene Park in Northamptonshire. I attended with friends and my older brother.

I loved the atmosphere. We saw The Proclaimers and Midnight Oil, and spent a fair amount of time in the Tiny Tea Tent. Otherwise, I must confess that my resounding memories are of running out of money, and hitching a friendly ride to the coach station at the end of the festival with my friend.

I think we need to focus more on young people and young adults. There are a lot of loyal attendees who have grown up through the festival - some of them for 40 years - but to have longevity, we need to appeal to more young people to get them along.

Also, people see Greenbelt as a one-off fix to give them nourishment and inspiration; but we'd like to make it happen all year round. There's a real freedom and creativity in the festival, and people are free to be themselves in this quite magical space created by the staff and volunteers. But I think there are opportunities to develop an online community where people can get inspiration and ideas year-round, and to create smaller-scale events which mirror that creativity and bravery found at the festival.

Every year is so unique. I often choose a different theme for myself each year. Sometimes it's literature, other times dipping my toe into diverse expressions of worship. At other times, I enjoy the music, or just spend time with friends soaking up the atmosphere. My highlights from recent years include Billy Bragg, Herbaliser, Kate Rusby, and Courtney Pine (who is returning this year), Nitin Sawhney, Shlomo, and the Austin Francis Connection (also returning this year), Pádraig Ó'Tuama and his mesmerising poetry, spiritual direction and Ignatian meditation in Soul Space, hearing Jim Wallis speak (he's back this year, too), and learning to Lindy-hop.

I went to various Christian festivals when I was younger, but for me Greenbelt is completely unique. What has always appealed is the diversity of beliefs and traditions, and the brave and exploratory nature of the talks programme.

Before, I was working as director of a management consultancy, TCM (Train. Consult. Mediate.), which specialises in mediation and in helping varied organisations to handle conflict more constructively. We trained and coached managers and leaders in conflict resolution, as well as in wider leadership skills. TCM has a staff team of around 20, and my role involved managing the operations and the people, as well as developing products, quality assurance, sales, and client-relationship management.

Before that, I worked in campaigns, on a variety of social-justice issues, in particular the arms trade. Alongside this, I did various volunteering roles, including community mediation in Hackney, where I live.

I grew up just outside London, but my mum is from Northern Ireland and my dad is from India; so I have always had an interest in the world, social justice, and conflict issues. I'm a middle child, and I think this may have started me on a path to becoming a mediator. I remember hours spent rescuing stray animals or even injured insects.

My parents were both Catholics, and I always went to church with them till I was ten. We started going to a house church through my teens; I went to a Baptist church at university; came back to Hackney and went to the URC church because it was local to me; and attended an evening congregation called fEAST (very creative, small congregation, focused on justice and community and eating together).

My husband had always been an Anglican; so we started going to St John-at-Hackney, and I now feel a real affinity with the Anglican Church.

I really love being able to go to sing Taizé songs, and then celebrate at a L'Arche community event, and then pop in and see the Franciscans, and go to a Moot meditation, when I'm at Greenbelt. My first real job after university was for SPEAK, a campaign and prayer network focused on students and young adults. I'm a bit old for them now. We used to put on creative services at Greenbelt: prayer and liturgy with some kind of campaign action.

I definitely feel more drawn to contemplative prayer than I used to, and have hopefully learned a bit from Ignatian spirituality. I'm definitely an off-the-scale extravert, but know contemplation and retreats do me a huge amount of good.

From an early age, I aspired to be an artist, and spent most of my time reading, drawing, and doing crafts. While I decided to give up studying art at 18, and focused on English literature instead, I have continued, albeit sporadically, to draw and paint, with a particular love for life drawing.

I tend to see the opportunities in situations; so I am not someone who, often feels regret for what has passed. One regret I do have is that I am now in my mid-30s, about to have a baby, and have not yet learnt to dance the Argentinian tango.

I've been really influenced by Anabaptist thinking and theology, in terms of commitment to peace, justice, and integrity. I first trained as a mediator with Bridge Builders, which is a Mennonite organisation, and found inspiration in Wood Green Mennonite Church. They have a real focus on living in a community, and commitment to working through conflict openly, which most churches don't get right.

Training with them shaped my outlook and my working life in so many ways. They helped me shift from being an often angry campaigner to a less judgemental campaigner, willing to listen to those who oppress, as well as to their victims.

It is difficult to name a favourite place, but among my favourites are the Old City of Jerusalem and the bustling souks, and the Amalfi Coast, where I spent my honeymoon. But it's hard to compete with a spring day walking through bluebells in a wood in Kent, the garden of England.

One of my favourite books has to be The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I love the art, music and literature of the '20s and '30s. It is hard to find a more beautiful and poignant tale of love and longing.

One of my favourite books of the Bible has to be Isaiah, and chapter 58 in particular. The "true fast" of breaking the chains of oppression inspired me as a student to become a campaigner.

I'm happiest when I'm spending time with friends, neighbours, or family, often in east London. An ideal weekend would involve a lazy stroll round a local market, a picnic on my beloved Hackney Downs, and a pint or three in one of my local pubs.

If I had to be locked in a church with someone, I'd choose Henri Nouwen. I've always loved the L'Arche movement, and The Wounded Healer has been a source of inspiration for me. A lot of my work has been around mediation and non-violence, and there's something powerful in his writing about being a non-judgemental presence for people in their woundedness. You can't always change everything, but listening is sometimes enough.

Beccie D'Cunha was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

www.greenbelt.org.uk

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