Stumbling Towards an Alternative Imagination

At Matryoshka Haus, we are committed to exploring social innovation, designing solutions to current social challenges in the hope of a more dignified and equitable future.

We work in three main areas. First, we start our own projects. To date, we have had twelve of our own initiatives, including a campaign for social enterprises, an impact measurement process for charities and non-profits, and a set of board games to help organizations build their capacity for change. Second, we help people develop their own initiatives, helping them move from idea to launch. Third, we work with organizations, helping them design solutions for their issues related to innovation and impact.

While we might not easily fit the traditional mold of a “Christian organization”—we work with people and groups from a wide variety of ideological backgrounds—faith is important to us in at least two ways.

First, it is the deep why behind our organization’s community. Faith is the motivating story that offers a guiding purpose and generates an unusual persistence in us. But this why is open and welcoming—we don’t expect colleagues and clients to have to share it in order to join in our work.

Faith also shapes how we see. It makes present things that are often hidden and perceives the contrast between “the way things are” in society and “the way things could be.” This is about an alternative imagination, a way of seeing how a richer story of the human struggle for justice challenges and provokes our dominant cultural narratives. Seeing with the eyes of faith changes how we create art, justice initiatives, and business plans.

Of course, in the reality of day-to-day work, we must struggle for both purpose and imagination. Despite several years of journeying toward an alternative imagination, our own default setting is steeped in the status quo.

An example. We have been running “Make Good” for a number of years in the United Kingdom and have recently brought it to the United States. This is an accelerator program, taking entrepreneurs from an initial idea about a product or service that might have a social impact to being ready to launch in one week. The course culminates in the participants pitching their ideas to potential investors. During this week, among other topics, we focus on rethinking our assumptions about resources. The dominant cultural narrative is that “resources” is code for “money.” Since everything in our society has a price, enough money can get you what you need to make your idea a reality. This spawns a cultural fear of scarcity—that there is not enough to go around and, as a result, we are all in a constant state of competition. Add to this the myth of the lone entrepreneur, and you have a toxic mix of competition and individualism. In contrast, Matryoshka Haus values the roles of gift, reciprocity and collaboration—not as opposed to entrepreneurship and social enterprise but as a core component of it.

The “Make Good” course used to end with a pitch event, mimicking the model of the popular show Shark Tank. Each participant stood in front of three potential investors and had three minutes to pitch their idea before responding to questions. The investors would then offer advice and, maybe, some money. The participants tended to get incredibly nervous, and we noticed that even the investors would (outside of their own character) step into the ‘shark’ role and engage in significant criticism. The week would end with some participants receiving financial investment and others walking away empty-handed.  

You probably immediately noticed the inconsistency between the content of our course sessions and the culminating Shark Tank exercise. To our embarrassment, we did not. With our words, we attempted to reduce the significance of money and call for a culture of generosity and reciprocity. With our actions, we did the opposite. Eventually, during a pitch session we finally realized the contradiction. We needed to invoke the alternative imagination we so often spoke about.

The structure of the exercise had to change—no more equating money with voice and influence. The offer to the participants could no longer be just the possibility of financial investment. We needed to move from competition to collaboration, from transaction to gift. Therefore, we designed “Pitch and Pledge.” Now, everyone in the room—all the participants, guests, and, yes, even investors—are given a stack of blank cards of four different colors, each representing a different type of contribution. Alongside monetary and other resources, you could also pledge connections, support, and your own time and skills. Everyone is now an “investor,” and can offer whatever they have. The tone is now one of celebration. Each participant leaves with a stack of cards and, perhaps more importantly, the confidence that emerges when others believe in you and your idea. At one level, this was a simple change. Yet its effects have been profound.

The struggle for an alternative imagination is one of seeing. Our suggestion is that seeing as a theological activity involves two aspects. First, seeing is an unmasking. The tools we use and the practices we inhabit are never neutral. Our culture dictates our default setting, of which the Shark Tank exercise is just one example. As Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Discerning the faulty alignment between the tools we use and the goals towards which we are working involves exploring our hidden assumptions and habits. To this end, theological categories can be particularly illuminating, uncovering the liturgical shape of the world we inhabit.[1]

Alongside unmasking, the theological activity of seeing also involves designing. This task consists of imagining creative alternatives, and embodying beliefs aligned with these. For example, Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is a community revitalization approach that rejects the paradigm of seeing an impoverished community through the lens of scarcity, and instead embraces the already-existing strengths of a given neighborhood. This contrasts significantly with much traditional philanthropic and charitable activity, which focuses on what is absent from impoverished communities. By looking through the lens of ABCD, you see a neighborhood in a different light. Or consider Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, a microfinance institution that is based on the belief that people without collateral are still worthy of a fair loan. By lending almost entirely to women, Grameen Bank is engaged in challenging cultural narratives about both gender and poverty. ABCD and Grameen Bank both embody a different way of seeing, resonating with an alternative economic imagination.

The struggle for a more just and equitable world necessarily requires a different way of seeing. While advocacy is important, we also need to design new tools and processes that embody the alternative vision given to us by our faith. Our experience suggests this is an ongoing process, one of stumbling towards an alternative imagination.

 

Contributor: Mark Sampson

[1] See James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom.


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Mark Sampson is part of the leadership team of Matryoshka Haus, a charity working at the intersection between innovation and social impact. Mark is also a director of Transformational Index, which offers products, tools and services for measuring social impact - and Cocreate Consulting, a cooperative consultancy. He is currently studying for a doctorate in economics and theology at King's College, London, considering the role of social enterprise in an alternative economic imagination. He is a KLICE award holder in business and economics. Mark holds an MA in Theology and Culture from Regent College, Vancouver, and a BSocSc in Social Anthropology from the University of Manchester. Mark is also a trustee of Paradise Cooperative, an urban farming initiative in London.