Reflections on this year’s ACCESS Leadership College from Richard Bridge

Published on 23 May 2024

Richard Bridge

Blog by Richard Bridge, ACCESS Leadership College Fellow. Richard is Head of Monitoring and Evaluation in the Trees and Forestry Division at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).


Read Richard’s reflections on his time at this year’s Leadership College Retreat, 24 to 26 April, at Dartington Hall in Devon. Before writing this piece, he canvased the whole cohort for their most memorable moments. Whilst impossible to include them all, his blog gives us a flavour of their time spent together.

A 1km-long illegal waste dump beside the River Roding in London. And no action taken by authorities. My vivid memory from a wonderful walking tour on the last morning of the inaugural Access Leadership College last year. Lewis Winks had taken us down to the edge of the River Dart asking us to imagine a future where there is a universal Right to Roam in England.

This year, the College started with a stark warning not to swim in the River Dart.

On both occasions, my emotions ranged from anger bordering on rage to a sense of fatalism, swimming against a tide of environmental vandalism, recklessness and neglect.

There is optimism though – more of that later.

So on to the retreat itself. Beth Collier’s powerful talk whilst we rested against the trees by the River Dart spoke about our need to decolonise the conservation sector.  Disrupting the narratives of ‘who does nature’.  Examining the ‘white gaze’ through an ethnographic lens.  Beth spoke so eloquently and movingly of her experiences and how we can generate positive change.

Beth Collier talking to the Leadership College Fellows on the river bank

The following morning kicked off with Hannah Mumby’s extraordinary co-production oracle, using a pack of cards with words ranging from ‘The Trouble’ to ‘The Saviour’ to trigger useful conversations on our own practice, perception and approaches. One colleague reported it made them ‘emotional thinking about [their] personal role and trajectory as a leader in co-production working’. Laura DeVito led a cracking session on a similar theme the following day around co-producing a research agenda for environmental social sciences, which will generate a written output. Watch this space!

Hannah Mumby and her Co-Production Oracle booth

Next, Elysia Davies provided a fascinating insight into the history of community organising (ranging from Saul Alkinsky to Citizens UK to Paolo Friere). We learnt how Kent Wildlife Trust engage with their neighbours on what they want to see in Dover. It made me reflect on bell hooks’ critical pedagogy and how the leadership college has started to use critical thinking to question power structures and amplify marginalised voices. It made me think of her ‘love ethic’ and how this can be applied to nature and by fostering empathy, love contributes to a compassionate world which creates inclusive communities most affected by climate change.

Later, Helen Roberts led us through a horizon-scanning tool around imagining climate adaptation, taking me back to C Wright-Mills The Sociological Imagination and how it is critical to think around the very ‘public issue’ of climate crisis through our own and others’ ‘private troubles’. And perhaps how the Overton window constrains our thinking of what is possible.

Leadership college. Participants gathered round a pictorial map

After lunch, we adjourned to the gardens where six fellows spoke about social science in government and how we look to influence policy and practice from within but equally importantly how the third sector and academia can collaborate with government. Similarly, the fellows working in NGOs, not-for-profits and think tanks provided a thought-provoking lens into how social science operates in those domains. Both sessions highlighted for me whose voices are heard – and more importantly – not heard in policy-making circles. And as leaders, how we generate meaningful – rather than tokenistic – engagement.

Leadership fellows listening to the peers in the gardens at Dartington

Interestingly, a keynote talk from Antonella Battaglini on leadership arguably generated the most intense and visceral discussion around the bar. We will all lead in our own personal style and indeed, many fellows spoke about the retreat illuminating how the world looks through our differing lenses.

A particular highlight – Colin Butfield speaking about his work on Wild Isles and Open Planet. So striking to see the vibrancy, colour, variability, intricate ethical lines of global media coverage of the climate crisis. But even more so the revolutionary way Open Planet are providing free educational and environmental footage allowing communities to own and tell their own stories.

In the Great Hall at Dartington. Fellows seated listening to Colin Butfield

I left feeling our leadership cohort have a responsibility to use our platform to help address the multiplicity of societal challenges. But with that responsibility was a genuine optimism. Fellows spoke about the change in the College since 2023 which I have conceptualised as 8Cs; collaboration, collegiality, [being] constructive, [deeper] connection, comfort, compassion, community, challenge.

The intensity of the three days – sooo much talking – didn’t make it feel like a retreat for me. But at the same time, it provided a welcome space for ‘self-reflection’ amongst the bluebells and wild garlic of Dartington and what being a leader means to each of us. So perhaps rather than a retreat, it’s simply a treat.

Leadership College Fellows and Beth Collier at the Leadership College retreat 2024

“Thank you to all the college fellows for their reflections on the recent retreat – I hope the blog has given a sense of the overwhelmingly positive feedback from all concerned”. Richard Bridges