Senior Atlantic Fellows Gathering
Oxford, February 2018

By Fionnuala Sweeney, Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health at GBHI

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Even from a distance...

..the portrait of Cecil Rhodes looms large across Milner Hall inside the grand colonial style house built in his memory. One of the finest buildings of the University of Oxford, Rhodes House was completed in 1928, a physical manifestation of the Rhodes Scholarships (established 1902) designed to promote civic-minded leadership among young people, young people from the then British Empire and Germany. 

As complicated as he was controversial, the brooding likeness of Cecil Rhodes is a reminder to all who view it of the man’s imperialist convictions. But then, on his right, a portrait of Nelson Mandela, mischievously grinning at having his likeness painted while sitting in Cecil Rhodes’ very chair; demonstrating how academia and the concept of civic-mindedness have evolved over the past century.

This provided the backdrop in the last weekend of February for a gathering of representatives of three Atlantic Institute programmes, established by Atlantic Philanthropies through the generosity of Chuck Feeney. They included Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity in South East Asia, the Atlantic Fellows for Equity in Brain Health (Trinity College, Dublin and University College, San Francisco) and the Atlantic Fellows for Social & Economic Equity. Programme faculty members were there too as well as from the Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity at the University of Melbourne and the Atlantic Fellows for Equity in South Africa. 

Our mission – to find out how we might work together to build a lifelong community of Fellows across our respective fields under the auspices of the Atlantic Institute to build a fairer, healthier, more inclusive world.

Fellows from China, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Laos and Myanmar joined colleagues from South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, America, the UK, France, Ireland, Egypt and Greece with the aim of realizing their common purpose. Not all programmes were represented at the gathering and conscious of that the Fellows set about their tasks knowing the exercises were experimental and that outcomes would be changed and modified as the conversation widens to include everyone. 

Introductions made, the facilitators began putting us through our paces at breakneck speed. First off, an exposure to the four levels of listening, a process that goes beyond simply listening for similarities or differences in another’s discourse to allow the listener to offer empathy, understanding and the possibility that ideas can be generated between the listeners. This highest form of listening is known as generative listening.

Among Friday’s events, a treasure hunt through the 12th century university town which further helped break the ice as photos were taken and the ‘loot’ located. A dinner later that evening with Rhodes scholars helped foster a greater understanding of academic life at Oxford. 

The following morning saw Fellows challenged to realize their sense of community by means of creating an installation exercise. The process was more fun for some than others and not a little labour intensive for those artistically challenged but no less sincere or committed in purpose for that.

Then the work of literally finding practical ways to move the Fellowship forward across continents got underway. Teams were formed and tasks assigned; my team for example was charged with finding a way to keep up the momentum of the weekend once the Fellows had returned to their respective countries. This we did by forming a What’s App group for everyone to join and then encouraging the most pertinent collaborative conversations among us to move to The Hub – the place where all Atlantic Fellows are being strongly encouraged to digitally live.

We had been told before the weekend to bring some loose clothing for some light movement on Saturday evening but not even the most physical of Fellows could have anticipated the whirlwind of motion that the next two and a half hours entailed.  Suffice to say a good night’s sleep was had by all who took part.

Sunday saw more detailed work by individual teams on projects ranging from channels & platforms, newsletter podcasts, to rules of engagement, rituals and areas of governance. It was an intense morning followed by presentations where opinions were sought, problems confronted and practical solutions offered.

Throughout the weekend the beautifully maintained gardens of Rhodes House offered a replenishing time out from the intensity of the work within Milner Hall.  The closing ceremony, spontaneously held outdoors in the afternoon winter sunshine beautifully brought this three day gathering to its conclusion.

As the Fellows said goodbye, the leadership team prepared to distil all that had been shared and learned, promising to be in touch soon. By week’s end, a draft read-out had landed in every participating Fellow’s inbox.  Much to ponder and reflect upon then for the Fellows as they departed Oxford and dispersed across the globe to continue their collaboration towards a fairer, more just and inclusive world.