NOW’s Josh Malkin was one of the team behind Exploring Common Ground, an event promoting a city-wide Festival of Compassion & Wellbeing in Leeds. He explains here how the group started and its progress towards The Leeds Festival of Compassion & Wellbeing, now planned to take place in September 2020.


Last year, I met Andy Bradley of Frameworks for Change (who has previously featured as a NOW webinar guest). Andy facilitates compassionate leadership trainings for the NHS. I took the opportunity to experience a compassion circle that Andy was running in Leeds. The venue for this event was a converted old fire station on the edge of a huge council estate and I joined a group of nurses, carers, therapists, social workers and community volunteers all of whom were involved in one way or another in tackling community mental health issues. The process Andy facilitated focused on the practice of compassion for self and others, and proved such an inspiring session that the group reconvened a few weeks later at the Love & Light Spiritual Café, which some of the group had set up in an old Victorian church in the Armley area of Leeds.

Creating more healthy neighbourhoods

Armley wasn’t new to me as I had lived there just after University when I helped run an arts-based play scheme for kids in the summer holidays. We had a fantastic summer of celebration building ‘Camelot’ out of old wooden doors for ‘King Arthur who had come to bring ‘fairness and prosperity to the kingdom’.

Like many places in Leeds, Armley had significant levels of poverty and deprivation. Returning there to talk about how neigbourhoods could help people live more healthily (or not) felt very appropriate. Back then our procession of actors and musicians and a fire breathing dragon walked around the walls of a castle that was already there, which happened to be called Leeds Prison. The procession culminated in a gathering of children who were invited to become ‘Knights Of The Round Table’, to do good deeds, to make things that the community needed, during two weeks of arts and crafts. In the process, lots of friendships were made, not just among the children but also among the mums and dads. The summer ended in a community bonfire and some of the group went on to establish a community centre, a youth arts project and a community theatre that still continues today.

Leeds Festival of Compassion and Wellbeing logo

Exploring Common Ground in Leeds

Back to 2018, and here I was discussing how ‘good practice’ could be made more visible and how a neighbourhood celebration of compassion and wellbeing might be achieved. Someone asked why just in one neighbourhood and what about a city-wide festival? Inspired by that vision, we met again to discuss what a festival might look like and how we might begin such a daunting task. We decided we needed time and agreed a ‘three stage rocket’ – with one day event in 2018, a weekend in 2019 and whole week in multiple venues across the city in 2020.

Exploring Common Ground, was our first stage one day event. It took place last December at the Shine Social Enterprise Hub and Conference Centre, a converted former Victorian school. About 50 people came and half a dozen organisations offered their perspectives on compassion and wellbeing practice, including Carnegie UK Trust, Spaces of Hope, Change People, Frameworks for Change, Jamyang Buddhist Centre, Leeds City Council and the Network of Wellbeing. Highlights for me included a workshop on social inclusion run by Philipa Bragman and one of Change People’s inclusion facilitators who touched everyone when she asserted that ‘my humanity is much more than my disability’. Hopefully you will get a sense of the project, the event and the groups aspirations from the video at the top of this blog:

Making connections at Exploring Common Ground event

In order to take the festival vision forward we are organising an Inaugural General Meeting to develop the idea and establish a charity to deliver the festival.

A Vision for Compassion and Wellbeing

Exploring Common Ground created a foundation upon which the festival can be created. Our vision is to highlight the fantastic work already taking place in projects across the city – to consolidate, develop and extend the informal infrastructure of community wellbeing – to create greater coherence for community empowerment and compassion and wellbeing practice across Leeds.

Leeds has successfully reinvented itself over recent decades. Many more worthwhile projects in arts, health, mental health, community and social care, informal education are flourishing in the voluntary and public sector across the city. The Leeds Festival of Compassion & Wellbeing will celebrate this uprising, of care-ability, creativity and good will. We at the Network of Wellbeing are proud to be part of it. Leeds is one of the first cities in the UK to launch an annual Compassionate City Awards scheme and the deputy leader of the council, who attended our Exploring Common Ground event offered the Council’s blessing and support.

Watch this space for stage two of our festival rocket later this year, which is likely to be at the new wellbeing centre in the Leeds Jamyang Buddhist Centre .