Difficult topics could be presented with humour. In such way they are better perceived and have a greater impact - that's what Belina Raffy, who has chosen the comedy genre to spread the message of sustainability, believes. Global citizen, educator and consultant launched Rockit Impact Accelerator 2.0 on March 17th in Vilnius.
Belina Raffy became interested in sustainability issues almost two decades ago, when it was still a topic of lip service. A graduate of prestigious academic institutions and a consultant with a solid background, her first lighting struck while watching the film An Inconvenient Truth. However, it was the tone in which the activists spoke at the time that disappointed her.
By combining the tried-and-tested genre of stand-up with comic elements, Belina Raffy began to talk about important issues in a very different way than usual. In this interview, she explains why it's important to notice the positive, to laugh and to carry out projects that have a real impact rather than being convenient for the marketing department narrative.
How did you end up in the sustainability field, what inspires you the most there?
As I kid, I grew up playing in forests. My first real job was as an IT project manager in the back office of a global bank. To boost my morale, I tried improvisation and stand-up comedy for the first time. But in my job, I felt like I was a forest fairy trapped in a horrible machine with nice people. And, in a way, I was.
Part of my remit was to prepare for Y2k compliance. We were treating a novel, complex challenge as a linear, complicated one, which we also under-resourced. We had 4 out of 5 managers on ‘stress leave’ for months. Then, in August 1999, I did an MBA to relax.
And I started studying with some of the best improvisers on the planet, with the desire to bring mindsets and practices to organisations so that we could navigate complexity, embrace emergence, and bring inspired creativity to work.
Initially, I did this for plain ‘creativity at work’ workshops, but my heart was increasingly insisting on bringing sustainability issues front and centre as the impetus for all innovation. I remember working for one client who stated that I couldn’t mention the ’S’ word anywhere in my creativity workshop for MBAs, because Sustainability was an elective course and not part of the main curriculum.
What did you see as the shortcomings of sustainability communication at the time?
Yes, at the same time, I saw those involved in the sustainability movement either communicating in an angry, dispiriting way or corporates approaching the complexity of sustainability in a linear, machine-like way.
And then I saw Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. And I noticed that my visceral reaction was that I wanted to get into a Hummer and go shopping while things were still in stores. And I realised that this was an emergency. Not just what he was saying, but the shortfall in how he was saying it. The way that sustainability was being approached and communicated was not what humanity or Earth needed. It was putting us in our ‘lizard brain’ in ‘fight or flight’ mode, when we as a species needed to collaborate more deeply than ever.
I started working with sustainability professionals, scientists, and companies to teach them improvisation - a technology designed to help people in scary situations to be generous, collaborative, and able to navigate complexity.
Sustainability, SDG's and ESG's are quite serious topics these days, why have you chosen comedy or stand-up models to spread the information or educate people?
I honestly had to look up what ESGs are.
Anyway, these are serious topics. And I noticed the effect on me that TV shows like The Daily Show had on me. I was able to learn and remember something about often heavy current events in a way that felt light and which I could process. This felt like an important alternative to what I saw sustainability professionals doing - either dryly presenting horrifying data (e.g. An Inconvenient Truth) or angrily shouting at potential allies. Yes, almost every activist did that at the time.
I also embraced the use of stand-up comedy because I wanted to help my clients who were looking at difficult social and environmental issues. Part of what we do when we consciously improvise is that we notice more about ourselves, the people around us, and our environment. I was teaching sustainability practitioners to do that. But unless we also have a practice of looking for the bright spots, we will burn ourselves out by noticing more darkness.
Comedy, especially the loving form that I teach, helps people to look for the 'light in the cave' and share that with audiences in a way that lets them process real (and difficult) information, and feel safe to reflect on their own behaviour in that situation.
What is the most challenging thing in sustainability, especially in sustainable innovations., in your opinion?
Here are some big problems that I see in sustainability/sustainable innovations:
• Imposing solutions that are not examined holistically or connected sufficiently with context;
• Looking for a rapidly scalable ‘quick fix’ which is way too simplistic and causes more harm than good;
• Pretending that complex problems can be solved by a linear, mechanistic solution.
During the whole 15 years of experience communicating and introducing sustainability, what was the most challenging or interesting thing for you?
Challenging: having people in my workshops leave their positions of power because their organisations wouldn’t move fast enough towards sustainable innovation. Most recent was a consultant in the Sustainability Department of a global consultancy firm. That firm lost an important voice for fresh thinking and innovation.
Interesting: my Sustainable Stand-Up course feels like an interesting and beautiful blessing every time it happens. Through it, I can weave together smart, lovely people with different social and environmental expertise, from different countries, towards the common goal of making a loving stand-up comedy show about ideas that matter. Their ideas are always unique to them. The combination of ideas is always inspiring and rich. The individuals always support each other and often form deep friendships as a result. And the messaging of the participants after the course becomes more human, engaging, and powerful. I have run my course over 35 times, in 10 countries and online. With the pandemic, I am running purely online courses and shows, and have worked with people from even more countries, including Indonesia, Macau, Taiwan, Russia, and South Africa.
For years I’ve wanted to bring laughter, love, and truth about sustainability issues to the heart of Russia. I was about to run a hybrid online/in-person course for nine, highly respected, women sustainability professionals in Moscow, with a show at the top English-speaking comedy club there in April 2022, when the current madness happened. It broke out two weeks before the sold-out course was due to start. Our course is now optimistically rescheduled for September. Having the course sell out with such amazing ladies and then urgently need postponement has also been one of my most challenging things. And my interest now is how to stay connected with those ladies who are so committed to creating needed social and environmental change at a time when they cannot even mention ‘war’ or ‘invasion’. We cannot do climate adaptation in a war zone.
You work with big companies and different groups or organizations, how do you see the sustainability topic is evolving through the years?
I will answer this question in chronological order. The organisations said:
• It’s not our problem;
• We didn’t do it;
• Ok, we did do that, but we’re a lot better now;
• We are doing a lot of awesome things;
• Ok, now we are REALLY doing a lot of awesome things, not just talking about it;
• We need to radically rethink how we do all of this.
What are the most trending things now in sustainability?
I don’t follow what is trending. I am interested in sustainable innovations of substance that are making a real difference on the ground. Those that create conditions for people and planet to thrive, not those with the best marketing department.
Here is an example of the kind of innovation I love: http://www.ingafoundation.org/. This project has lifted over 420 families out of poverty, created food security, stopped those families engaging in slash & burn agriculture, shifted them to organic agroforestry, planted between 4-5 million trees, increased biodiversity, and regenerated near-sterile soil. Fresh water springs are now appearing in some of those fields.
That holistic project beats any well-meaning, often well-funded project where seeds are jettisoned from drones promising to reforest land, but in effect just feed a lot of happy birds and squirrels.
What I want to see trending in sustainability are love, joy, dignity, connection, compassionate stand up comedy, and radically enlightened action.