Practical Bravery: POLLY MACKENZIE



Between 2010 and 2015, our special guest for this episode served as the Director of Policy to the UK Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, during the Liberal Democrat and Conservative coalition government. Her work in government laid the foundation for her passion for equality and social justice.
After government, she co-founded the Money and Mental Health charity in partnership with Martin Lewis – before going on to lead the policy and democracy think tank, Demos.
As of June 2022, my guest has taken on the role of Chief Social Purpose Officer at the University of Arts London (UAL). In this position, she is championing a groundbreaking initiative—the Social Purpose Implementation Plan—a historic move for higher education in the UK.
We explore how UAL’s plan goes beyond teaching and research; it’s a commitment to addressing the intertwined challenges of our time: climate change, social inequality, and the imperative for creativity to drive positive change.
For the last Practical Bravery interview of 2023, we are delighted to bring you a fascinating chat with Polly Mackenzie.

Key quotes:

“I love creating new roles but there’s this feeling of jeopardy — I have no idea how to do this — and there isn’t a model, I can’t just follow the instructions.”

“I just learnt that I’m called a ‘third space’ professional, because I’m not an academic, and I’m not just in the professional services departments. Because I’m trying to catalyse change that goes across this whole waterfront.”

“We might be just wrong.”

“Grayson Perry has described UAL as the ‘world’s largest factory for troublemakers.’”

“In academia you’re embedded in that ‘term’ structure. Parliament has this big long summer holiday, so do universities, but I feel like most normal people grew out of that! In businesses they talk about quarters, Q1, Q2, but here it’s ‘terms’. It’s ‘term’, it’s ‘recess’ and the long vacation. I like the rhythm of the year.”

“In our office sections we didn’t have any whiteboards. It’s weird. You go to the studios, it’s like creative central, you go to the offices, it’s like a third tier law firm.”

“Give yourself the breathing room, the confidence to keep going, keep plodding, keep asking, keep exploring, keep writing stuff down, and you get to the point where you feel you know what to do.”

“Sometimes there’s an instinct, a sharpness. I’m a words person, I studied English literature, my deepest loves are poems, speeches and stories. It’s not that I dislike art but it’s not my medium, the visual arts. So it’s been interesting to push myself to try to think in 3D as well as in words.”

“There’s a strong sense within art school tradition of art as disruption, art as activism. It’s the making of something new, and therefore in the mindset of the people who want to do that, and the culture that is built when you gather them together, is to be agents of change. But we’ve started to talk about something that is more directional.”

“Anarchism has developed a branding problem on the left, if that makes any sense? You can’t just say ‘smash it all to pieces and see what happens’ and assume that that is a force for good.”

“I think there’s a continuum between art-as-disruption,‘burn it all down’, art-as-activism, which is more directed, or then perhaps art as an act of citizenship, of responsibility.”  

“Any of us who’ve ever tried to write experience writer’s block. There’s like a bag but I don’t know how to put a handle on it, I’ve just got noise in my brain. But then there comes a moment when you can write.”

“I think more and more of us are seeing the inter-connectedness of the world.”

“No academic wants to be told what to do by the university, but I think art school academics just like an extra little sprinkling of that sense of artistic freedom. So the question is, what can we collaborate on, where we feel a shared sense of values?”

“We believe that progress is driven by imagination and the practical mechanisms of bringing that imagined world to life.”

“I want Britain to be a science superpower like the government does, but I feel like they want us to be a science superpower and none of that flakey, woke soft stuff. But there’s no science without creativity.”   

“We, as storytellers, have the ability to change the mindsets of other people.”

“I guess it’s called agile, isn’t it. Know where you’re going and experiment about how to get there.”

“The dysfunctions of politics are many and manifold. I never experienced any of the characteristics of good leadership, really, in my time in politics. And that’s sad.”

This episode was recorded in August 2023

Interviewer: Richard Freeman for always possible

Editor: CJ Thorpe-Tracey for Lo Fi Arts


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