Following our Chief Executive’s post earlier today, it is with deep sadness that we report that Emma Lindley, a regular contributor to these pages over the last two years, died at the weekend. The following was prepared for an RSA staff meeting yesterday to commemorate her time with us.
RSA, September 18 2013
Emma once described herself as a Manchester-based drinker of Yorkshire tea. I think that line says a lot about her. She was warm, sassy, ready to laugh, with a keen eye for a good distinction. She was also proudly Northern in the sweetest sense of pride.
Steve Broome and I interviewed Emma for the role of Senior Researcher for Social Brain in the summer of 2011. She was the last of seven candidates on the day, and a welcome energising presence.
We were impressed by her intellect and social confidence but mostly by her capacity to keep things real.
A few months later while talking through a project plan, I kept referring excitedly, but a bit vaguely, to all the key issues we would explore at a policy seminar; the important people we would invite to the policy seminar; the media interest in the policy seminar…
Emma put up with this for a while but eventually asked a typically forthright question that I still haven’t quite managed to answer: “What is a policy seminar?”
Soon afterwards, Emma organised a meeting suspiciously resembling a policy seminar in the Shipley room. I introduced the participants but neglected to introduce our Coordinator Janet Hawken, who was sitting next to me, taking minutes.
I apologised to Janet at the time, but afterwards Emma took me to task, politely saying she was disappointed by the oversight, and this left a deep impression on me. Emma’s concerns were invariably focused on those who were in some sense taken for granted.
Her light shined particularly brightly in her blog posts, which were a new medium for her when she joined. She was nervous before posting her first piece: Mental Illness: The Last Taboo? but the coyness quickly passed when it received an unprecedented amount of positive feedback.
Over the next few weeks it became clear that Emma’s writing voice had depth and reach; a mixture of academic acumen, personal openness and polemical flair. Her posts continued to attract considerable attention, leading to several important contacts and project openings.
Her post, Networked Facts are the New Black (as I said, ready to laugh…) even reached deep inside the European Commission, when an RSA fellow at the EU foreign service sent an excerpt with a link to the senior advisers of EU Commissioners.
Her posts on The Atheist Hair Club and the The Importance of Art were so evocative that Andrew Park of Cognitive Media illustrated them in the style of RSAnimate. Andrew listens to RSA lectures for several hours before creating any image, so his multi-million viewer judgment on Emma’s writing suggests he saw something singular there.
While Emma enjoyed the public aspects of her job, her identity as a social scientist and researcher was primary. She really was Dr Emma Lindley. Her doctoral thesis on inclusive dialogue, which she wrote in the context of considerable personal challenges, seemed to me to be an outstanding mixture of careful analysis and thoughtful synthesis that managed to keep sight of real people with real emotions.
At the RSA she devised at least six research proposals for funding, including an innovative research design to determine whether talking to strangers on trains improves wellbeing, she designed strategies to help people with mental health conditions work more flexibly or become entrepreneurs, and latterly she was highly motivated to break down the barriers that prevent more people from cycling.
More generally, Emma was in her element while wrestling with large complex documents and clarifying their structure and messages. This hard-earned skill significantly enhanced the quality and impact of our reports on, for instance, Reflexive Coppers, and an evidence review for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Another signature quality, stemming from her own innovative academic research was Emma’s eagerness to involve the people she was researching as fully as possible. For instance, she helped to develop a project on re-imagining adolescence and valuing adolescents which recently received pilot funding; but from the early stages she was very clear that she only wanted to be involved if adolescents themselves helped to shape the nature and purpose of the research.
Emma also played an important role in several successful funding applications, including our current 20 month project about using social brain perspectives to rethink the nature and value of spirituality.
In that case, and many others, her main contribution often began with a formidable capacity to rapidly build contacts and weave networks. She would find a number, pick up the phone, charm important information out of strangers, and follow the leads.
Before she went on sick leave earlier this year, Emma was becoming increasingly confident, autonomous, and hungry for more responsibility.
This confidence was reflected in her lead authorship of a commissioned piece of thought leadership on societal attitudes to ageing with a great title: “What older people want: Sex, Skydiving and Tatoos”. Emma found herself talking about the report on radio after publication, including on BBC’s popular ‘You and Yours’ programme (from c 5.30 mins in).
Although Emma had been away from work for over three months, the most recent updates from occupational health had been very encouraging. We were in the process of preparing for her gradual return to work and there seemed to be many things to look forward to.
While she was away, we learnt she had been part of a successful academic funding bid to pursue her interest in addressing mental health stigma, and one of her blog posts had been nominated for a prestigious award about public perceptions of ageing.
On Emma’s request, I recently sent an update on where we were with various Social Brain projects, and she left an upbeat email with Theresa, our HR manager, as recently as Friday.
But here we are just a few days later, in shock and in grief.
Emma made a deep and lasting impression on anyone who spent time with her. My main role in this context is to share details of her professional contribution, but I had written three more relatively personal and tortured paragraphs about my working relationship with Emma, about the joy of knowing her, the challenges relating to managing her condition, and how intense, rewarding and exacting working with her was.
Then, with relief, I realised that if Emma were here she would probably advise me to leave them out. And in many ways she still is, so I have.