International Alert, in collaboration with Talk for a Change (a community interest company), has been working on a project called ‘Building a Voice for Good Relations in England’ since 2013, funded by Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and Oxfam.
The project achieved something not done in England before – it brought together ‘good relations’ practitioners from across the country. These are people who focus on building cohesive and peaceful communities by developing local capacity for resolving differences without violence, and by giving a voice to marginalised groups and individuals, and those with the least access to power and resources.
We held 11 events across England with 346 practitioners, including youth workers, community workers, teachers, mediators, dialogue practitioners, police officers and faith leaders from 235 different organisations. As a result of the events we were able to capture for the first time the extent and nature of the work taking place to build good relations, the topics and issues they are working on and the challenges facing them.
Our report, Untold stories of good relations: Building a coalition of voice and influence, was launched at an event hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues. The event was attended by over 80 people and was an opportunity to inform people of the work of practitioners, activists and volunteers who make a difference in their communities or through their work but are often not recognised for it.
Five presentations were made from different projects across the country – the ‘untold stories’ but also the good news stories. We also had key speakers Sunder Katwala, Director of British Future – a leading think tank in the field of migration, identity and integration – speak about the issues that disrupt and derail good relations, and Professor Dominic Abrams from the University of Kent giving an interesting summary of his work on how communities and groups of people within them behave according to perceived and actual circumstances and threats to identity.
We held a very rich discussion on immigration, the nastiness of hate crime, the treatment and alienation of certain communities, from gypsies, travellers and Roma to young Muslims, which in many gatherings of this type can leave people feeling overtly pessimistic and sometimes despondent. In fact, we encountered despondency as part of the project that produced the report. For example, many practitioners said that one negative and tragic incident such as the murder of soldier Lee Rigby played out in the media can set back the work in trying to build good relations locally.
However, this event felt different, as the discussions were upbeat and optimistic. I think this was because the practitioners who presented showed that, although localised and generally small in nature, their work does make a difference. The discussion showed how bridges can be built between communities and that people in those areas do want to live peacefully.
We heard about a Somali community association in Bristol who wanted to establish a mosque locally but faced opposition in the form of an online petition to stop it. They decided to knock on people’s doors and have conversations to allay fears, and found that most people were not opposed after the discussion. We heard from a practitioner from Newcastle who was trying to build community relations in an area but no one was coming to the meetings and events. She talked of persevering and trying different approaches that succeeded in building a vibrant project. We heard from a 15-year-old girl from a youth group based in Slough that is formed across ethnic and religious lines who held the audience captivated talking about the group’s work and, in particular, how it engages local decision-makers in issues affecting young people.
These are some of the many untold stories that we were privileged to hear about through our work, and we need to provide the spaces for them to be told and for policy-makers and others to realise that the responses they are looking for to address things like violent extremism and building cohesive communities are already happening. They just need more support.