Surviving, Striving, Thriving?

Two weeks ago I went to a conference hosted by the Centre for Community Engagement Research at Goldsmiths University. It was called “Communities surviving, striving, thriving? A day of dialogue and action.”
One of the most thought provoking moments of the day for me came right at the start when Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters offered up a thoughtful and engaging critique of multiculturalism and multifaithism. Her objections to these movements were centred on how they can have a homogenising effect on minority communities; allowing people to check the “we are being inclusive” box by referring to “the Muslim community” or “the Somali community”, for example. It is of course important to recognise the existence of these communities, to be able to work with them and include them in discussions and actions that will affect them just as they affect the wider population. But it is this repeated reference to “them” to which Pragna objects. As if “they” are a homogenous lot and “their” views can be represented by individual (usually religious) community leaders. It was, in a way, a plea for a wider recognition of intersectionality. The recognition that, in essence, people are not just members of the ethnic and religious communities they are (usually) born into, but that their identities are far more complex and they will themselves identify with several different communities at once and, most importantly, that this will have effects that cannot easily be broken down into their constituent parts.

We also heard from a number of other panelists including Mat Danaher from the Unison trade union whose impassioned call for people to restore faith and renew support for the trade union movement was warmly received and former young mayor of Lewisham Jacob Sakil in a day that managed to encompass a heated debate on food banks alongside workshops on the effective use of music as a means to engage with communities and on what the concept of democracy means to communities. There was even an agreement to take immediate action to address the problem of homelessness within the student population at Goldsmiths.

A running theme throughout the day and one that is most relevant to our work in Community Connections was the need to build more resilience and strengthen bonds in communities. It is a common reaction to the world we are presented with in 2014 which is characterised to a large extent by the disappearance of those links between people that once bred the kind of mutual support that we are struggling to provide to our ageing population. A world that Zygmunt Bauman calls “Liquid Modernity”. Crucially though, our attempts in the voluntary sector to reinvigorate communities are not (and should not be) just nostalgic calls for the solidarity of bygone eras, lest we reinforce the homogenising effects referred to above. Instead we must strive to celebrate the complexity that exists within us all, recognise each other as assets, and offer up support that blurs the lines drawn up by this well-intentioned drive to tolerance we call multiculturalism.

Post by Henry

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