Focusing more on events which bring communities together

Chris Clarke, Policy Researcher at HOPE not hate, argues that we need to focus more on events which bring communities together

Attitudes to change and difference lie at the heart of the tensions in many communities. Whether these take the form of local flash-points or electoral successes for the far right, they tend to be most common when there is an absence of shared experience.

This can be due to a lack of dialogue between existing communities, or thanks to population changes in an area with little experience of migration. Creating channels and spaces for groups to meet is a powerful means of countering this.

Meeting on equal terms
Local authorities who are looking to strengthen resilience need to find ways in which different parts of the community can encounter one other. And public events, built around commemoration or celebration, are a powerful mechanism for doing this.

These may be be based on anything from Eid to Harvest Day, and from LGBT pride to Remembrance Sunday. They can focus on moments which have local significance, such as the celebration of a famous son or daughter of the town. Or they can be built around broader moments, like the success of the national football team.

They can take the form of everything from a parade through the high street to a tea party at a care home. The key point is that different groups are meeting – and are doing so on equal terms.

HOPE Not hate Charitable Trust’s new guide on inclusive events is the first in a series of resources we are releasing. The guide was compiled with the help of British Future, Gravesham Borough Council, Cohesion Plus and the Centre for English Identity and Politics. It comes as part of our Hopeful Towns project, and aims to help local decision-makers build resilience.

Having confidence and thinking about audience
Central to the Inclusive Events guide is a focus on councils and their partners having confidence in what they can pull off, and in their taking risks.

The path of least resistance can sometimes be for authorities to fund discrete events – in an effort to please the respective communities – rather than to put on celebrations which bring people together. In reality, this often means catering to ‘the usual suspects’.

According to our contributors, fears about groups not getting on – or about events offending one community or another – were often unwarranted.

But this does not mean that community events will come together naturally, without serious thought about who is there and why. Whether you are marking St George’s Day or Black History Month, serious consideration needs to go into audience.

Who do you want to come? What is the shared frame or ‘hook’ which will attract these audiences? And how can you identify messengers with the credibility to reach different communities?

Telling stories
Underpinning this must be a powerful story about the area where the event is held.

This usually involves understanding the town as a place which is proud of its history, whilst also emphasising that adapting to change is a central part of that history. Truly inclusive events rarely seek to alter what the town is and what it stands for, in other words. But they also emphasise that the place’s identity is open to everyone.

Even places which are not diverse in the contemporary sense will often have a history of welcoming newcomers. This might involve outsiders visiting for tourism or new residents relocating to a New Town upon its formation.

Start where people are
Whether it is a parade, a memorial or a festival, the devil is in the detail. Factors like the venue will be central, for example.

There are surprisingly few spaces which do not feel like the ‘home turf’ of one community over another. The residents who have the fewest interactions with other groups are also the least likely to go somewhere that is unfamiliar to them.

So, finding neutral common ground is vital, when looking for a venue, if events are to take place on a genuinely equal footing.

The same goes for the content of the event itself. It can be tempting for decision-makers to re-invent the wheel. But step number one is to find out what people are proud of about the place where they live. What are they interested in and what they consider a good day out?

This will often come back to simple things, based on sport, music or free entertainment for the family. This does not mean that events cannot focus on religious holidays or historical centenaries. But they must seek out the aspects of these things which are accessible for different groups.

The aim is not that people are involved in a self-conscious cultural exchange, but that they are spending time together organically. The benefits for community resilience will usually come as a by-product.

The council role
Local authorities are seldom the best-placed to lead from the front. Rather, events work best when councils enable and stimulate ideas from within the community.

Authorities can provide funding, as well as support in kind (via the use of a municipal spaces, for instance, or thanks to help with a risk assessment). They can help to keep timelines on course, and to give other organisations the confidence to back an idea. But they often need to melt into the background once momentum has begun to build – allowing local partners, charities and arts organisations to take the lead.

Gravesham Council in Kent is a good example. They have made a conscious choice that community events are central to an area like theirs – which has high migration and pockets of acute deprivation. And they have made it a central part of their offer to residents.

Gravesham have taken a dual approach to funding these events. They have seed-funded many new initiatives via small pots of money, on a fairly experimental basis. But they have also established longer-term partnerships with trusted organisations like Kent Equality Cohesion Council, to deliver larger set-piece events.

Ultimately, there is no silver bullet for building community resilience. But, by encouraging events which build ties, local government can strengthen their communities in the long-term, against those who peddle division and hatred.

Further Information:

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