Dr amanda wise & dr jan ali commonwealth of Australia 2008

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Addressing the Divide: Evidence from the Literature

Grass-roots Initiatives

Multicultural policy at a local level in Australia has largely been concerned with access and equity policies and ‘multicultural festivals’ (cf. Thompson et al. 1998). In the United Kingdom, however, approaches to community relations have moved towards incorporating both cohesion and integration. A recent study for the Communities and Local Government and the Commission on Integration and Cohesion in the UK defines these two notions as separate but interconnected ways of improving community relations:

cohesion is principally the process that must happen in all communities to ensure different groups of people get on well together; while integration is principally the process that ensures new residents and existing residents adapt to one another’ (Commission on Integration and Cohesion 2007: 38).

One of the core components of fostering cohesion, integration and, therefore, positive community relations, is the encouragement of meaningful interaction. This is seen as a component of cohesion that is particularly suitable to local government and grass-roots level interventions, approaches and policies. While such approaches are vitally important for everyone, research has demonstrated that special effort is necessary to involve and target the disengaged members of a community, such as youth (Communities and Local Government 2007: 68-72) and those involved in anti-social behaviour (Communities and Local Government 2007: 92-94), since they typically ‘have most concerns and least trust or sense of a stake in society and institutions’ (Communities and Local Government 2007: 9). Outlined below are some of the key aspects from these studies of how local governments and grass-roots initiatives can foster meaningful interaction within their communities.

Mutual Understanding and Shared Understanding

Understanding is key to positive engagements and a sense of wellbeing in communities.7

On the one hand, mutual understanding incorporates ways in which people understand each other in their uniqueness and particularity. On the other hand, shared understanding defines the sort of common ground upon which people can appreciate their shared fate or futures (Commission on Integration and Cohesion 2007: 46-47).

A vital function in developing understanding within communities is to develop myth- busting programs, campaigns and activities that subvert the sorts of stereotypes and myths surrounding particularly stigmatised groups (Communities and Local Government 2007: 73-77). Such stereotypes and myths are usually at the base of tensions and social isolation within communities.

Moreover, approaches that build a sense of commonality around real life issues at the local level help to foster trust, respect and positive relationships (Communities and Local Government 2007: 8). Approaches based on engagement and participation are particularly important in this area (see section below on ‘Cohesion and Integration From Below’) since they allow members of a community to learn from one another.

While it is important to note that inter-faith dialogues, in particular, provide productive ways in which to develop the sort of understanding being discussed (cf. Cahill et al 2004), they do entail certain limitations when it comes to community cohesion and integration because, primarily, it is not reasonable to expect people of different faiths to have meaningful interactions on the basis of religious doctrine. That is to say, that while inter- faith dialogues may expand participants’ horizons about other religions and what they mean to their adherents, it cannot be expected that people of different faiths actually share religions. In other words, inter-faith dialogues appear quite constructive for building mutual understanding, but limited when it comes to shared understanding. Nevertheless, knowing more about different religions can help to foster meaningful interaction that is more inclusive by accommodating different religious practices and values (cf. Australian Multicultural Foundation and Volunteering Australia 2007).

Avoiding and Responding to Tensions

Tensions can arise in communities due to differential treatment, injustices and prejudices between different groups. Myth busting (see above) and effective communication about community cohesion and integration (see next section) can help avoid such tensions. However, there is the need for on-the-ground responses to prevent further escalations. While policing is important, so are rapid and comprehensive responses that involve the community and mediators and are supported by longer-term initiatives (Communities and Local Government 2007: 89-91), whose crucial function is to gradually facilitate meaningful interactions in neutral settings (Communities and Local Government 2007: 8).

Effective Communication

The UK Communities and Local Government and Commission on Integration and Cohesion research, in developing their definition of cohesion and integration, consulted widely (Communities and Local Government 2007: 21-24). This led to a definition that was easy to communicate, understand and to embed and apply within policies and projects at a local level (Communities and Local Government 2007: 32). It is important that the ideas are accessible enough such that nothing is lost in the translations of these ideas between theory, policy and practice.

Cohesion and integration rely as much on targeted approaches as they do on universal ones (Communities and Local Governments 2007: 43) in their commitment to social justice and tackling long-term inequalities: ‘[t]his means a sense of equality and fairness for settled communities, just as much as positive action to close gaps in outcomes for minority and ethnic groups’ (Commission on Integration and Cohesion 2007: 98). In order to avoid tensions and conflicts that may arise from targeted approaches, social justice has to be made visible, by communicating and addressing the fairness and justifications for such approaches (Commission on Integration and Cohesion 2007: 100-107).

Cohesion and Integration From Below

For cohesion and integration to work, it has been found that the initiatives and approaches have to be community-led, including: consultations and involvement in decision-making and management (Communities and Local Government 2007: 45-47); ensuring service and policy staff are representative of their communities (Communities and Local Government 2007: 45-48); by utilising community-led delivery through, for example, voluntary and faith sector organisations (Communities and Local Government 2007: 49-52), and; creating effective partnerships with other organisations and between government agencies of different levels (Communities and Local Government 2007: 52-58).

Such engagement and participation in one’s community has many benefits:

  • Improvements in the quality, appropriateness and responsiveness of local services (Communities and Local Government 2007: 86)

  • It encourages ‘trust in services and institutions and a sense that [the community’s] needs are represented and they have a stake in what is going on’ (Communities and Local Government 2007: 85, 87)

  • It ‘provides arenas in which people from different backgrounds interact meaningfully and with a common purpose breaking down misconceptions, encouraging understanding, trust and a sense of common purpose amongst participants’ (Communities and Local Government 2007: 85, 87).

While cohesion and integration emphasise building bridges between such groups (e.g. religious and/or ethnic groups), it is just as important to recognise the limits to which cohesion and integration at the level of local government and grass-roots activities and organisations can be achieved. Cohesion and integration in the wider local community must also leverage existing networks within and across such a community to be effective8. Sometimes, such networks stretch beyond a local or grass-roots level, such as transnational networks (cf. Velayutham & Wise 2005). Moreover, these networks need space in which to flourish and develop as communities distinct from wider communities. For example, many young Muslim-Australians volunteer within and for their own communities and see it as a vital part of their lives (Australian Multicultural Foundation & Volunteering Australia 2007: 7). As has already been noted, volunteering is an important component in developing social capital and, more generally, is seen as a positive contribution. The challenge for any approach to bridge-building is to ensure that smaller communities do not get subsumed into a greater whole, since much of what is meaningful for them are the activities that they undertake for and amongst themselves.
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