Strengthen our Communities for Things to Come

“The future of every community lies in capturing the passion, imagination, and resources of its people.”

Ernesto Sirolli

How do we create a fairer, more equal society? What are the obstacles? What can we do to counter our ever divisive cultures? Here are some reasons why we must be focused on answering these questions.

  • Wealth inequality is set to become much much worse.
  • Fear and destitution often leads to division and conflict.
  • There will be more displacement and migration due to climate change, resource wars and sea level rise, meaning that many communities will experience a larger influx of ethnic, religious and cultural diversity.
  • As written in my previous post, we have so much riding on our ability to create strong, healthy, resilient communities and we cannot fail.

I believe that the key to our success as species relies on our ability to create and maintain a healthy community and the definition of a cohesive community from Local Government Association is a good starting point of discussion;

  • There is a common vision and a sense of belonging for all communities;
  • The diversity of people’s different backgrounds and circumstances is appreciated and positively valued;
  • Those from different backgrounds have similar life opportunities; and 
  • Strong positive relationships are being developed between people from different backgrounds and circumstances in the work-place, in schools and within neighbourhoods.

So the question is, how do we get there?

Common Vision

For a diverse community to function well, there has to be a unifying common vision that brings everyone together with a set of ethical and cultural values in a shared code of ‘civility’ and ‘decency’ such as that of citizenship and the rights and responsibilities. 

Though such principles are important in helping to establish ground rules for those in the community to exist side by side, I believe a common vision is something that should be defined as shared perception of the future which inspires and motivates all, thus, creating a sense of new communal identity

Establishing such identity requires a cautious approach, as pursuing a unifying identity has led to devaluation of diversity in the past. The assimilation approach of the 60’s and 70’s, for example, placed ‘British values’ as the single ethnocentric identity which immigrants had to adapt to. Or the ‘colour blind’ approach of the 90’s which disregarded the differences in ethnicity and culture, with the hope that by focusing on similarities it may ease the disparity between groups. These approaches have since received numerous criticisms; the Swann report, for example, condemned it as a ‘fundamental mis-education, in failing to reflect the diversity which is now a fact of life in this country’.

Valuing Diversity

The challenge of diversity is in the paradox of the need for unity and diversity to co-exist respectfully in a complex dynamics of power and identities. To understand this idea in detail, it is important to consider the notion of ‘difference’ and ‘coercive relations of power’.

Difference

The distinction between difference and division is often blurred and although they are often related to each other, the meanings are very different. The former describes the distinguishing characteristics and the latter illustrates the separation between groups. 

From early stages of life, we identify ourselves with social constructs as a necessary process of personal and social identity formation. It is through this identification that we develop self-concept of who we are and where we come from. The process of identification, however, is characterised by differentiation. It is through comparison with the ‘other’ that one is able to form their interpersonal and intercultural identity. In other words, ‘we’ do not exist without ‘them’. Differentiation may therefore be a fundamental human and societal characteristic with diversity being a natural base state in a healthy society.

However, differentiation of social groups has historically been problematic. The continuing trend to categorise humankind into ‘race’ with no scientific validity in distinguishing biological differences is a notable example with many historical connotations. Most socially accepted forms of differentiation that are thought of as ethical and appropriate, such as cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious or gender, can also be heterogeneous and debatable as to where the line should be drawn. What happens if you live on the border between two nations and you are a gender fluid bilingual with muslim and hindu parents?

Yet, difference is indeed essential in social identity formation. I believe, therefore, that the difficulty of maintaining a diverse community is not so much about how we identify distinguishing characteristics, but of division that is created between the differences. There are countless examples in history where social segregation have created and legitimised discrimination and hostility. 

Coercive relations of power 

In cases of colonial exploitations by the British, Spaniards and French; in enslavement throughout history in virtually every continent; to genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda and Cambodia; when difference manifests itself as division between groups, the coercive relations of power become quickly pronounced. This is when a limited amount of power is distributed between groups, so the more power the dominant group has, the less power there is for the subordinate group.

This is perpetuated by legitimising power over the subordinate group through devaluing the economic, social and cultural capital of the minority. The key point to note is that it is always the more powerful dominant group which defines the capitals as either superior or inferior. For example, a white majority ethnic group such as that of France, may deem burkini as an insult to religiously neutral arena and issue tickets for not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism”. Bedroom taxes, where it disproportionately affect the poor and disabled people while multi-billion corporations escape to government approved tax havens is another evidence. 

Although perceiving and articulating certain communities as being inferior is a social taboo in our modern-day democratic society, unequal power distribution, social hierarchy and marginalisation of minority groups continue to exist, albeit in a more subtle way than perhaps a few decades ago. The disproportionately higher number of ethnic minority front line staff dying of Covid-19 highlight this problem well. Another good example is how black people 53%, Asian 55%, and other ethnic groups 81% are more likely to be sent to prison for an indictable offence at the Crown Court. Institutional discrimination is clearly extensive and deep-seated in our society.

It is also worth pointing out at this point that although discrimination has become increasingly elusive in the forms of structural and micro-aggressive acts, the effect on minority groups in eventually internalising these external perceptions continue to be a significant issue. How the ‘others’ view you is physically and psychologically reinforced until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What Can We Do to Value Diversity?

I have so far argued that difference is a fundamental human and societal characteristic which is essential in the formation of identities, and that the coercive relations of power that exist in our societies become more prominent when there is division between different groups. The underlining hierarchical perspective of our society is deeply ingrained in our identities and within the structures of the institutions. These are expressed in subtle ways and help to devalue the social and cultural capitals of the subordinate groups, replicating inequality in the process.

Valuing diversity is a much more complex affair with deep-rooted sociological and psychological aspects that affect how we interact with each other and ultimately how society functions. Elaborating on the problems above, it seems that there are 3 crucial steps that need to be taken into account. 

Positive Self Perception – Firstly, we need to recognise the importance of our identity in constructing self-perception, and realise that how we view ourselves can affect outcomes greatly. We are then able to work towards advocating positive perception of self and of the group in which we belong to, thus, promoting higher self-esteem and efficacy. This is proven to increase the capacity to overcome difficulties and facilitate achievement. For example, a black muslim youth may become less susceptible to the influences of extremist ideologies if he/she is secure in his/her identity and feel a sense of belonging to a community.

Empower the Capital of the Disadvantaged – Secondly, there needs to be an understanding of how our identity is valued by the status of our social groups within a society and that a dominant power within a community prescribes the status of the subordinate group. Through this increased awareness, it is possible to then;

A) recognise the fact that devaluation and disempowerment of social groups and their cultural capital is mediated through leadership and institutional structures, and

B) work towards empowering and revaluing the capital of the disadvantaged.

Set Up Community Level Policies – Thirdly, as the causes of the inequity exist at every level of institutions, the initiatives that are placed to raise equality have to be at the level of the whole community rather than left to the choices of individuals. Communities will be able to effectively counter inequity that exists in the system by placing key values and practices in their policy, and by fully exercising their values by means of strong leadership and shared vision.

A central theme that pops up again and again is how power is distributed in our society and how it affects the relationships between different social groups. The following strategies all have a common underlying purpose of redistributing power more equally, through legitimising, valuing and accessing the capital of the marginalised population. 

Social Capital and Bridging the Gap 

There are two ways in which social capital can manifest itself in a society.  First is in the form of ‘bonding’ which is defined as socialisation between those that are similar, for example, same sex, same ethnicity, same language. ‘Bridging’, on the other hand, describes the socialisation between those that are different; different cultures, different nationality, different religions.

With reference to the earlier argument on ‘division’ between social groups increasing fragmentation and coercion, the notion of bridging social capital is a compelling idea that can minimise division while preserving and respecting the difference. In its simplest form, bridging is achieved through closing the social distance and increasing interaction between the groups, which in the context of local communities may be between neighbours, between ethnic and religious groups or between elders and the young. So go speak to your neighbours (from an appropriate distance), make friends with a wider group of people and help out the old within your community. 

“Loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people, he said—it’s the sense that you’re not sharing anything that matters with anyone else. If you have lots of people around you—perhaps even a husband or wife, or a family, or a busy workplace—but you don’t share anything that matters with them, then you’ll still be lonely.”

Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions

Through establishing relationships within the communities, we enable access to and exchange of the knowledge that they hold. This may be in the form of skills that could be shared from gardening and cooking to finance and engineering. The recurring theme that emerges from research is the importance of social constructivism; where knowledge and culture are created collaboratively through accessing diversity as a resource. There are some important factors to consider in successfully applying such strategies.

1. Firstly, we must recognise that many people may not necessarily have the right cultural capital that is required by the largely mono-cultural society. And those strategies for involvement which do not consider such base inequities will help increase the gap. Literacy homeworks that encourages parent child collaboration will benefit those with parents who are fluent in English while being completely useless for those with limited fluency.

2. Secondly, successful initiatives require all of us to be aware of the commonly held deficit views of minority people and their communities and recognise that they are not ‘lacking’ cultural assets but have wealth of capitals that are not necessarily recognised or valued within the community in which they live. I know many immigrants who were doctors, lawyers and leaders in their country but are now cleaning, working on construction sites, driving taxis and working in factories.

3. Thirdly, a positive collaborative environment which places value and utilises the knowledge of the diverse community can reverse the unequal power distribution. As knowledge and culture is shared and constructed in collaboration, it is beneficial not only to the minority population but for the community as a whole. Check out https://www.incredibleedible.org.uk/ for some inspiration.

Conclusion

Achieving equality in a diversifying community is a very complex issue with many different factors affecting success or failure of initiatives. It requires those in more powerful positions (often those who belong to the majority group) to critically reflect on their social identity and be aware of where they are in the power structures that exist in our society. It requires the awareness and willingness to face subtle and embedded forms of prejudices in both ourselves and in our institutions.

These changes are necessary in creating the kind of environment in which power can be more equally distributed, where diversity is seen as a wealth that can enrich the community, where strong bridges exist between social groups accommodating communication and collaboration based on mutual respect, and build what is called the ‘transcultural’ capital. 

Triandafyllidou defines transcultural capital as ‘the strategic use of knowledge, skills and networks acquired by migrants through connections with their country and cultures of origin which are made active at their new places of residence’. The term ‘transcultural capital’ though should be defined and interpreted in a much wider framework. It can be a useful label for all forms of capital that are created in the process of bridging between social and cultural capitals. These are the knowledge, skills and networks that are created in collaboration and shared amongst the different social groups. 

The widening of the definition takes into account that under a collaborative context, the capital of the minority population is not something that is static which needs to be ‘activated’. Rather, it is a two way process which creates a new, dynamic and evolving capital that accumulates not just in the minority population but also in all those involved in the process.

Accumulation of such capital is a key component in creating the ‘common vision and a sense of belonging for all communities’. Powerful human relationships can transcend economic and social disadvantages that afflict communities. As our society becomes more unstable in the transitional period from post-Covid to post-carbon society, and with an ever unstable world economy, it is very likely that social and economic inequity will become more prominent in the coming years. It is my belief and sincere hope that through building such powerful human relationships and through accumulation of transcultural capital in our diversifying communities, we may come through the turbulent times more equal and stronger as a society.

“Our differences are our strength as a species and as a world community.” 

Nelson Mandela

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Sally says:

    What a wonderful future it would be if everyone had a more open approach to the incredible diverse differences we all have. I know I have held many prejudices that have dissolved due to challenging my own beliefs that I thought to be true until I had exposure or was shown a more equal perspective. Many people have been cocooned and manipulated to think in a certain way- follow the crowds the ‘ normal social constructs’ or dont have the education and cultural capital, social capital to see past that, which makes it difficult for them to see past the differences because they are so closed in, or are still carrying the burden of past hurts that creates this perpetual cycle of hate/ hurt towards a certain group of people. These cycles need to be broken. Society is so fractured. People fear change and are very wary of difference especially if it disrupts their ususal habits/ conformities/ outside their tribe. However, there are more things that connect us all and it’s important to see these similarities, embrace them and the differences. Easier said than done, eh?

    Like

    1. cshimasaki says:

      It could well become one of the biggest challenge for the 21st century. If we can’t get this right, we are in for a very dark future.

      Like

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