Monday 18 June 2012

Intercultural dialogue in action in Liverpool: small steps to a Big Society

Bridges across cultures at Frontline faith group, Liverpool: the power of bringing everyone to the table.

Frontline faith group is based in the Wavertree district of Liverpool, England. Frontline was featured recently  in the Guardian and I was pleasantly surprised at the writer´s positive account of the group’s work. Over the years the Guardian has been routinely skeptical and occasionally mocking of all things faith driven. The most striking feature of the article and the accompanying video is the huge input from rank and file group members, individual persons making their voluntary contribution in a very unglamorous and unrewarding setting. 

Among the many other actions which have taken place at Frontline is the drama workshop and discussion group, Circles, which aims to build bridges between women from different cultures.

Photo of Charlotte Sawyer by Paul  Briggs

Over a spell of two months, Charlotte Sawyer, a member of Frontline and at the time final year degree student at  Liverpool Hope University , put her faith into practice by arranging for a small group of women representing different community, ethnic and religious groups in the city to get together to learn more about each other and to break down barriers.

‘We started with discussion groups held at a woman’s house, using the Circles of Peace Method by  Initiatives of Change  which is so easy to use. We follow  programme discussing personal change leading to change in our communities from reaching out to people who are different to us, sharing our story, forgiveness and integrity, 

The women who join in do not have to be members of Frontline to take part, in fact, given the variety of religions represented, it is amazing that they all agree to meet in a place of worship. That is one of the achievements of Frontline.

There is no charge for those taking part. As Charlotte said to me when I spoke to her: “Frontline allows use of the building at no cost, and we give our time plus tea and biscuits as part of our commitment to Frontline.” 
The women are all adults, and some bring their tiny children to the discussion groups. The group is actually a spin off from a larger scale action organized at Frontline with funding from the European Union, which involves a monthly meal invitation to approximately two hundred women, also drawn from different faith backgrounds. 

In both cases, the actions seek to build bridges between sections of the community who do not normally interact. They are simple to arrange and demonstrably effective: there is no question that these women meet and share their experiences and learn more about other women who live in the same neighbourhood. The work that Charlotte and her friends are doing recognises that while society is made up of identifiable segments which can be defined, counted and traced statistically, these segments are made of individual persons. Understanding and integration does not happen through segments, it happens through individuals, through personal interaction and communication.  

British Prime Minister David Cameron  launched  his Big Society concept for the nation shortly after his election and he decided the setting for this significant announcement should be the Liverpool Hope University, recognising the contribution  that this university is making to its local community, made up as it is of a combination of faith based academic institutions.   

The  Big Society Network  in UK exists to "Support and develop talent, innovation and enterprise to deliver social impact. ….(to) unleash the social energy that exists in the UK to help build a better, healthier society."

Charlotte Sawyer has now graduated from university and is working on a number of projects through Initatives of Change, where she has recently been appointed a member of the  International Support Team 
Describing the team’s role, Charlotte Sawyer writes:“Young people have energy, enthusiasm and, at times, unlimited aspirations. However, in order to lead we must learn from the mistakes and wisdom of people before us to have a comprehensive understanding of how to tackle the problems of this world.”

One opportunity to develop this understanding will be a conference in Switzerland in July 2012 which seeks to tackle issues of multiculturalism in Europe,  Learning to live in a multicultural world, when      diaspora communities and those from Europe will gather across generation and cultures to work together on issues such as a lack of integration in Europe and individual responsibility. 

The problems are numerous but so are the opportunities for positive change. Treating people as individuals rather than as a unit of a statistical segment, and creating opportunities for persons to understand each other are components to build a better, healthier society, whether you like the Big Society label or not. 

It is all to do with the power of bringing everyone to the table.