How might social cohesion and a shared sense of belonging be nurtured and protected in turbulent times? How can communities in the UK - which are struggling under the burden of a decade of austerity and facing challenges such as ‘Brexit’, the climate crisis and, most recently, the threat of a global pandemic - ensure that they are inclusive and that their members can continue to thrive during periods of change and conflict?
Towards the end of February 2020, Cumberland Lodge and The Young Foundation gathered a diverse delegation of academics, policymakers, private sector representatives, civil servants and community leaders to explore these thorny questions. I was looking forward to participating in this conference as my own research concerns the influence of collective identities in the context of international peace processes in Syria and Yemen.
Understanding how bonds within communities may influence peacemaking efforts is a fundamental part of my work. It was really valuable to be provided with the opportunity to consider how I might be able to apply my findings to the UK context, and to develop my own thinking following the conversations and presentations at the conference.
A varied programme
The two-day programme was wide-ranging; to begin, we heard from a panel of experts in collaborative local citizenship. I was particularly interested in the discussion surrounding the ‘Preston model’. This city’s council, in partnership with a number of other public sector institutions, has implemented an approach to local government which aims to ensure that the benefits of local growth are invested in local areas, are used to support investment in productive economic activities, and that people and their local institutions can work together on an agenda of shared benefit.
The Preston Model seems to be an apt expression of both the interconnectivity between economic structures and community life, and the way in which communities can demand and inspire system change. A number of my fellow delegates voiced a desire to learn more about this model, and to explore the potential for adopting it within other UK regions.
Those with expertise in the arts and culture also shared their perspectives. We learned about the role of arts within reconciliation projects in Northern Ireland, and the potential for social enterprises to not only bring together diverse members of a local area but also to empower those individuals to collectively ‘find their voices, and be heard’.
For the keynote address on Thursday evening, we were joined by Nick Pearson, Chief Executive Officer of Parkrun Global. Pearson described how Parkrun began as a means for its founder to maintain and develop his social ties. It has now been embraced by 22 countries, across five continents, and has been widely credited with providing new opportunities for community integration. As the organisers phrase it on their website, ‘We want as many people as possible to feel part of a real local community’.
On the final day of the conference, we explored how businesses and educational institutions can contribute to community cohesion. On my table, we were particularly taken by a presentation concerning the role of language and translation. It prompted us to think about how the act of translating languages can be used to question our own biases, leading to both an increased self-awareness and a deeper empathy for others. The argument was made that an understanding of how language shapes society is essential within wider considerations of community resilience.
Over the two days of discussions, a number of broader, intersecting themes emerged as being significant. Participants seemed to be particularly torn between recognising the constraints of political and economic structures within the UK and avoiding diminishing the very real power and potential held by communities. Similarly, the term ‘resilience’ was constantly contested:
- Why should communities be forced to withstand and adapt to unjust conditions?
- Why is it often presumed that ‘outsiders’ are required to bolster the capacity of communities?
Issues surrounding funding also recurred, with simplistic quantitative measures of ‘effectiveness’ and short-term intervention cycles both being criticised.
An array of case studies of best practice was shared during the two days but, crucially, the conference also provided a space in which frustrations and challenges could be mulled over. As ever, discussions continued beyond the panel presentations and formal conference sessions, and valuable connections were made across sectors.
Cumberland Lodge will be arranging a virtual consultation, involving conference representatives and further experts in the field, in May 2020, and I am looking forward to participating further at that stage. This process of review and refinement will support the drafting of a report, summarising the findings and recommendations from the conference. The final report is due to be launched this summer, and will also be made publicly available in print and online.