We need to talk about ‘good relations’

Jo BroadwoodAcross the country groups, organisations and committed volunteers are working quietly under the radar to strengthen relationships across difference. Differences that are often along the lines of ethnicity, race and faith, although age, gender, class, wealth and geography can also feature. In Talk for a Change’s recent report, Untold Stories of Good Relations, we uncovered some of this work.

Aik Saath, for example, is a group of young peer educators in Slough, working to bridge divides of race and faith in the town. They offer conflict resolution workshops to local schools, and work closely with the police and other agencies addressing issues such as knife crime and territorial conflicts. The local policing area commander for Thames Valley Police credits their prompt response to the summer riots of 2011 as being the reason no major disturbances occurred in the town.

Following a racist incident in Sheffield, South Yorkshire-based charity Who Is Your Neighbour worked with City of Sanctuary to facilitate dialogue and conversations between asylum seekers, refugees and members of the local community exploring experiences of racism and its impact on all sections of the community.

Thinkspace, based at the University of Bradford, brings together practitioners, academics and activists from the UK and beyond in a knowledge exchange network to share ideas and discuss and try out approaches for dealing with tricky and challenging issues that impact on good relations.

These are just some of the positive stories we discovered over the last year in our work to investigate and strengthen good relations work across England. We worked with local host organisations convening 11 events in different geographical areas across England. Over 340 people attended and 235 organisations and agencies were represented, primarily from community and voluntary organisations, youth justice, police and local authorities.

From work that supports the integration of new, vulnerable and marginalised groups to that which brings diverse groups together to celebrate and strengthen common bonds and trust, to that which calms community tensions and fosters intergroup contact and dialogue, to that which directly addresses extremism and radicalisation within specific groups. There is a whole spectrum of work going on from preventative work to direct intervention work that supports good relations. Indeed the multiplicity of approaches is itself a strength, with arts, sports, community organising, volunteering, advocacy, and skills training all being used as ways of developing resilient, cohesive, peaceful communities.

The current context for good relations is a challenging one – since we began this work in early 2013 there has been a shift in political and media narratives and a number of debates have intensified.

There has been a hardening in attitudes towards welfare recipients, and immigrants, and a rise in anti Muslim hate crime. Unsurprisingly many local activists and organisations reported that these issues are being played out at a local level with more overt expressions of prejudice particularly towards specific groups. This, combined with the effects of cuts to local services, means that communities are coming under increasing pressures and the likelihood of scapegoating of particular groups has increased.

At the same time many of the myriad small local voluntary and community organisations who actively work to maintain and strengthen good relations are themselves under pressure as funding and resources becomes scarce. Much of their work is quiet and close to the ground; as such it provides essential local community structure, relying on trust and long term relationships established over years to act as ‘social glue’. It is more likely to be noticed by its absence than its presence. There is a real danger that valuable local skills, experience and expertise will be lost at a time when it is most needed.

There is an urgent need to tell the positive stories of good relations work. These stories rarely come to public attention but reflect more complex nuanced narratives around hot topics such as welfare, immigration and integration. They are stories about people coming together out of curiosity, interest, need and shared concerns to forge common bonds, local alliances and even friendships, and of diverse groups being encouraged to deal with their differences and talk about the things that matter to them in a way that allows for disagreement without harming underlying social bonds.

A range of local and national partners are working to develop a formal alliance specifically focused on good relations to amplify the many local voices, providing good practice examples, telling other stories, and raising the profile of this invisible work that contributes so much to social capital.

We are proposing that locally driven networks with light touch national coordination could offer skill development, peer to peer support, and resources to strengthen the capacity and skills of practitioners and activists. If you are interested in finding out more please get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

  • You can download Talk for a Change’s full report, Untold Stories of Good Relations, here and the executive summary here.




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