Understanding diversity and engaging ethnic minority communities

It is now accepted that local authorities must engage with hard-to-reach groups and empower the full range of communities to speak and act for themselves. But recent research by the Institute of Community Cohesion (iCoCo), based at Coventry University, suggests that we are still failing to understand and reflect the growing diversity within our minority – and majority – communities.

This is partly due to the sheer pace of change and increasing complexity of the diversity around us. There are more than 300 languages spoken in London schools, 150-plus in many other cities and as many as 65 in even small market towns like Boston, Lincolnshire.

Political scientist Robert Putnam has suggested that diversity has a negative impact on social capital [the connections within and between social networks], because traditional networks which bind communities together are eroded. Although this is not universally accepted and may change over time as new communities establish links, there does seem to be a real impact on poorer communities, living in areas where population “churn” is much greater.

Inner city areas

This is particularly reflected in schools where inner-city areas often see school populations change by 50% in a single year and up to 90% in exceptional cases. Little wonder that neighbourhood instability is seen as a threat to the identity of both place and people.

Social services have quickly moved from a situation in which it was possible to engage with and consult five or six principal ethnic minority groups to having to develop relationships with literally dozens – and extend this to a series of overlapping faith based organisations. Even this has proved inadequate, however, as the diversity within what appear to be homogeneous groups is very apparent once the surface is scratched.

The recent iCoCo report Understanding and Appreciating Muslim Diversity demonstrated that variations within the Muslim community are as great as between that and other communities. Yet engagement is often limited to a small, and sometimes, unrepresentative group of leaders.

Our work with young people across all communities has also found a similar trend. iCoCo’s report, Young People and Extremism, found a growing gang culture in many parts of the country, often racialised in nature and largely disconnected from youth services and agencies.

Traditional forms of community leadership have often failed to connect with young people, represent newer communities and, almost by definition, struggled to reflect the increasingly diverse patterns of neighbourhoods. This is not just a reflection of the range of leaders, but also one of style.

Local authorities, especially elected members, are often ambivalent about community leaders. They can be seen as self-appointed and self-serving. They keep control of their communities, channeling all communications with statutory agencies through themselves, keeping others in the dark in a dependency relationship. And of course the community leader’s status – and frequently their salary – depends upon their position of power.

Gatekeeper leaders

But local authorities and many statutory agencies have found that gatekeeper community leaders can suit their purposes too. They make it easier to communicate with a particular community and dispense with all of the messy intra-community politics. One dominant view is much easier to manage. And sometimes political deals are done to deliver the votes from most members of that community.

The promise of continuing funding, creating a new project or building a community centre may well be enough. But these sorts of arrangements and deals are not tenable when so many communities are vying with each other for attention and funding.

There is also a danger that the response to this is simply directed at the minority communities when in fact many of our local studies suggest that white working class communities have as much difficulty in coming to terms with change.

White working class communities are much maligned. They are often portrayed, at best, as deprived, poorly educated and overly traditional and, at worst, as ignorant, xenophobic and racist. But are these stereotypes fair and do we dismiss their concerns too lightly? Do we understand diversity within white communities or just see them as a homogenous group?

In general, the white working class, like all social groups, are more diverse than ever before. Inner city urban areas are very mixed, with only relatively few outposts of white estates, often council-built overspill areas. Day-to-day experiences of diversity in the health service, in shops and leisure activities and through the media are constantly growing. Foreign holidays, once the preserve of the middle class, are now universally available, save for the most disadvantaged of communities, who generally have no holiday at all.

These experiences might be gradually expected to break down xenophobic attitudes and these diverse experiences abroad are matched by diversity at home, in sport – where working class heroes are just as likely to be black as white – and in music and other spheres. “Mixed race” is also the fastest growing ethnic group. It is increasingly commonplace to see some aspect of integration reflected in daily lives of this group.

White leadership

The lack of white leadership since the decline of trade unions, political parties and other working class institutions and networks has left a vacuum. The assumption that white councillors, MPs and other representatives, reflect the views of the wider white community is based upon an assumption of homogeneity that would never be contemplated in respect of ethnic minority groups and clearly does not reflect reality on the ground.

The far right, at least, appear to recognise that naked racist messages no longer resonate with the white working class. They now use bread and butter issues, some of which are real and pressing concerns about pressures on resources. And iCoCo’s work on the impact of migration at a local level and the failure to provide adequate resources to local authorities and other agencies reflects these concerns.

The problem is not so much one of migration. In some areas migrants have enabled schools to stay open in the face of falling roles and have also kept industries alive. But competition for resources is very real in other areas. In this sense, tackling poverty and disadvantage will remove some of the concerns about competition between groups, but given the constant state of flux of economic fortunes in an ever increasingly dynamic global environment, there are limitations to such an approach.

What can local authorities do to improve community cohesion?

Local authorities have a critical role to play in shaping and leading their communities. But their success in doing so will increasingly be dependent on a more sophisticated understanding of local diversity and a more energetic approach to building local links and forging local networks.

Together with their partners they now need to have a better grasp of the cultural composition of their communities, constantly mapping them to understand new and emerging needs and to anticipate tensions and conflicts. They must also be ready to abandon old forms of engagement with the “gatekeepers” of communities who tend to dominate access to the wider community and how its members are represented, and help to create new style “gateway community leaders” who help reach and empower the widest range of individuals and interests.

Women and young people especially need to be engaged on their own territory, while white working class communities should not be neglected or stereotyped. The iCoCo Tension Monitoring Toolkit provides a step by step guide to identifying and tackling community tensions, focusing on community led interventions, rather than after-the-event police work. The guide also provides details of good practice. All of the London boroughs are now implementing this scheme, following a short training programme and this will now be offered on a national basis.

Professor Ted Cantle is chief executive of iCoCo


Download Understanding and Appreciating Muslim Diversity

Download Young People and Extremism

More about the Institute

Published in the 3rd of July edition of Community Care magazine under the headline ‘We are not all the same’

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