Building links with multi-ethnic communities

The outcomes of social work depend on engagement with all sections of an increasingly diverse society. Daniel Lombard asks how professionals should go about doing this

The outcomes of social work depend on engagement with all sections of an increasingly diverse society. Daniel Lombard asks how professionals should go about doing this

The Equality Act 2010, which comes into effect next month, places a legal duty on public bodies to “advance equality of opportunity” for people from minority backgrounds.

This involves removing or minimising disadvantage suffered by people with certain racial, and religious backgrounds; encouraging their participation in public life, and taking steps to meet their needs.

So where can social workers and senior managers start in terms of gathering information and building links in order to meet these needs? Here, experts provide advice for local authorities and other providers, from senior level to the frontline.


Gather data

Directors need to understand the diversity of the population they are serving in order to have a clear vision for engagement. The Institute of Community Cohesion (iCoCo) says relevant data on the ethnic make-up of populations already exists, from housing, health, police, education, and employers – but it needs to be pulled together. Ted Cantle, executive chair of the institute, recommends using specially-designed toolkits from the iCoCo website at

Build a picture of racial and religious diversity

This data can feed into “engagement maps” to illustrate the diversity of the area so that managers can plan and deliver local services. But it is also important to recognise diversity within communities, says Cantle. “This is not just about ethnic minorities,” he says. “There is considerable diversity within the white British community too and at least some parts of them have been neglected, as the rise of the far right shows.”

Support the development of ethnic minority-led organisations

This is an important step towards local authorities and other social care providers delivering culturally appropriate services, says Jabeer Butt, deputy chief executive of the Race Equality Foundation.

This “facilitates a more flexible approach to meeting needs with the potential to exploit community resources that may be more trusted,” he says.

“In areas with small ethnic minority populations there may be few such organisations, therefore social care providers may have to look to neighbouring areas and invest in the development of this infrastructure.”


Address language barriers

Multi-ethnic communities pose linguistic challenges for professionals. Cantle says: “London is well known for its diversity – there are more than 300 languages spoken in London schools. Less well known is that there are 122 in Luton and 65 in Boston, Lincolnshire.”

To cope, managers should consider recruiting and training social workers fluent in minority languages, say Tom Vickers and Lena Dominelli from the school of applied social sciences at Durham University. Managers should also lobby for courses for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) to be made available for service users. Translations by family members should be avoided, they add.


Approaching communities

Vickers and Dominelli say social workers should build links on behalf of local authorities with “a range of ethnic minority organisations including those in voluntary, community, religious and commercial settings, and campaigning or political groups”.

Cantle says the best people to approach may not be umbrella bodies. Relying on these groups, which are often unrepresentative, is “not a proper basis for engagement”. Instead, “gateway” community leaders should be identified. “Gateway leaders are constantly checking with their communities, involving them in all decisions and meetings with others. They seek to empower their communities to advocate on their own behalf,” he says.

However, Butt says stronger engagement with ethnic minority-led voluntary and community organisations can lead to greater awareness of services.

Engaging with individuals

Practitioners should also build relationships with individuals from minority communities “through grassroots engagement over a sustained period”, Vickers and Dominelli say.

“This requires practitioners to engage with service users in a variety of ways, such as intermediary organisations, multi-lingual phone lines, drop-ins, home visits and community events, to offer services that meet self-defined needs.”

Not everyone is a member of an organisation, however, so professionals should try to engage with people “through public events or other places where they hang out”. Social workers can make a difference to the lives of people in ethnic communities, the academics say, by addressing “the exclusion of minority populations through externally imposed solutions to social problems prescribed by policymakers or other agencies”.

Special report on social work and ethnic minorities

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