Saturday, 29 October 2011

Initiatives of Change Training Workshop

Initiatives of Change” (IoC) is an organisation to bridge-building within and between communities.
IoC achieves this by providing tools that communities can use to build a dialogue with the “other”. They also have an interesting blog here.

The national director of IoC in the US, Rob Corcoran, discussed a number of these issues in a public talk entitled “Honest Conversations in Community Change” earlier this week.

Assisted by Willemijn Lambert (a graduate in conflict resolution) Rob began by describing how there was a “trust deficit” in the US, between racial groups, between society and business and between citizens and government.

Rob gave a clue as to how difficult it can be to begin a dialogue between groups by pointing out that the four most feared words in the English language are “We’ve got to talk”.

They may not be frightening for the person saying them, but they can certainly be frightening for the person on the receiving end, who may fear being blamed, rejected or having to deal with emotions that they cannot handle.

To investigate this further, Rob asked the attendees to form small groups and consider what qualities were likely to BUILD trust and what qualities were likely to BREAK trust.

In the time honoured procedure for workshops such as this, the resulting post-it notes were put on a board and then discussed.

Dear reader, if you are feeling in a participative mood, you may wish to spend a couple of minutes thinking about what you feel would build or break trust before seeing how your thoughts compare with those of the group at the meeting (which BFTF will reveal in a moment). Let’s play a little music while you ponder. . .

Ready now? The most common responses from the attendees were :

i) Honesty - this was mentioned by every group
ii) Approachability
iii) Willingness to learn
iv) Time (added by Rob as something he often finds that younger group members identify)

i) Lying
ii) Backbiting / breaking of confidentiality.

Richmond, Virginia
This is Rob’s home town in the US. Richmond was the heart of the confederacy during the American Civil War (1861-65) and then became the heartland of what was basically a system of apartheid against the black population under the “Jim Crow” laws. Indeed, it was only in 1954-55 that a series of federal judgements demanded an end to the segregated school system that operated in the South.

In response, a white protest movement, known as “massive resistance” against the integration of schools began in Virginia. This movement continued until well into the 1970s (although many of the discriminatory laws that were implemented by Virginian politicians as part of the campaign were overturned by 1970).

But slowly, surely, the civil rights movement gained ground until, in 1977, Richmond (which by then had a population that was over 50% black) gained a black-majority council and a black mayor.

This change in power structures of the town resulted in a period of soul-searching for the city, part of which resulted, in 1993, in the Hope in the Cities program which aimed at helping to heal the racial wounds of Richmond but using the techniques pioneered by Initiatives of Change.

One reason why the Hope in the Cities program was needed was described by a black civil rights activist who Rob relates as saying that

“we worked so hard to change the structures but because we didn’t change the peoples hearts we have to go back and keep going back to do it again”

This activist thought about what needed to be done to resolve the situation, to “change peoples hearts” and decided to invite the white chief executive of the city council, Mr Todd, and his wife over for a barbecue.

The barbecue allowed the activist and Mr Todd to begin a dialogue which, over time, made a real difference in the way Mr Todd operated. The extent of the difference can be gauged by the comments of another black civil rights activist who, sometime later, told Rob Corcoran that, whereas meetings involving Mr Todd had previously seemed to have all their conclusions decided ahead of time, the activist was now finding that Mr Todd was asking for the activists opinion on the issues being discussed.

That black activist who had made efforts to open a dialogue with Mr Todd had really put their neck on the line. Some other African-American activists could not understand why she was “selling out”, some even stopped talking to her. It was only really when some fruits of the dialogue could be seen (such as the change in the attitude of Mr Todd) that the black community really began to buy into the dialogue. This “movement from the other side” is critical to bringing all the players into the dialogue.

It is also helpful to dialogue when one side admits that they have a problem. In the case of Richmond, the black community only really believed that the white community was serious when the white community itself started to say that it had a problem and that the problem was racism.


The talk now moved on to another interactive session in which the attendees were asked to form small groups and perform an “environmental scan”. This involves considering what you feel about your community in the following areas :
Past and Present – What are we proud of?
Past and Present – What are our complaints?
The Future – What do we aspire to?
The Future - What are we afraid of losing?

Rob emphasised that we could define “community” any way we wanted - town, faith, local area etc.

Once again, you may be interested in having a bash at this yourself. If so, let’s play a little music while you consider your responses

The results of the brainstorm were as shown below, one thing that was noticeable was that most of the groups had decided to define “community” as Nottingham’s Muslim community for the purposes of this exercise.

Past and Present – What are we proud of
Asian Culture
Understanding between communities
Work of our elders
Branching out of the Muslim Community to reach out to other communities
Lots of Mosques

Past and Present – What are our complaints?
Lack of inclusion.
We need to integrate with other communities.
Standards of education are poor.
Too many mosques/ too much division
Lack of opportunities for young people
We are not open minded and have a ghetto mentality.
We are not tolerant of peoples differences

The Future – What do we aspire to?
Prosperity – leading to lower crime rates
United, trustful community
To be a good British Muslim.
More integration with the host community
Eradicate the ghetto mentality (See note below)
Ensure the Muslims understand Islam (See the other note below)
Become a more inclusive community

The Future - What are we afraid of losing?
Loss of values, identity and spiritual values
Loss of trust within our community
Financial security

The note below
The Imam who wrote this added that the Muslim community was often a long way behind the cutting edge. They would move forward when the gap becomes embarrassingly wide, but are not generally leading the debate by being at the cutting edge of any social issues.

The other note below
The Imam who wrote this comment elaborated by saying that he felt that many Muslims only related the act of worship to Islam and did not implement Islamic values in the rest of their daily lives.


Rob now looked at the aspects of Trustbuilding in a little more detail by putting up a slide showing the four aspects of Trustbuilding. The slide is replicated below:

Know yourself
Discussing this aspect of trust building in a little more detail, Rob and Willemijn commented that we can all benefit from spending a little time in introspection each day, time in which we can consider whether we are contributing to and living like the community we want to live in. Rob described how he had fallen out with a work colleague for several years until, one day, while to was considering why this relationship had broken down, his conscience told Rob to think less about how he himself felt and a little more about the fact that his colleague felt that he had been wronged by Rob. So Rob called his colleague and to talk through things. The very next day the colleague called Rob and arranged to drive 100miles over to have lunch, which just goes to show how powerful the effects of reconciliation can be.

Acknowledge history and stories
Rob pointed out that if issues are not resolved, they end up being transferred, which is why race and slavery are still such live issues in the US today, 150 years after slavery was abolished. In addition, this transfer can result in the victims becoming victimisers.

Invite all to the table
Inviting everyone to the table means, by definition, that one has to engage with the “other” – which takes courage and can leave the people doing the engaging vulnerable to accusations of “selling out” or weakness. Rob pointed out to the leaders in the room that “if you want to be a bridge, you have to be prepared to get walked” and that one can spend so much time focussing on the enemy that one forgets to focus on the problem. Difficult times can make it easier to find and blame scapegoats for society problems. As Mee Moua, an ethnic minority politician in the US has commented “In our post-9/11 age, every American has been given tacit permission to unleash their anxieties on those they believe to be 'the Others'

Rob described an Initiatives of Change project in Richmond where leaders of the Christian Evangelical community met with Imams from the city’s Muslim community. As a first step, the two groups were asked to go to separate rooms for an hour and come up answers to two questions.

Q1) What can be do better?
Q2) What would we like to see from the “other”?

After an hour, the two groups came back to the table and discussed their findings

The Evengelicals said that they had not made sufficient efforts to reach out to the Muslim community and that what they wanted to see from the Muslim community was an absolute rejection of terrorism (which the Muslims were happy to provide)

For their part, the Muslim representatives admitted that they had been too insular as a community and that what they wanted to see from the Evangelicals was an absolute commitment to plurality.

Rob described how one of the Muslim representatives invited one of the Evangelicals over for a barbeque and that the conversation they struck up during this revealed that they had many areas of common ground. For example, they were both concerned about the loss of moral values and valued the family. This initial contact provided the basis for a conversation between the groups that is still going on.

The final parting comments from Rob were to ask the attendees to consider the following:
What conversations are not taking place?
Whose story needs to be heard?
Is there one step I can take to have an honest conversation?

With the “common ground” being a particular theme of BFTF, the following email was sent to a couple of the Imams at the Meeting

“. . . I noted the comments during the meeting regarding the Muslim community often being a long way behind the cutting edge of providing (and practicing) solutions to many of societies problems – and how many Muslims only related the act of worship to Islam and did not implement Islamic values in the rest of their daily lives.

One way of providing at least a partial solution to these problems is to provide leadership to the Muslim community in some of the many areas where we can find common ground with the wider society.

To pick just a few examples where the groundwork has already been done, the Masjid could :

i) Demonstrate Islam’s commitment to safeguarding the environment by only using sustainably sourced paper – and telling the congregation about this

ii) Encourage the community to take advantage of community open days and public lectures at local Universities

iii) Lobby on behalf of the Muslim community in cases where human rights abuses are taking place – and tell the community what you are doing.

iv) Lobby to ensure that legislation discouraging smoking is not watered down – and tell the community what you are doing.

v) Encourage the Muslim community to take advantage of local events where they can learn about the history of their city.

vi) Publicise to the Muslim community any reports on mosque best practice and tell the community whether the Masjid is going to implement any of the recommendations.

vii) Offer to educate the community (both Muslim and non Muslim) about the wide variety of trees that exist within a few hundred metres of the Masjid ( of course, it would be prudent to implement (i) before undertaking this action).

viii) Recommend to the community that simply changes to their shopping habits (e.g buying free-range eggs, FSC/recycled paper products, MSC certified fish)are praiseworthy actions and have the potential to make a real difference to the quality of the world that our children may live in.

(Pt 1) (Pt 2) (Pt 3)

UPDATE(06 Nov 11)
One of the Imams replied, saying thank you and that they would incorporate some of these topics into their sermons as appropriate.

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