03 / 12 / 20
When we were told to close the office and lockdown in face of Covid-19 last March we were, like everyone else, faced with some unfamiliar questions. Should we furlough staff? How will our funding be affected? How long will this continue? How should we protect our staff? Will we be able to continue to work?
As it turned out we furloughed 20% of our staff, but not for very long; our funding has stabilised thanks to core donors who have stuck with us and new donors who have joined; we have avoided redundancies but cut working hours; and, perhaps most significantly, we have transferred all our programmes online, enabling us to sustain and also further develop our work.
This has involved significant change. All our staff should take great credit for how they have adapted. Travel of any significant distance has all but stopped, bringing the dynamics of neighbourhoods more to the fore. Here the work of individuals and organisations driven by different faiths and beliefs has been invaluable, helping to provide essential services such as food and tackling issues exacerbated by the pandemic such as loneliness and domestic abuse.
As we now fix our gaze on vaccinations which may offer us a way out, there is much to concern us in the wake of the pandemic. School closures have laid bare social inequality and child poverty; the BAME community has been affected disproportionately; the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign has gathered momentum underlining the persistence of anti-black racism and the need to tackle it; and centuries old rituals relating to faiths and beliefs have been disrupted. We should not forget either that the consequences of Brexit will include further change, disruption, and potential social tension.
Our mission of strengthening relations between people of different faiths and beliefs is more important than ever. As I look back at the year, I ask myself how well are we positioned to take up the challenge of reconnecting communities and building social cohesion? Have we retained sufficient momentum and creativity to respond well to a context shaped by the pandemic and Brexit? I see five signs of hope.
First, there seems some renewed interest amongst policy makers in exploring the positive role that faith and belief plays in social cohesion. Our report Social Cohesion: Faith & Belief, published together with Theos and the British Academy in July highlighted the policy trend of faith and belief being framed as a problem to be solved rather than an asset to be harnessed. The recently launched faith engagement survey by MHCLG suggests an appetite within government to address this, something backed up by the roundtable discussions with local authorities and faith communities on the back of our report.
Second, evidence of the contribution faith and belief organisations make to social cohesion is becoming more visible. It is not easy for small, grassroots organisations to be seen and appreciated. However, the pandemic has not prevented us from celebrating this in both London and Walsall through online showcase events. This is the fourth year we have run our Faith & Belief Community Awards in partnership with the Greater London Lieutenancy (GLL), with a special category for Community Resourcefulness in Response to Covid-19. There was no shortage of nominations.
Third, dialogue can work even when face to face engagement is not an option. When the first lockdown was announced in March, we were in the middle of a significant community dialogue project in Walsall, one of the five integration areas prioritised by MHCLG for additional support. We had to completely rethink the project and move it online in September. Signs of impact are now encouraging, with participants appreciating the safe, online space to get to know each other and discuss challenging topics. On the back of this we have extended our community dialogue work to Birmingham and the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.
Fourth, there is a noticeable demand for and interest in ‘lived experience’ resources within schools. The BLM campaign and school curriculum developments such as in Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Religion and Worldviews have helped fuel a demand for teaching about diversity, marginalisation, and discrimination. ‘Lived experience’ and ‘lived faith’ are at the heart of our approach to education and we have spent lockdown pushing through a range of new online resources based on this. We have also moved our school linking programme online, enabling schools to explore diversity of faith and belief first-hand despite travel restrictions. With our LGBT+Faith training programme also continuing online we have new tools to expand the reach of our education and learning work.
Fifth and finally, MPs remain positively engaged in our ParliaMentors programme at a time when the pandemic is presenting new political challenges. This programme aims to prepare undergraduates from different faith and belief backgrounds for their leadership journeys by working together and with MP mentors. MPs such as Preet Gill, Stephen Timms and Nadia Wittome have given their time to have Q&A sessions with the students online. It is arguably important for both current and aspiring political leaders to have these exchanges, to help nurture leadership that can tackle an increasingly complex array of issues associated with identity, power and politics in the wake of the pandemic.
It has been a hard year. Many lives have been lost. Many jobs have disappeared, lives disrupted. It is thanks to the creativity and support of staff, partners, and funders that we have been able to keep operating. There is a way to go before covid-19, and Brexit, do not dominate the headlines. In the meantime, it is clear to me that we have strong tools, both online and face to face, to nurture the interfaith collaboration and understanding needed to keep our communities strong.