19 / 04 / 21
Cross-cultural singing. Shared stories of migration. Working towards a brighter future together. Organising ourselves to support our young people’s prospects. Building a place that we can all call home.
These are just some of the highlights that emerged from our 3 month long pioneering online dialogues that took place from January to March 2021 across Birmingham and the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham.
Sure, the title of this blog might be a minor exaggeration, but it’s not actually that far from the truth.
In an uncertain world locked down with apprehension, where we could not even share a cup of tea with our neighbours, the Communities team at The Faith and Belief Forum shrugged aside fears and concerns that would have stalled most others and dived straight into the deep end.
Seeing that our work was needed more than ever– and funded by a generous grant from the MHCLG– the Faith and Belief Forum launched its Building Closer Communities project in two locations. Through community linking sessions, schools work, and an intensive youth leadership programme we aimed to connect people across faith and cultural lines and link together communities that have lived among each other for decades without developing more than surface level relationships – if that.
All three strands of the project took place from January through to March, culminating in final events in both Birmingham and Barking & Dagenham attended by community leaders, local MPs, and the participants themselves. The night featured live performances and highlighted the work we have done with schools, communities and young people over the first three months of 2021.
Despite sharing their local supermarket, living perhaps only a few streets from each other, and brushing shoulders in the street (before social distancing put a stop to even that), none of the seven communities we linked with each other in Barking & Dagenham had ever developed a significant relationship with each other – some had not even ever heard of the other! As one of the participants said, “It’s a 100% increase – we are making ground-breaking progress!”
Likewise, in Birmingham, there were two places of worship located on the same street that had only a superficial relationship with one another. The activities we ran gave the participants the opportunity to transcend small-talk and discuss ideas that really matter to them and affect their lives from concepts of personal identity to challenges they face together in our local areas.
When I joined The Faith and Belief Forum in January, most of the outreach had already taken place and we were ready to start delivering the first community dialogue sessions. Despite my enthusiasm for the project, a thought did cross my mind: “How much can we really accomplish in 2 and a bit months?”
The answer: an awful lot. Over the course of two 90-minute community dialogue sessions not only did we build those community links, but we built genuine friendships between people who had never met each other – and even that we managed over Zoom. Of course, chatting over a cup of tea has a different feel to it – but I remember that after the second session two of the religious communities we had linked together were planning an all-out party in the park once restrictions eased.
As for the young people, their ages ranged from 16 to 26 and many of them had zero public speaking experience before. After having gone through an intensive course, specifically designed by the Faith and Belief Forum to provide them a grounding in understanding and addressing social issues, they concluded the programme by being given the opportunity to share their ideas and experiences with community leaders from their local areas. They developed their confidence, public speaking skills, and knowledge on topics ranging from climate change to homelessness and learned how to organise their communities to address these problems together. I have a feeling they are all going to take their communities by storm one day – watch out.
So, if anyone now says to me that you cannot do community work online, that you cannot develop profound relationships over a video call, that 3 months is not enough to do anything of any real significance… I will smile before telling them the story of how a young Afro-Portuguese artist decided out of the blue to start singing in Hindi to a group of elderly Sikh women. When they don’t believe me, I’ll show them a video of the Sikh women singing back and how those ladies then hijacked our final event and lifted everyone’s spirits with a beautiful song to end the evening.
We might not have changed the world as a whole, but for everyone who took part in the project in its various forms, I am certain they won’t go out looking at the world in the same way again.