Community Engagement: reaction and resilience building

01 02 24

On the 24th January, HOPE not hate held a webinar to launch a new resource on community engagement. In short, community engagement is any attempt made by a group or organisation to reach out and communicate with members of a community. Community cohesion thrives on different demographics of people feeling respected, safe and listened to, and in the event we talked about how community cohesion can address this in two ways:

  1. Reaction: When something happens that threatens community tension, how can organisations reach out and reassure people?
  2. Resilience building: What can be done to address concerns causing tensions in the community so that trigger events have less impact?

Our two speakers were Becky Wisbey, the Head of Community Services at Dunstable Town Council Sophia Newton, the Communications Director and Co-Founder at  Anti Racist Cumbria. You can read the case studies of what happened in Dunstable and Carlisle in our resource here. What follows is a brief summary of the webinar:

The information void: avoiding pitfalls
The information void or vacuum refers to a period of time where public services and the community sector have not openly addressed a change to the community. In the webinar, both Becky and Sophia spoke about a lack of communication from the police, local authority and community sector around people seeking asylum being accommodated in hotels in the area.

Becky pointed out that in hindsight, people should have pre-empted that the use of the hotel in Dunstable would evoke a strong reaction, as it is an iconic building in the town centre and its use for asylum accommodation meant that weddings were cancelled. Eventually, the local MP and town council mayor decided to host a public meeting to address concerns, but by that point there had already been leafleting by fascist group Patriotic Alternative and lots of agitation on social media.

Both speakers agreed that saying something is much better than saying nothing, because trying to wait the problem out means the problem might worsen. In many areas there are existing resources to tap into rather than reinventing the wheel. Becky mentioned building links with community safety officers, youth clubs, community halls and the faith sector as a way of disseminating information and also having an ear to the ground for concerns.

Drawing attention to the far right?
Sophia explained that in Cumbria, tensions had been high around the use of the hotel for a while, but a rumour of a local abduction was “like a touchpaper” that set the whole issue alight. Her first instinct was to call out the involvement of the far right, but after taking a bit of time to understand who was involved with online and offline activity, it became apparent that the main concerns were coming from local people, who were using the same language and tropes as the far right. A coalition of community organisations decided to release statements which highlighted the underlying racism of local protesters, but refrained from calling them far right in an attempt not to further alienate and divide.

Becky also pointed out that with the move for far-right groups to position themselves as political parties or organisations, it can be hard for local authorities to speak out on this whilst maintaining impartiality. In these cases, it can be helpful to work with external partners who are able to say more.

A resilience building, stakeholder-driven perspective
George Gaillet, an associate community organiser at Citizens UK, was due to speak at the event but was unable to attend, ironically due to contingency accommodation that he was working to support being closed down last minute. George wanted to share insights on how Citizens UK works to build relationships between people seeking asylum and the community as a way of reducing divisions and tensions, and also as a way of giving those seeking asylum a sense of agency and a way of feeling involved in the community.

George received funding from the local authority to work with the accommodation sites and faith sector to amplify voices of people seeking asylum. They set up language conversation classes, games taking place outside the hotel, opportunities to cook and share food and homework clubs. When the closure of the hotels was announced, local anti-raids networks and food banks came together in solidarity with people seeking asylum to support an action. By building up engagement and pre-empting possible problems before they took place, George was able to support a potentially vulnerable group whilst also introducing them to the community on positive terms.

Moving forward
In both Dunstable and Carlisle, community cohesion meetings have been revived and now serve as a pre-emptive measure to understand community tensions. Becky mentioned that the town council is preparing to reach out to the community around the government’s recently announced plans to start closing hotels. She called for local authorities and police forces to work together more coherently, as well as neighbouring areas communicating. Dunstable is right next to Luton, and there are plenty of avenues for learning and coordination there.

Sophia explained how council funding enabled community anti-racist and refugee rights organisations to get in touch with a mediator who would allow them to reach out to local protesters, and they remain optimistic that this will take place; even the act of setting the meeting up built goodwill. She stressed how important the funding was for making this possible: with council budgets slashed and community cohesion low on the list of priorities, it’s easy to see how situations like the one in Carlisle took hold.

Final thoughts
All three speakers emphasised proactivity as a crucial element of effective community response. In today’s social climate, with whiplash reactions on social media, lack of funding for community engagement and polarised political debate, it is not always easy to make the case for building community resilience. This isn’t to say that you can solve racist attitudes overnight, but if there is a lesson to be learned from both Dunstable and Carlisle it’s that listening and communicating in a timely manner can go a long way to preventing outbursts of high tension in communities.


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