Notes from IFCF discussion of the Braiding Communities Project September 12th2017

Introduction

These notes report the meeting of Ipswich Faith and Communities Forum on 12th September 2017 which twelve people took part in. The evening was led by Paul Hodgkin and Punna Athwall.

Update

Good progress has been made on the Braiding Communities Project with very productive discussions with Mojlin Khan, Gurmeet Singh and Roger Fern and participation in a number of events including PITA Festival, Understanding Ramadan, a Suffolk Police workshop on understanding all forms of extremism. In addition Punna, Paul and Roger have formed an initial Advisory Group to guide the early development of the project.

The current thinking behind the project can be found here.

Next steps will be to write to a number of education organisations and invite them to be partners in exploring how braiding can be facilitated between individuals and communities. We plan to send letters to Northgate School, Suffolk One, Suffolk New College and Suffolk Universities in the next week or two.

Understanding Difference exercise

We wanted to trial one possible way of exploring difference between people and introduced the following exercise:

Participants were invited to get into pairs with someone they did not know well and to spend 5 minutes exploring a difference that lay between them. One participant asked the other to ‘Help me understand why this difference is important in your life’. They then listened whole heartedly and with an open mind and without asking questions. After 5 minutes roles were reversed

Following this there was a very productive discussion about what had worked and what had not. The lessons that we took from this have been gathered into 7 themes.

  1. Process issues

The 2-way structure was difficult to use because:

  • People didn’t know each other, so didn’t know the differences between them

  • Plunging straight in to ‘difference’ is hard and a bit scary

  • The more significant the difference, then harder it is to approach it

Some of this might have been helped by 2-way structure being more strongly led by the facilitator?

In many online activities there is a ‘ladder of involvement’ that provides gentle steps from ‘lurking’ to full participation. Perhaps we need incremental steps

  1. Belonging and community

Individuality – can make us feel lost. We need to replenish the sense that we have things in common with others, that we all need each other, are dependent on each other. How could Braiding Communities help this happen?

What do we mean by community in this context? Would communities that value their own internal beliefs very highly or are ‘closed’ in some way, value braiding together?

How could the Braid help draw people together and lower barriers?

What about all those who feel no connection to any community? Is this for them? If so what will help them take part? If the purpose is to build resilience then the more links across the more differences there are, the more resilience there will probably be.

  1. Social capital

What builds social capital most effectively?

Is the braid a way to bank social capital?

Would logging existing activities that build social capital – like street parties or the work of groups (e.g. Sister Circle in Ipswich) help? Is this a key role for the braid?

  1. What is the digital platform of the Braid for?

Is it really just social media? What does it add beyond Facebook?

How do we get the right balance between online and f2f interactions?

Why would anyone want to log this kind of interaction on an online platform?

If the Braid.online really did capture significant numbers of these kinds of resilience building conversations and events, then what could we do with it? What might its positive effects be?

  1. Difference and commonality

Why concentrate on difference? Surely we want to emphasize what we have in common and how at root we are all one? Yes, but how do we deepen this? How to move beyond motherhood and apple pie? Try testing it out on two groups one talking about difference, the other about what we have in common.

Also try getting people to focus on their fears and anxieties and seeing how this works

People use small talk to smooth and avoid differences – to what extent do we need to help them get beyond this? Would the braid be worthwhile if it simply helped more people have ‘conversations about the weather’ – this is the start of a relationship, why and how might we want to take this further?

  1. How do we move beyond the usual suspects?

  • By focusing on young people

  • By keeping on trialing these tools with different groups and getting their feedback

    • Sikh community 5-7 November

    • Sister Circle

Will would like to come back to you and involve you and your networks in further pilots and experiments.

  1. Discussion, dialogue or debate

Where should we be on the discussion – dialogue – debate spectrum? And how might we signpost people from within the tools that we give them, to stay at the level that is most productive for the Braid? (i.e. move beyond pleasantries but avoid arguments that make things worse?)

The relevant definitions show that it is the formality of the process that increases along this spectrum:

  • Discussion: ‘the action or process of talking about something in order to reach a decision or an exchange of ideas’

  • Dialogue: ‘take part in a conversation or a discussion to resolve a common problem’.

  • Debate: ‘discussion or consideration of opposing reasons; argument or deliberation on a specific question’ usually with formal rules and often in public.

We want probably to be somewhere between discussion and dialogue

‘It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’ Aristotle.

How do we help people entertain thoughts that they do not agree with?

Subsequent reflections

After writing these notes up we came to a number of provisional conclusions about how we might incorporate this feedback into the Braiding Communities Project

Modifying the exercise

  • Use this type of exercise with people who have a clear desire to talk about a difference or to get to know someone who is different in some way

  • Add the option of talking about a fear or an anxiety – experiment with using the same reciprocal structure where each person talks for equal amounts of time about their fear.

  • Consider adding something to emphasise our commonality and bring people together at the end of the exercise. Perhaps: ‘What values, thoughts or feelings have you discovered that you share?’

What value does the digital thread add to the braid?

One way of thinking about the digital thread of the braiding communities project (braid.online) is that it is a way of ‘banking social capital’ – i.e. it is a mechanism for making social capital more concrete, known, explicit and useable. A way to make social capital real, to grow it and to be able to call upon it in time of need. In particular it could be a way to increase ‘bridging social capital’ (the capital that exists between groups) as opposed to ‘bonding social capital’ (the sort that increase social capital within a group).

This metaphor needs to be used in the right context as not everyone will feel that ‘social capital’ is an appropriate way of thinking about the work of braiding communities.

If designed right braid.online could be a framework for existing groups and the wider community to

  • Let groups publicize and celebrate what their members are doing

  • find like groups doing similar things

  • find out what is going on in any given location

  • get feedback and celebration from others on the braid.

  • Build momentum around particular issues or reactions to particular events

  • Generate discussion or alternative approaches to difficult inter-community issues

Such design could usefully draw on a site dedicated to ‘help educate groups and individuals who are trying to bridge moral divisions by connecting them with scientific research in this domain’. It is based on Jonathan Haidt’s (very good) book The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics’.

Why not concentrate on what draws people together?

This was a very good question and I think there are sound reasons to include an emphasis on what we have in common, something we haven’t done to date.

But I also think that simply emphasizing wat we have in common will not get us far because it is the differences that divide people which often lead to anxiety and separation. And I think people know this – so what an archetypal braider might yearn for (but also be frightened of) is establishing a relationship with someone from a different community. My hypothesis would be that stressing common humanity is best done once people have taken their courage in their hands and begun to describe and discuss the differences or their fears. Once they have done this work, celebrating our commonality will feel and be, more real. But this needs testing.

In part this is about the mechanisms by which we all construct ‘the other’ and how so often this is intimately and necessarily connected to creating a sense of ‘us’. Reaching across the gulf to the other is what the world needs at the moment. And it is only by reaching out to the other in some meaningful way that we can move ‘we are all human’ from truism to truth.

Resources

Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion

Alain de Botton’s School of Life

www.civilpolitics.org

The Forgiveness Project http://theforgivenessproject.com/