A community that talks together stays together

By Dilwar Hussain | 11 January 2018

An new programme called ‘Real People, Honest Talk’ is being piloted by Near Neighbours, a national charity that aims to bring people together across ethnic and cultural differences to build stronger communities, towns and cities. The pilot reveals a real thirst for honest, even if difficult, conversations that are run sensitively by a trusted brand such as Near Neighbours.

There are many ingredients that go into building a resilient community, and one of the key concerns has been around cohesion, integration and diversity. If people don’t know each other, or don’t talk to each other, it’s likely that trust will wane, especially where communities have adapted over the years due to migration and population change.

But where are the opportunities for people to meet in a safe space where local issues can be raised and discussed? Where people can air concerns without such sentiments being dismissed? Near Neighbours is supported by the newly named Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and has been working since 2011 to bring people together from different backgrounds to bring about change for the better.

Real People, Honest Talk is a new strand of work through which Near Neighbours aims to create public spaces for honest talk about difference and how we live together well. It works to bring people together to engage in conversation, and subsequent action, around difficult and sensitive topics of concern in a locality.

This addresses key issues raised in the Casey Report on social integration last year - the difficulty of creating honest dialogue at community level about how we live together, how things around us may be changing, how we cope with differences and what impact this all has on us. It also brings to light the consequence this has on social cohesion.

The idea is to create a safe and open space where everyday people, not just ‘community leaders’ can be open and honest about their anxieties and aspirations. These conversations and exchanges are beginning to diffuse some of the misunderstandings that can do so much damage in local communities. But its not just about talk. These discussions are leading to ideas for very local solutions – having come together to talk about concerns, neighbours are planning to get together to see what difference they can make to their locality. Project ideas are bubbling away and residents will come together in a meeting in February where they get to meet across the groups and address their concerns to local authority representatives and other local leaders.

The pilot involves 15 groups in the Black Country and seven groups in Luton. While the groups are very different in each area – bringing together a hugely diverse mix of people – there are some common concerns that seem to be emerging. There is frustration with local services closing down or being inadequate, people feeling ignored and marginalised, crime, drugs and litter on the streets. Some groups have discussed immigration and how newer communities could be integrated better into communities. The reassuring news is that despite having differences, and sometimes difficult conversations, local residents have such an intense pride in their neighbourhood and they want to work together to lift up their local community.

A participant from a Real People, Honest Talk group in Smethwick said of the programme: 'I got to make friends here. I feel like I can be honest about what I’m thinking, it’s a safe place to talk about things. I’ve learned a lot about my neighbourhood too.'

Near Neighbours executive director, Paul Hackwood said: 'While Near Neighbours supports initiatives that focus on what we have in common, we also see the importance of having the difficult conversations about the issues that have the power to divide. When joining together in a safe, facilitated space and having honest discussions, we believe that people can create very deep and meaningful connections that will ripple through the community.'

At a time when there seems to be so much anxiety around national identity, belonging, and finding solidarity amidst all the divisions, programmes such as Real People, Honest Talk are a vital part of the solution to building stronger, more resilient communities.

Dilwar Hussain is manager of the Real People, Honest Talk programme

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