Identity and Difference in the City: working with The National-Coalition Building Institute

Helen Wilson, Geography, School of Environment, Education and Development writes about her current research …

This month saw the AGM of the National Coalition-Building Institute (NCBI London), at the House of Lords. As a non-profit organisation founded in 1984 by Cherie Brown to tackle inter-ethnic violence on college campuses in Washington DC, NCBI now has over 50 city chapters across North America, Latin America and Europe. Each of these chapters was founded by volunteers to train local community leaders in effective bridge-building skills focused on tackling discrimination, prejudice and conflict in different cultural and urban contexts.

Since its inception, the range of projects undertaken by NCBI International has been extensive. This includes (to name only a few), school violence prevention projects across Switzerland, work on racism and racial profiling with police forces in the US, community work following riots in the UK, anti-Islamophobia workshops, dialogue work with refugees and asylum seekers, inter-faith community projects and LGBT awareness days (for more information see NCBI International, NCBI UK and NCBI CH). These programs have won NCBI international acclaim for its work on prejudice, which includes the Nelson Mandela Award for ‘outstanding international work on fighting racism’, a Gabriel Award for excellence in youth programming and numerous British Diversity Awards for Best Diversity Practice.

I started working with NCBI as part of two linked projects funded by the Royal Geographical Society and the British Academy/Leverhulme in 2013. My research asks how difference is negotiated in the everyday city. More specifically, it concerns the spaces, people and organisations that facilitate learning and dialogue across difference in such a way as to challenge and disrupt normative accounts of belonging, both on a day-to-day basis and in response to particular moments of crisis. Both of these projects concern international networks of community-led intervention programmes that broadly seek to address discrimination, prejudice and violence in its many guises. As such, over the past year, I have been attending key NCBI events, workshops and projects, which to this point have taken me to London, Bristol, Birmingham and Annapolis, MD to take part in training events and to speak with participants, facilitators, trustees and collaborators.

Whilst the projects undertaken by NCBI are wide-ranging and are carried out across an international network, one thing that remains consistent across all of its chapters – and is at the core of its work – is a one-day identity and difference workshop that focuses on the circulation of prejudice. The workshop, which utilises incremental learning exercises, includes an in-depth examination of prejudice and stereotypes, a reflection on their roots and harmful effects, discussions on structural inequalities and an account of how community leaders might better interrupt, challenge and prevent prejudice and violence on a day-to-day basis.

In the media, it is often the more spectacular, or extreme accounts of prejudice that make the headlines – the arson attacks on mosques, the ‘go-home’ billboards driven around London, or the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida. The Boston bombings in April of last year and the killing of Lee Rigby in London in May, were followed by a substantial spike in reported incidents of Islamophobia. At the same time, pressures on resources have seen a resurgence of xenophobia, anti-immigration campaigns, more punitive responses to asylum seekers and a considerable shift in attitudes towards welfare recipients. Behind these events, are stories of the ways in which xenophobia and racism continue to inflect the everyday lives of people in ways that often go unnoticed, unchallenged and unreported. At a time of increased pressure on the capacity to live with difference in contemporary cities across both North America and Europe, the role of voluntary and non-profit organisations like NCBI should not be overlooked and a better understanding of their impacts, practices and mobility is critical to understanding the social challenges facing contemporary cities.

For research interested in how community intervention programmes are learnt and mobilised, organisations such as NCBI pose a significant methodological challenge. On the one hand, my research is focused on the idea of replication. It asks how a leadership training model that was originally developed to address inter-ethnic conflict on college campuses in the US, has been successfully mobilised to address a wide spectrum of diversity-related issues in many different cultural contexts and settings worldwide – in communities, workplaces and institutions. At the same time, whilst interested in the mobility of this work, the research is also focused on the local programmes that city chapters undertake. This includes the motivations that sustain them and the forms of learning that they encourage, encompassing a vast research site, 50 cities and thousands of participants and projects.

Despite harsh funding conditions and public cuts, NCBI London has experienced a notable revival of activities in the last year having worked with campaigners and local government for the last 14 years on a variety of community based projects. At the AGM, a new advisory committee and board of trustees was announced, along with its projects for the coming year. A new three year Young Ambassadors Program was launched, the first cohort of which was at the event to mark its beginning. Four community listening workshops were announced in Bristol, the first of which will take place next month and will provide a space for the exchange of stories and experiences of mental health in the community. This will be followed by a meet your neighbour event, to address the lack of communication across different community groups in Bristol, whilst a number of workshops in London will be working with women to explore what it means to be a woman today. These workshops will address pertinent questions about the persistence of sexism, a project that will see NCBI collaborate with the Peabody Trust – a London based housing provider and community generation programme that has a long history of community work in the capital. All of these individual projects will occur alongside NCBI’s regular community workshops on identity and difference adding to a varied portfolio of projects that highlights both the breadth of the charity’s focus and the variability of funding priority and availability.

Whilst funding might be hard to come by, this month’s AGM was positive, although as Baroness Young of Hornsey, pointed out – there is substantial work to be done. Standing in the House of Lords we were reminded that London is a city of extreme inequality. Indeed, we only need to look at the demographic of Parliament to recognise the size of the challenge. This was a point that was not lost on the people gathered in the Cholmondeley Room – representatives from local institutions, councils, charities, the NHS, community centres, businesses, parliament and the City – and indeed was the very thing that brought them together.

Beyond the AGM, NCBI London’s annual report and its outline of projects to come, offers up some important lines of inquiry for cities research. Perhaps the biggest is how we go about evaluating and attributing the impact of such work when so much of it is based on incremental forms of learning and stretches across multiple different sites and cities. More importantly however, is the question of how academic institutions might better support and collaborate with such organisations to secure funding, support local projects and exchange knowledge. By working with NCBI over the next couple of years these are just two of the questions that I hope to address.

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