Sam Slatcher is a second year PhD student here at Durham researching the multiple and dynamic encounters that take place across ethnic and religious diversity in local inter-faith projects across northern England. Here he discusses  projects that have been funded by the Near Neighbours – a partnership between the Church Urban Fund and the Department for Communities and Local Government – in Bradford, Dewsbury and Leeds.

 

Many of you will know over the past 10 months or so I’ve been living in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, where I’ve been based for my fieldwork. I never intended to be living full time in Dewsbury but a combination of the warm welcome by the organisation I have been participating in and the generosity of Pat and John, the couple I lodged with meant the second year of my PhD became so much more embedded in life in West Yorkshire than I had previous imagined.

My research explores strategies by faith-based community projects to enhance ways of living with difference and diversity. In particular I am interested in the question ‘how do we encounter difference?’ and I am curious as to how the concept of the ‘encounter’ is thought about among practitioners working in the field of community engagement. Doing so I am speaking to emerging work within geography that interrogates the role of the encounter in creating conditions for improving social, cultural and political life (Valentine 2008, Wilson 2013). At the moment I’m in the messy part of the research that is almost too overwhelming to see the wood from the trees! The rest of this blog is less of an analysis of the research and more of an account of some of the activities I’ve been involved in over the past year.

In February 2014 I came across the Near Neighbours Programme whilst doing preliminary research. The Near Neighbours is an inter-faith based organisation with government funding to “bring people together in diverse communities, helping them to build relationships and collaborate to improve the local community they live in” (Near Neighbours 2011). Through the Near Neighbours Fund, small grants of £250 to £5000 are available to fund local community-based initiatives across the country, including in Leeds, Bradford and Dewsbury, the focus of my research. The criteria for the projects include firstly creating ‘first encounters’ between people of ethnic or religious difference, secondly sustaining ‘everyday encounters’ through encouraging regular convivial living (eating together, participating in religious festivals, encouraging children to play together, for example), and thirdly, to create ‘civic engagement’ to transform local communities (Near Neighbours 2014). Given the specific role of the ‘encounter’ in the Near Neighbours marketing material and the extent of access into community projects working across difference, I sensed that the Near Neighbours would be a good organisation to get in touch with. When I revisited West Yorkshire in September 2014, I was warmly received by the new coordinator, Wahida Shaffi, who not only put me in touch with a number of individuals running NN funded projects, but as time went by played an active role in the research. In particular, we received a grant from the N8 Partnership to support a piece of research investigating the role of intermediaries in the translation of research (mentioned below in more depth).

 

Participating in Near Neighbours’ funded projects

Among the many visits to different Near Neighbours funded projects the three that I spent the most time participating in were:

  • Light Night – an alternative Halloween party in October, at St Stephen’s Church, Bradford BD5, bringing together children from the church and the neighbourhood in a community litter pick and celebration of light. This was a one off event that I attended as a researcher/camera person. We agreed I would produce a short film with the material I collected from the day, asking permission from people whether they wanted to be involved in the research and appear on publicity for the Light Night. You can read more about it on the blog I have been keeping: https://encounteringdifference.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/celebrating-the-light-at-the-bd5-light-night-party/

 

  • Bee Friendly – an intergenerational art education project around the story of the winter bee, bringing together residents of Batley and Dewsbury and mothers and their children in Chickenley. I attended most sessions for a two month period in February and March, carrying out an ethnography of the project, with interviews with some of the mothers and the key individuals involved in the project https://www.facebook.com/Beefriendlyartsproject?fref=ts

 

  • Toast Love Coffee – a pop up café in Harehills, Leeds that creates safe spaces for people of Harehills, including the asylum and refugee community, redistributing recycled food (as part of the Real Junk Food Project) on a pay as you feel basis. I volunteered most Wednesday between January and June and people from TLC were involved in the piece of coproduction research that Wahida and I were co-participating in (see below for more). The TLC blog can be accessed here: https://toastlovecoffee.wordpress.com/

 

Faith and Creativity

In February 2015, the Near Neighbours organised a series of lectures and workshops around the themes of Faith and Creativity, supported by Sheikh Fuad Nahdi, an eminent Muslim leader and director of Radical Middle Way. The workshops took place in the wake of global events including the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris and the Copenhagen shootings a few weeks later. Around this time there was increased violence towards the Muslim community, including attacks on individuals and the firebombing of mosques. The workshops, therefore, focused on the importance of creativity and imagination in narrating an alternative vision for society, countering the romantic lure for young people to join extremist groups, yet at the same time questioning the western liberal response by asserting ‘freedom of speech’ in defence, without responsibility or limit. Fuad Nahdi expressed:

“The struggle against extremism must harness, respect and value the role of creativity in providing a legitimate, relevant and enriching alternative. Where we have cheap slogans we could have had poetry, hands and fingers trained to weave carpets or produce calligraphy will find it difficult to make bombs and hearts and souls trained to love and celebrate the birthday of the Noble Prophet are almost impossible to be manipulated by anger and violence.”

 

Catalyst Leaders Programme

During March 1st – 4th 2015, I participated in the Leeds Catalyst Leaders Programme, joining 15 other young people from different backgrounds, including Christian, Muslim and Jewish backgrounds. The residential trip held at Sneaton Castle, Whitby, included training on faith and identity, leadership, conflict resolution, and using media creatively, and provided many opportunities to get to know others working in different communities across Leeds.

 

 Participants of the Catalyst inter-faith programme

Participants of the Catalyst inter-faith programme

I was supported by the Near Neighbours to attend as a participant. This was both valuable for the research into spaces for encounters across difference, and also allowed me to capture the learning experience in order to produce a short story book for the Near Neighbours.

 

Faces Spaces Places film project

In February 2015, Wahida and I were funded by the N8 Partnership to explore the informal partnerships between Sam (Durham University) and Wahida (Near Neighbours) and with those involved in three Near Neighbours projects/initiatives in north Leeds, including Toast Love Coffee, Catalyst and Black Health Initiative (http://www.blackhealthinitiative.org/) as well as provided a platform through a creative film project for individuals to share their stories of their work and the inspiration behind what they do.

 

Discussions during the coproduction film launch

Discussions during the coproduction film launch

The filming took place between April and June and tells the story of three individuals in their various organisations and communities, who are in one way or another working to create safe and inclusive spaces, deepening understanding and creating social change. Three short 5 minute films were produced and directed in conversation with those in the film by Wahida and Jimi Lund, of Cut and Splice, a film company based in Bradford. The film launch took place on the 23rd July in Chapeltown, Leeds, and involved participants in the introducing of films, followed by facilitated conversations around the themes the films addressed. Food was supplied by St George’s Crypt and coffee, tea and cake by Toast Love Coffee.

The films can be viewed https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCR_y6elVJmojAAw4mtde1zQ/feed

These are just some of the exciting things I’ve been involved in. If you liked to find out more I plan to update the research blog much more in the coming weeks and months: http://encounteringdifference.wordpress.com

 

References:

Near Neighbours (2011) ‘Near Neighbours funding’ accessed 03.03.2014 available at http://www.cuf.org.uk/near-neighbours/press-release/14Nov2011.

Near Neighbours (2014a) ‘Near Neighbours grants’ accessed 11.03.2014 available at http://www.cuf.org.uk/near-neighbours/grants.

Valentine, G. (2008) ‘Living with difference: reflections on geographies of encounter’, Progress in Human Geography, 32, pp.321 – 325.

Wilson, H. F. (2013) ‘Learning to think differently: Diversity training and the ‘good encounter’’, Geoforum, 73 – 82.

 

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