The end of 2018 saw unprecedented political turmoil and division at Westminster and beyond, with December dominated by all-consuming coverage of Brexit and the bitterness, confusion and hostility that have come to define it.
It’s good, then, to mark the start of a new year with a turn to positive change, and with discussion of how best to unite, not divide, British people. With emotions stirred by the Brexit referendum and events since blamed for rising levels of racism, hate crime, and greater social division, there’s never been a more important time to prioritise tackling social cohesion.
Last week Government launched its Integrated Communities Action Plan, setting out steps to promote better integration amongst communities. Measures include creating opportunities for people to mix with those from other backgrounds. Sport and cultural activities can be effective ways of doing this.
Building better-connected, happier – and therefore healthier – communities is at the heart of Spirit of 2012’s mission as a funder. But it’s a difficult task to frame, much less deliver: people of all backgrounds living in ethnically diverse communities often have a raw deal when it comes to health, educational, social and economic inequalities.
Yet they don’t see themselves or their neighbourhoods in those terms. We’ve had to learn how to talk about people and places without resorting to pejorative and problem-centred language, and instead to listen to how people describe themselves, those around them and where they live.
It’s a tip some politicians might take from us!
Improving social cohesion means creating trusted spaces for people to have open conversations, rather than rushing in with an outsider’s preferred solutions. A people-led approach is crucial: let the community give you the language to talk to and about them.
Let them tell you how they want to tell – and shape - the story of their community.
That’s what we’re hoping to achieve with Breaking Boundaries. It’s a £1.8m three-year youth-led programme whose purpose is to connect people from diverse backgrounds in five UK communities through a love of cricket in the lead up to – and beyond – the ICC Cricket World Cup this year.
Each Breaking Boundaries group of young ‘Community Champions’ is designing their own project plan, locally rooted and responsive to the needs they see around them.
To develop the concept we have worked alongside delivery partners Youth Sport Trust and Sporting Equals, with the advice of integration expert Professor Ted Cantle who has informed Breaking Boundaries from day one.
We are also grateful for ongoing support from the England and Wales Cricket Board and the five local authorities and county cricket foundations involved.
Getting the right balance between local knowledge and national infrastructure will be critical to Breaking Boundaries’ success. We gave Youth Sport Trust and Sporting Equals an initial development grant of £10,000 to go out and spend time researching their chosen areas, opening conversations with key community stakeholders and influencers at the earliest possible opportunity.
This early listening was essential to build understanding of the issues in the areas the project is working in (Bradford, Birmingham, Slough, Manchester and Barking and Dagenham).
Community Champion Training events in each of the five over the past three months have buzzed with positive energy as diverse groups of young people have shared their sense of how they could improve community spirit in their areas.
The next stage is for them to put those ideas into practice, supported by a small grants programme funded by Spirit.
Street parties, interfaith discussion clubs, neighbourhood befriending schemes and park cricket sessions may be small steps, but they are a starting point. They are also authentic and local.
However, we have to be clear and realistic about what a volunteer-dependent three year programme can achieve. Breaking Boundaries won’t on its own provide a panacea for all the ‘problems’ of communities.
But it is in tune with the times, it can meaningfully contribute to the Social Integration Action plan and, best of all, we are confident it can build relationships and structures that will break down the boundaries between what Professor Cantle has called ‘parallel lives’, forge new friendships across previously segregated communities and create a pattern of ongoing, positive change.
To read more about our Breaking Boundaries programme, click here.
To read the Government's Integrated Communities Action Plan, click here.