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Author Ruth Hollis
Director of Policy and Impact
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Boundaries, Barriers and Borders

There’s never been a more important time to talk about social cohesion. From global and political, to national to local events, the need to bring people together, in purposeful ways to make friends and develop a greater level of understanding and empathy is more critical than ever.

The ACF conference last week tackled issues of Boundaries, Barriers and Borders – speakers and participants challenged us to examine where we live, how we identify ourselves and who we identify with – from class to gender to nationhood and nationality. It’s important to understand these personal biases because these are often the perspectives we unconsciously bring with us when designing funding projects.

So, what does this mean for funders like Spirit designing projects to address some of the social cohesion issues of our time?

I was delighted to chair a workshop at the ACF conference with leading experts in this area. Firstly, Kersten England, Chief Executive of Bradford City Council, one of the UK’s largest authorities, the youngest and one of the most vibrant cities in the UK and an area that’s often synonymous with integration initiatives. We were joined by Professional Ted Cantle, founder of the Institute of Community Cohesion and new Community (OIN – look up what it stands for!).

Both have been involved with Spirit funded projects - Kersten as a champion for WOW Bradford and local Get Out Get Active delivery, and Ted as advisor on Breaking Boundaries – a £1.8m 3-year project working to connect people in 5 communities (including Bradford) through a love of cricket in the lead up to and after the Cricket World Cup next year. We don’t claim to have all the answers, but Breaking Boundaries has given us some interesting tips we’d like to share.

One of the key challenges for Spirit, and our Breaking Boundaries delivery partners Youth Sport Trust and Sporting Equals, is that we know cohesion projects work best from the ground up – locally rooted and responding to the needs of the specific locality but as a small funder we can’t co-ordinate work with lots of local organisations. And as Kersten outlined at the conference, the picture in localities if complex – there’s already a multiplicity of work going on from government initiatives like new Integration Strategy Pilot areas, to nationally and locally funded projects. We’re not starting with a blank canvas.

Funders need to take a measured and realistic view on our contribution to any changes – not overclaim or over-attribute changes that are undoubtedly the result of a complex and inter-related jigsaw of projects and initiatives.

TIP 1: taking time to understand the area you’re proposing to work in is critical – and it takes time and investment. Talk to the local authority and other local government representatives but get out and talk to people on the ground – local charities and community groups, housing associations, faith groups, local education providers. They’ll all tell you what’s already going on

Getting the right balance between local knowledge and national infrastructure has been critical in Breaking Boundaries. We gave our delivery partners an initial development grant of £10,000 to enable them to go out and spend time really researching their chosen areas and talk to people at the earliest possible opportunity. It was time and money well spent but 6 months into the project that process of learning about the locations is still going on and will do for some time. Funders need to be realistic about the lead in time for projects to really get to know the location and not rush for delivery and results too soon.

TIP 2: Understanding the location means you can understand where your investment can add value to what’s already there. One project over a time-limited period isn’t going to be the panacea to all the ‘problems’ of the community.  Funders need to take a measured and realistic view on our contribution to any changes – not overclaim or over-attribute changes that are undoubtedly the result of a complex and inter-related jigsaw of projects and initiatives. Breaking Boundaries is being led from the community and this means we need to manage people’s expectations of what they can and can’t change, celebrating and highlighting success but being realistic and up front with people that if a negative event happens in that community it isn’t a failure for them or their project.

TIP 3: Ted is clear that any initiative aimed at improving social cohesion needs to understand what change they are seeking to make and have a strategy to measure that change from the very outset. And these should be local indicators, developed as you build your knowledge of the community and its needs. As well as the obvious participant surveys there’s a wealth of local information available that will help you build the picture of whether your project has succeeded in changing people’s views of each other from hard data like hate crime statistics to softer data like social media monitoring in the area.

Breaking Boundaries has an overarching monitoring and evaluation framework with specific local variances, so we can see what the change is on the ground in the issues that matter to that specific community. It’s not perfect, and we’ll refine it as we go, but it gives us a great starting point.

But having this explicit focus on monitoring and evaluation social changes throws up one of the stickier issues in cohesion projects – how to talk about the people and places without reverting to negative and problem-centred language. People living what we assume are parallel lives, or in what we might term deprived communities don’t see themselves or their area like that. They don’t expect us to see or characterise them or their area like that. Cohesion means talking about issues like race, glass and gender that we’re not always comfortable with. And approaching an area from a deficit perspective will turn people off – and worse, risk offending and patronising them. But if you’re going to measure the cohesion impacts you need to be able to ask people questions that speak to the issues you’re trying to solve. And people aren’t stupid, they’ll spot this in any survey or project communications.

TIP 4: and my main take-away from the ACF conference: Listen to people. Listen to how they describe themselves, the people around them and where they live. Create spaces to have conversations rather than rushing in with problems and solutions. Listen to people you that have views you might not agree with. Try to let the community give you the language to use to talk to and about them. Let them tell you how they want to tell the story of the project.

This is undoubtedly the hardest challenge for us all but one we’ll keep working on as we continue Breaking Boundaries.


Further Information

More info about Breaking Boundaries