Dame Louise Casey’s long awaited review into segregation and integration in British society has bravely tackled territory in which few feel comfortable. This is no surprise. In her varied career she has made it her business to put her head above the parapet where the lives of ordinary and mostly voiceless people are concerned and to shout in the strongest terms about what is wrong and what has to change. In the report there is no doubt that her conception of what British society is, and how it can be improved is passionately argued. Nor that in her vision for cohesiveness and integration, she is seeking to build a society which operates for the benefit of all. Dame Louise highlights persistent gender inequalities that are causing women to suffer in some communities – ranging from poor English language skills and economic inactivity to coercive control, violence and criminal acts of abuse, often in the name of cultural or religious values. Her emphasis on securing women’s emancipation in communities where they are being held back by regressive cultural practices is significant and brave, as is her faith in the potential for social integration.
Government’s view on social integration in Britain has thankfully moved away from Thatcher’s bleak analysis that there is “no such thing as society”. Big Society, for example, the flagship policy of the Conservative government in David Cameron’s 2010 general election manifesto, was an attempt at empowering local people and communities. However it was also about creating social solidarity through voluntarism. This makes the community responsible for identifying and supporting those with shared challenges. Those for whom it should be Government’s priority to help.
There is a problem when the obligation of providing social support and creating community cohesion, falls to some more than others. The rules of engagement – who makes them, what they say, how they are enforced – are at the heart of how inequalities manifest themselves in British society.
There is a great difference between a vision of society as a club to which all are theoretically welcome but only if they meet the standards of entry of existing members, and one which sees society and social cohesion as a collective endeavour – one which divides responsibility equally amongst its members, whether current, marginal or future.
This is where we at the Young Foundation feel we have something critical to add. Our work in communities across the UK – often those facing exactly the challenges described by the Casey review – has shown us the real damage which can be caused when you notice only what is wrong with communities, and fail to see what is right; when you focus on what divides people, instead of what brings them together; when you assume that the only answers which can work are those which those who know better impose from the outside.
Our Places programme has sought to support communities to build a local consensus upon an understanding of how local people’s lives, challenges and aspirations coincide. This common ground becomes the basis for local actions address which share responsibility for building better communities, and therefore a better society equitably amongst all.
To some this will sound naive. but its having real impact in local communities. We have worked closely with a range of projects around the UK that are doing this inspirational work. CRAIKNI are promoting inclusion and integration in Northern Ireland, not as a demand by one part of the community of another, but instead as a collective responsibility and an aspiration for the future. Angels of Youth are building bridges between marginalised young people in Leeds and the rest of the community. The Bulldogs Gym is using boxing to bring the community together around shared values and joint activities in Port Talbot.
In all these places community projects become more than the sum of their individual impact. They collectively show us the alternative to society as a closed club. They embody the idea that instead it is a collective endeavour requiring all of us to give and to take, and that must be the future direction of true community cohesion.