Promoting good race relations in NI
The quality of race relations is an increasingly prevalent issue within Northern Ireland.
In recent years there have been several news stories about racist attacks, including some immigrants being driven from their homes, and statistics abound about how the number of incidents has spiked.
More recently, a number of refugees arrived in Northern Ireland, fleeing from Syria, as part of the UK’s Vulnerable Person’s Relocation Scheme.
Despite the number of people relocating to our shores under this programme being relatively small, and despite the catastrophic situation in Syria, this was not an uncontroversial move and there was voluble opposition to the relocations as well as a large groundswell of support for the move.
Efforts are ongoing amongst the community to make transitions like these as easy as possible, both for those moving in to Northern Ireland and for the people already here.
Scope wrote recently about the extension in provision of free English lessons to those moving here – for everyone’s benefit – but there are other groups building bridges in more direct ways.
The South Belfast Roundtable (SBRT) is a partnership organisation that aims to tackle racism and promote diversity in the south of the city – the most diverse area in Northern Ireland – but which also does outreach and educational programmes across NI.
Stephanie Mitchell, the groups Integration Project Coordinator, spoke to Scope about how the organisation goes about its business and why what it does works.
The SBRT website divides their work into three “strategic areas”: good relations, education and learning, and sustainability (strategy and funding).
This is quite abstract, but this is because of the broad nature of their work; Ms Mitchell says everything that do is geared towards communication and is “relational” but the specifics can vary wildly.
As well as providing input on governmental schemes like the VPRS, both at a Stormont and council level, SBRT puts on a number of other activities, including engagement sessions between minorities and others, such as with primary schools, youth groups, women’s groups, community groups, church groups, and with business leaders.
According to Ms Mitchell: “It is work we deploy in very different ways. It can be between individuals, groups or communities, and is about connecting them with one another.”
Apparently one of the most beneficial things are the quarterly meetings of the Roundtable itself.
“It has 102 membership organisations. We are open to anybody working in South Belfast who shares our aims at least in part of their work. Of that huge number of organisations we have a number of interested and collaborative and productive talks. We have information-sharing and networking meetings quarterly.
“What brings all these organisations together, and the thing that makes it all work, is that it really is a round table. There are a range of groups, from very large ones like Belfast City Council and the PSNI, to tiny community or faith-based organisations, and all the voices around the table are of equal merit.”
Ms Mitchell says that, when it comes to dealing with tensions, having everyone feel like an equal partner is a necessary starting point, while having conversational encounters – rather than lectures, or performances – is also key to making all their work effective.
Ms Mitchell says some traditional methods of cross-cultural engagements, which have a heavy focus on food and music and costumes, etc, have their place and can bring big positives - but are not that effective at solving the most stubborn relational issues.
“That’s all very well but it doesn’t actually change anything. It’s easy to do, it’s very non-threatening, but you actually have to meet the human being rather than just eat some nice food that you might already like, and so on.”
She says racial tensions are a difficult and serious issue and need to be dealt with by open and sometimes frank conversations – which, at the same time, have to take place in a forum where everyone feels secure, valued and comfortable.
If anything, some cultural exchanges can be an impediment, creating a situation where one group is an audience for the other’s performance, and removing the possibility of people engaging with each other as individuals and building understanding that way.
Recently SBRT, as part of their Small Worlds programme, arranged a meeting at the request a rural organisation, whereby a group of around 35 women from a part of Northern Ireland with low diversity met immigrants to Northern Ireland from all manner of backgrounds, and here in a range of capacities.
“On that evening the women there were able to meet with some of our members of Belfast Friendship Club [a place for people of any background to meet others in Belfast in an informal setting, of which Ms Mitchell is a co-founder] and get a sense of what life is like for people who are seeking asylum, or have been in a refugee camp, or are here seeking work, or are themselves a volunteer from overseas.
“People don’t forget those kinds of encounters and they learn from them. However, it depends on the nature of the encounter.
“The Small Worlds methodology arises out of Contact Theory, which broadly means when you actually meet someone it tends to change your mind about them, removes the certainties of your preconceptions, for example meeting someone who is here for asylum, you might find out the reasons why they are here, their circumstances, and also what they are doing here. This can change hearts and minds.”
Ms Mitchell is loath to provide a “pat” answer to the question of whether race relations are improving, in Belfast and beyond.
Instead she points to the fact that society is in flux – and was ever thus – and there will always situations that can be improved by people meeting each other as individuals, and therefore building an understanding and empathy.
And although SBRT does get requests for work outside of Belfast, she says these are less frequent than she would like, and that the group is capable of branching out generally.
Learn more about SBRT at their website: http://southbelfastroundtable.org/
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