On 19 May our research on community organizing in East London was presented to an audience of around 300 people at a UNESCO Conference on Alternatives to Extremism: Cooperation Among the Communities of Different Religious Faiths in Multinational Cities in the organization’s Paris headquarters.
The event was co-sponsored by the Permanent Delegations of Lithuania and the U.K., and the Woolf Institute in Cambridge. It brought together scholars, expert stakeholders, representatives of non-governmental organizations, and ambassadors to UNESCO from five continents. While it had been planned for many months, the recent terror attacks in Paris and Brussels gave the discussions an added sense of urgency.
In my presentation, I drew out three key messages from the research the Centre for Theology & Community has been doing in east London, as part of the University of Notre Dame’s Contending Modernities programme:
– Firstly, action on “bread and butter” issues of common concern – issues such as low pay and affordable housing – is the often more effective than inter-faith dialogue at building relationships with more conservative and/or isolated religious groups.
– Secondly, there is a danger in demanding that conservative groups pass “progressive tests” before one works with them. As David Barclay has argued in Making Multiculturalism Work, this excludes the very people it is most important to draw into relationships across difference.
– Thirdly, there is still an important place for inter-faith dialogue – but it may be more fruitful to engage in the difficult conversations on issues of deep difference after there has been action on issues of common concern.
The presentation ended with an invitation to ongoing conversation. Not only would a continued conversation enable others to learn more about the potential of community organizing (and not just in east London, but in a growing range of countries and contexts), but it would also help those of us engaged in community organizing to engage more effectively with our local diaspora communities, drawn from all across the world. I hope to be able to report again soon on how that conversation develops.