I’ve left it a while to write up this experience because at the time it felt like there was too much to take in. Back in May I was lucky enough to get off to Birmingham on a Common Purpose Quest. A Quest is an opportunity to travel outside of your familiar area/ region to examine an issue that is, more often than not, shared by everyone, but which we can all learn from each other on by sharing each other’s experiences. The issue that Birmingham was hosting on was ‘diversity’. Birmingham itself boasts one of the youngest populations of the UK, indeed even the fastest growing population. They are also in a race with Leicester to become the first black majority city.
I have to admit that I didn’t arrive in Birmingham with much authority at all! I’ve visited quite a few times in the past but it amazes me how much it changes between visits. The whole city centre felt like a building site, and I can never read maps at the best of times. Needless to say when I finally succumbed to getting a taxi to the venue the cab driver thought I was mad as it was less than a mile away! It’s amazing how lost you can get when you’re in a rush!!
The day was based around some presentations and conversations with local people who had a viewpoint on diversity, and we were encouraged to discover the challenges and opportunities. There was also a chance to go out into the city on some visits to find out, in more detail, about a specific service. Our first speaker was very thought-provoking. He spoke very passionately about how cultural diversity brings a valuable aesthetic dimension to society and widens all of our views and experiences. He also pointed out that, due to globalisation and the improvement of communications technologies, we are in danger of turning into identical robots and will forget to think for ourselves. Therefore any kind of diversity is essential to keep society interesting and culturally rich. He pointed out that identity is not as straight forward as the equality and diversity forms we like to pigeon-hole service users into. He, for example, was born in India, raised in the UK, his parents were from Pakistan and Kenya and is married to a woman from Nairobi – what do his children tick on the form?! Identity we should remember is a complex network and is very, very personal. More on that later…
My visit was to a community centre, which caters for an ethnic minority group who make up 1% of Birmingham’s population. This group, it seemed to me, had struggled to fully integrate into the city, mainly because they were not confined to a geographic area (as you might find with other communities). The centre did some brilliant work to support them – acting as translators, advocates and educators. With the cuts hitting hard the centre will certainly struggle to maintain the level of support they currently offer. It made me think hard about specialist services like this, who are obviously doing a good job, and yet if mainstream services were adequate then the specialist service wouldn’t be required at all? There’s a similar situation happening in Leeds with the Lesbian Gay and Bisexual (LGB) community, who are asking for a specialist centre to be set up for them so that they have a support system that is outside of the traditional gay scene. As a gay man, my concern about this is that it could isolate the LGB community even more. Why do we always want to do things separately from everyone else? Surely the answer is to work on our mainstream services and make them viable and adequate options for people from minority groups so that they feel that they will be supported, they will be looked after and that they won’t be judged if they use them? So, is it that our mainstream services are diverse-phobic or is it that people from diverse backgrounds are phobic of our services? Research that was completed last year (into LGB mental health in Leeds) showed that staff working in mental health services didn’t have the skills to deal with the needs of LGB people. But surely this means that we should train up existing staff/ services, rather than set up a brand new service?
Our final set of conversations gave me some real things to think about. The first lady I sat with was a young, award-winning business woman from the black community. She was very passionate about Birmingham becoming the first black majority city and was joking that she was getting all her friends to have babies. This sat rather awkwardly with me as statistics show that it is people from the diverse communities that have the worst inequalities. If Birmingham is to become the most diverse city then how will it be tackling these inequalities? It’s a challenge for all of us working in large cities. Another comment of hers, which I challenged, was that as black woman she wanted the best for her children, as anyone would, and that she would not want them cleaning toilets as a job. In my view, if I was out of work, then I would be prepared to do any job, including cleaning toilets. I asked her who she would expect to clean toilets if she did not want her children to do it – her answer was that it was for new migrant communities to do it. This sat uncomfortably with me as it made me realise, as someone from a disadvantaged group, that sometimes to succeed in society we risk disadvantaging someone else to get there. Also, because we have such a set ‘hierarchy’ of job roles there will always be someone left at the bottom doing the jobs that no one else wants to. Why is it that a cleaner or a porter is deemed less important than a chief executive when, quite frankly, an organisation would not be able to operate without them.
A more uplifting conversation was with a young entrepreneur who grew up on a large council estate in Birmingham. He had a very heart-warming story about how, when he was doing a paper round, he befriended an old war veteran who ended up becoming an informal mentor to him. He pin points that this scenario led to spurring him on and is the reason why he has gone on to be so successful. Now he is a motivational speaker, encouraging other young people to set up their own enterprises and get good qualifications at school. It’s made me wonder what we could do in Leeds about using intergenerational mentors. It’s a very simple idea but one that could be very powerful for the city.
The other thing that got me thinking was around cultural identity and what it means to different people. One lady, who was Bangladeshi, was born in this country but has a very strong family unit and strong ties to her religion. Her whole cultural identity is about being Bangladeshi. I, on the other hand, have recently found out that my grandfather was a Romany gypsy. But he was encouraged by his family to keep it a secret and so it has never been part of my cultural identity, despite being part of my heritage. This is a real shame as I feel that part of myself has been compromised by history and it supports the comment made earlier that we need to be positive about all diversity so that people can truly be themselves. Unfortunately I doubt that everyone in society is in a position to celebrate their own cultural identity – because of taboos. And I also fear that when we ‘pigeon-hole’ people we are, in turn, compromising their own identities.
So, sorry for the extremely long post, but you can see I had a hugely thought-provoking time in Birmingham. I came away realising that to truly make our local authority reflect the diverse community it serves then we need to properly tackle the problem of inequalities and poverty. There are also some low-cost interventions we could put into place, such as an intergenerational mentors model, which could really make a difference to the lives of lots of people – young and old.