Sunday, April 19, 2009

Ask Aunty Bluestocking - Creating Community Cohesion

At the recent Really, Really Free Market, my colleague Sky took questions from visitors who wanted advice on a range of issues - hence 'Ask Aunty Bluestocking.' The question I have taken came from some young Aboriginal people who wanted to know how to bring and build peace in their community. Sky asked that this be elaborated to include advice on how non-Aboriginal people could help Aboriginal people to do this. The views below are my own, and not necessarily those of my colleagues, and can apply to all communities.

A lot of academic and political research has been done on this topic in the UK, where the government has been keen to implement social cohesion strategies to tackle escalating inter-ethnic and inter-communal violence. Whether rightly or wrongly, for there is a great deal of criticism of the government's approach and the media's response to these issues, some areas of these initiatives have merit and could be transposed to any social context. At the heart of it is recognising that community dislocation is rarely a function of race, religion or ethnicity, but of the meta-narratives of history, economics and politics; in short:power.

For the young people, and others, who want to bring peace to their communities, there are a number of steps to take and things to consider. First is to define key operational concepts.

1) Community: Which community is being referred to? The simple working concept/definition of community is a group unified by a common interest: people belong to multiple communities that might overlap or could be completely distinct. Determine which community you are thinking of because this will make it easier to strategise. One paper from the UK talks of the features and feelings of a community: there is a two way relationship between the individual and the community that looks something like the following:
  • Identity - community gives an individual a sense of belonging, and therefore identity and dignity, recognition and respect.
  • Responsibility - members of a community have a responsibility toward the wellbeing of other community members, and to the community itself.
  • Gratitude - This can be expressed in many ways and could include affection, love, sacrifice, positive criticism, and critical questioning.
  • Quarrels - Even in an harmonious community, differences of opinion occur: this in itself is not a problem, but the way in which a community responds to these quarrells is a sign of its health. A healthy commuinity will look for solutions through compromise and accommodation.
  • Symbols - symbols and ceremonies with shared, understood meaning.

2) Peace:

  • What is it about the community that is unpeaceful? Violence, disputes, disharmony, lack of respect for self and others, crime, unsettledness, differences of opinion?
  • What kind of peace are you trying to achieve? Remember that differences of opinion are healthy and learning to deal with them in a constructive manner are important to the growth of the community.
  • Who can help you bring peace? Is it something that can be done within the community or is a broader issue? i.e. is it a law and order issue that should involve mediators or the police.
  • Who is the conflict between? Is it between members of the community or between one community and another?

3) Peace building/conflict resolution: A three pronged approach were there is a circular relationship between all of the elements:

  • Actions to change attitudes and assumptions - recognising that conflict is often based on false attitudes and prejudices.
  • Action to reduce violence - remembering that this could be physical, verbal, mental and involve a range of actions including disrespect towards others and their property, criminal activities and actual physical harm.
  • Action to resolve or at least manage conflict.

The following are some strategies that I have come up with building upon the above;

  • Start by finding like minded people within your defined community. Talk to them and find out their concerns and come up with a positive plan for community cohesion.
  • Think about the types of action that you could use and whether you can acheive these independently - discussion groups, barbecues, festivals, letter writing, door knocks.
  • If you need help, start by identifying individuals and groups who could help you. It might be a person respected by the whole community, outside independent mediators, a government or non-government agency.
  • Develop networks of trust within and without the community? Who could you trust to help?
  • Devise a communication strategy to talk about these things within your community.
  • Do you know people in other communities who have been through this process? they could provide advice and guidance.

The second part of the question was on ways the non-Aboriginal community could help. My personal feeling is that the 'white' community in particular has approached this in both paternalistic and maternalistic ways, generally well meaning, but often coming off patronising: We need to break this mould. Our role should be to use our postion within the power structure to empower Aboriginal people to navigate these: think along the lines 'give a man a fish and he eats for a day; give him a fishing pole and he can eat for life.' My opinion is this:

  • We have to recognise and acknowledge the intelligence of Aboriginal people and share our knowledge and experiences with them.
  • Through this, we empower them to make their own decisions based on their own needs and experiences.
  • Accept that Aboriginal, and other disadvantged communities, face hurdles that are economic or power based - we should help them to overcome these not through handouts but by sharing resources and information: offer access to internet and other useful technologies, share research and other useful information, help establish contacts with useful people and groups.
  • Join them in fighting racism and prejudice; counter negative stereotypes and assumptions where and when you can.
  • Acknowledge our shared humanity.


  1. Hmm...a central concept within the International Development Community is that empowerment can't be given by an outside force. That it has to come from within a given community. The most one can do to aid this is to aid the given community with necessary resources or expertise to give them the tools needed when they attempt to empower their community. I believe that's what you're trying to say above but empowerment is probably the wrong word when talking about the role of 'white people'.

  2. Anonymous, I take your point on the terminology,clearly empowerment is not a commodity that can be doled out, but a process or action: perhaps what I should have said was to help Aboriginal and other people to empower themselves. I don't agree with the point made about 'white people' - just as we fight against reductive generalisations about 'non-white' groups and communities, the same applies to 'white people'. Just because a person/group is 'white' doesn't exclude them as partners in empowerment.

    Anyway, the point of this additional post is not to debate the semantics, but to highlight a useful resource for the people who originally prompted the question on bringing peace to their community; the Alternatives to Violence Project,, offers relatively inexpensive ($40 unwaged/$80 waged with financial assistance available) workshops "developed to provide people with an opportunity to work towards peace and dignity in an increasingly violent world. They are built upon the belief that people have the capacity to transform hostility and destructiveness into cooperation and community." This could be a great place to start.

  3. The idea of 'white people' was really the same generalisation made from the original article. That is: "My personal feeling is that the 'white' community in particular has approached this in both paternalistic and maternalistic ways, generally well meaning, but often coming off patronising: We need to break this mould."

    I actually believe being of any ethnic group outside the Aboriginal Community(s) (that is, of an outsider community) can't empower Aboriginal People. They can simply aid them. Empowerment is homogeneous, rather than heterogeneous. It has to come from within their own society. Outside actors need to look to the community leaders who are attempting to create positive change and give them the resources and power needed to effect it. If they then use these resources, they empower their own community, not us.

    The article on the whole is a valid one at helping understand how one can help one's own community out of social/ethnic strife. The work done in places like Brixton and Bradford and other parts of the UK has been promising I agree. Its more than semantics though, when one states "Through this, we empower them to make their own decisions based on their own needs and experiences". Its falling into that same paternalistic/maternalistic mode one says we should guard against...

    You don't empower them. They empower themselves. Big difference in approach.