ARTICLES Does civil society unite us more than it divides us?

Does civil society unite us more than it divides us?

Part of the purpose of this inquiry is to provide a space for conversation about difficult and controversial subjects which either ignite strong feelings, or get ignored through fear and embarrassment. This article is intended to stimulate an open and respectful conversation about some of these issues, and does not necessarily represent the views of the Inquiry.

Arts and culture are important to us here in Oldham both in terms of our heritage and our future.

These events have brought to the fore issues of increasing inequalities and marginalisation within and between communities and regions, surfacing clear feelings of anger and alienation. But importantly, some of these events have also shown the amazing things that can be achieved when we do the opposite of ‘othering’ – when we focus on what we have in common and where we’re stronger together.

So against the background of these two narratives, of ‘polarisation’ and ‘more in common’ what is or could be the contribution and role of civil society?

An important contribution may well be challenging narratives themselves. In her fascinatingTED talk Chimanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us of the dangers of a single story. The problem, she says, in showing someone as only one thing over and over again, to create a single story, means that this is what they become. And a single story creates stereotypes. The difficulty with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

Civil society already speaks out. It already acts to highlight where else our collective attention needs to be drawn. But in an increasing noisy world, where traditional media channels are themselves disrupted, focusing on ways that dominant or simplistic narratives may need to be challenged so serious issues or alternative views aren’t masked or underplayed will be even more important. Civil society can help change the narrative, to enable different stories to be told and to be heard. The impact of who, and how, civil society is funded and structured is likely to be a key consideration in this role.

Much of the civil society landscape is made up of clubs, organisations, groups, networks and campaigns that provide spaces and opportunities to connect, to build bonds and relationships. Identity and experience are core to this. Personal identity certainty, but also identities of place. We join, and see ourselves as part of communities because in some way they speak to us, we feel they fit us and we fit them. I might connect through gender, age, sexuality, religion; but also through work or education; through sport or hobbies, issues I feel strongly about; my health or that of family and friends. Few of us see ourselves as having a single identity or a single story. Yet it often seems as though we have a simplistic or one-dimensional view of others.

Civil society has achieved much, driven huge changes through the collective impact of people coming together on shared issues. But you don’t have to be a woman to believe in universal suffrage. You don’t have to be gay to believe the LGBT community should be able to hold safe, peaceful, celebratory Pride events. The strength of civil society in supporting strong bonds can also, at times, be problematic. The very things that connect me to some things may stop me feeling connected to others – perhaps even creating a barrier to understanding or involvement. That group is not for people like me. That building, or that place is for others. Or I may be actively prevented from some things or places because I’m not seen as belonging. I may even be persecuted or harmed.

The recent State of the Sector report on the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector in Greater Manchester (GM) describes active and vibrant communities and a strong base for community action, with an estimated 15,890 VCSE groups identified. The report shows an interesting profile, with 33% of groups identifying as their users and beneficiaries as ‘everyone’. And 54% saw themselves as making a difference by helping people from different backgrounds to get on well together. It would be really interesting to explore in more detail what this means in practice as this phrase covers very wide territory – from building increased familiarity and awareness, developing deeper understandings, through to strong relationships and friendships. All of which are important.

It would also be fascinating to have deeper insight into who is involved in the groups and organisations themselves – who is employed, who volunteers? How do they reflect the communities they are based in, and who they connect with? In Greater Manchester, 77% of VCSE bodies were classed as small or micro, many of them neighbourhood or local community groups. If their composition reflects the very local community does this in itself support connectedness or work against it? As part of our work in GM to support leadership development we have recognised that the way we structure our learning can actually work against the outcome we are aiming for. For example, many existing leadership programmes are based within professions or institutions. We are working with people from our own organisation and sector, being reminded of this identity at the very point we’re trying to develop our skills in collaboration! So we’re trying to develop approaches that start from the outcome – collaboration and community. If part of the purpose of the VCSE community in GM is helping people from different backgrounds get on well, how does the structure and governance of the sector itself contribute towards this? And how can this extend to wider civil society?

As much as there isn’t is a single story, there isn’t a single answer for the role and contribution of civil society to these issues. There is incredible value in bonding and connecting on things we share, as well as immense benefits for bridging across differences. We need to be better at recognising when focusing on what we have in common is creating barriers to others that may be harmful or even dangerous. To acknowledge that sometimes the cost of building trust with some is actively building distrust with others. But it’s not enough to simply recognise this. We need to be able to challenge and to drive change so that civil society makes the positive contribution to thriving communities where everyone can play their part.