In a community as diverse as Luton, understanding cultural identity can be challenging, especially when there are those who seek to undermine community cohesion through a narrowing of that identity.
Luton’s ‘Many Voices, One Town’ campaign celebrated diversity and sought to positively promote Luton as a British town with shared values and a population from all over the world. This provided the context for the Luton Irish Forum to develop a programme to better understand what modern cultural identity is in the town, and establish that ‘Britishness’ means celebrating where one came from as much as where one is.
Luton is one of the most diverse towns in England, with 55 per cent of the population from ethnic minority backgrounds (including white minorities). It has been targeted by extremists, with both religiously-claimed and far-right extremists seeking to gain a foothold in the fabric of the town, aiming to instill barriers between communities and undermine resilience. As a result of this, there was a significant challenge to Luton’s community cohesion, which required a town-wide and unified, positive and preventative response.
Under the banner of ‘Luton in Harmony/Many Voices, One Town’, a broad range of strategic programmes and projects have been enabled to develop and strengthen community cohesion across Luton, addressing the low points of visible extremism arising in the late 2000s.
One successful model arose from work undertaken by the Luton Irish Forum, which began the ‘Generation Irish Project’; a programme of community development with Lutonians of Irish origin. This sought to explore what it meant to be second and third generation Irish living in Luton; looking at how Irish and British cultures combine and shape modern Luton-Irish communities in the town, and how those communities live alongside the many others in Luton.
As a methodology, this proved to be successful, and Luton Irish Forum utilised the model across schools in the town to help children and young people better understand how their own backgrounds enabled them to contribute to a modern notion of ‘Britishness’.
As well as supporting young people to feel part of Britain without rejecting their historic background, the programme began to identify complementary issues around misinformation, propaganda and hate crime, particularly in the online space, which was deemed to be working against the cohesive nature of Luton’s communities.
As a result, the programme began to upskill young people on the language of extremism and the identification of bias, fake news, and misinformation, particularly in the online space. This enabled the development of critical thinking skills and made young people more resilient to extremist narratives.
The programme lead, Luton Irish Forum’s Youth and Heritage Officer, went on to volunteer to co-run a resident’s Facebook support group ‘Luton Community Action Group’, in response to the pandemic. As the first Eid of lockdown approached, the page uncovered issues in Luton’s online space; this had become an area where intolerance and hatred had been allowed to fester and grow, with racism and the targeting of particular ethnic groups for blame becoming increasingly visible.
The work on the page to upskill communities to recognise and challenge online hate came to the fore, with the community able to self-regulate against trolling and hatred. Members of the online group were able to educate each other in religious festivals, which led to people of different faiths supporting one another at times of religious importance and working together to be stronger and reject hatred.
Coming out of the pandemic, Luton Irish Forum’s officer has begun to develop a social archive of the town, allowing people to tell their stories not just of life in Luton, but of the many diverse routes from which they came to reside there. The community-led project promotes diversity as a strength and something to be proud of, with the aim that everyone in Luton can embrace their ‘Britishness’ whilst also celebrating their own cultural roots.
Work in this space has enabled partners in Luton to better understand how to manage messaging which runs contrary to the notion of a harmonious town. Engagement has helped to identify the key influencers in the town and work with them to improve the wellbeing of the community.
During the Covid period the online space became increasingly important as a forum through which municipal engagement took place. Having supported the strengthening of community members’ resilience to operate in Luton’s online space, the council was able to increasingly rely on community organisers and residents to self-regulate Luton’s online space and reject divisive narratives; a message which was much stronger coming from the community than a state actor. This has also strengthened the resolve of the local authority to push back on hatred and extremism in the online space and to tackle misinformation.
How is the new approach being sustained?
The roots of this project were initially developed through funding from the national Building a Stronger Britain Together (BSBT) programme. As this has come to an end, the ideals of the project are instead being embedded into other mainstream areas of work as opposed to a standalone project, for example through the development of the social archive, through the Luton Carnival, or other community-led programmes. Schools will continue to deliver the objectives of the programme through education packs currently under development, which will be circulated to teachers in the future with the hope of building a localised curriculum.
Luton has understood the need to empower communities to tell their own stories themselves, and to appreciate that although methodologies are transferable there is no ‘one size fits all’ model - programmes should adapt to what each community is comfortable with.
The council has learned from this work, for example in adopting a binding policy motion designed to make a substantial long-term difference to the lives of and opportunities for those of Black African Caribbean heritage living and working in the town. This has been underpinned by a high-level commitment to be a ‘town built on fairness’ and aspire to challenge racism, promote diversity, and help people from diverse backgrounds to achieve their potential.
By helping people to understand who they are and the value they bring because of their experience and insight, the work in Luton seeks to build this into the fabric of the town, embracing diversity and modern notions of ‘Britishness’ which evolve together.
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