I am opening my blog with a report of an Open Space event that took place in a very open space, a cavernous place, at the top of a shopping centre overlooking Leith harbour, one cold Sunday in Edinburgh. There was no heating, no lighting, no floor covering but there was a fabulous view of the Firth.
It seems a good place to start. An open space is like a blank sheet of paper (or this so far unused website which was given to me by my sons for my birthday) – so full of possibilities it is almost paralysing.
Our event was a step into the unknown. After the London bombings last July, our small team from a local branch of the Labour party organised a (strictly non-party political) multicultural discussion day simply because we felt we should do something to reach out to the real world. We wanted to try to make links between the many different communities in our constituency. And I am delighted to say that people not only came but want to come back again to talk some more.
I plan to use this space to explore a different kind of politics, and to tell some of the stories that rarely get into the newspapers. But first of all here is an account of a first small step towards better human understanding. For me, it offered a brief insight into the kind of multicultural community we could and should enjoy building. Full of human challenges, fears, hopes and opportunities. Just like an open space. (For more on Open Space events see OpenFutures.com).
So here goes with the report (when I learn how to use this site, it will be more elegantly displayed!)
Can we listen to one another?
The role of the media, attitudes to immigration, political involvement and the need to make opportunities truly equal for all communities were among the most urgent topics for the audience in the huge open space at the top of Ocean Terminal on a cold Sunday in November.
After a day’s discussion in small groups, people came together to vote on the actions they want to happen. These are the points we hope to take forward by the next Open Space gathering in May.
Our multicultural Open Space event was a step into the unknown. We did not know how many people would come or what they would choose to talk about. Invitations to the event simply asked people to bring their ‘burning issues’ around the question of what it is like to live in multicultural Leith.
The invitation began with a question, ‘Can we listen to each other’. The answer came on Sunday 20 November when over the course of four hours around 50 people came to take part in a day of discussion – and a buffet lunch – in the open space at the top of Ocean Terminal. Together we symbolised the rich diversity of cultures in the Leith area – Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, African, Caribbean, Polish, Irish, English, and Scottish: all were represented and all made a contribution (many brought food for the buffet lunch too!). Some came as private individuals; some represented the arts, health, education, and police; many came from voluntary organisations providing information and social support for different minority ethnic groups. In large circles and small workshop groups everyone in the room showed willingness to listen to each other – even when the discussion covered difficult ground.
Common themes flowed through workshops. The need to provide more opportunities for young people was a topic that cropped up in many groups. Physical safety was an issue for people of all ages – visible ethnic minorities feel more vulnerable in the streets and in their own homes since September 11 and July 7.
Frustration at wasted opportunities was voiced everywhere. Funding inequalities for multicultural arts events mean human talent cannot be exploited to the full. Many people said they want to see changes to benefits systems and immigration laws to enable skilled people to earn a living and contribute to the community they live in. Language barriers can be overcome through teaching but Scotland’s ESOL funding is half that allocated per student in England.
Constructive solutions also emerged from every workshop. The Open Space event in itself was seen as an example of the benefit of bringing people together to share ideas. How about an Open Space event for young people, perhaps connected with the Mela, using arts, music and sport to engage the audience? How about producing positive role models from the Islamic community to counter negative misinformation in the media? How about promoting cultural festivals (such as the Mela) as national, Scottish events rather than festivals for minority communities?
We decided it was time to do something after the London bombings, when people from so many different communities died and suffered together. Aware that violence and suffering is happening in many places across the world, we wanted to try to reach out and help to strengthen links between the many different communities in our own home area: the constituency of Edinburgh North and Leith.
We felt the simplest way to start was to try to bring people together to talk and listen to each other. An invitation was sent to as many different groups, organisations and individuals as we could find – though the more we spoke to people the more we realised we needed to know what exactly is happening in our area.
The invitation asked questions about multicultural life in Leith.
• What is a real multicultural community?
• Do we want one?
• Do some minority communities have special issues?
• What kind of future do we want to build together?
• What actions need to be taken NOW?
Although the event was organised by a small group from Leith Walk Central branch of the Labour Party – and funded by the branch and constituency – it was not a party political event.
Malcolm Chisholm was there both as our elected representative in the Scottish Parliament and as Minister for Communities. Mark Lazarowicz was there as our Westminster MP. Both listened much more than they talked.
What is Open Space?
We chose Open Space as we believe it is the best method to encourage the kind of discussion we need. Open Space is not a talking shop; it enables people to find ways of turning words into actions. There is no agenda, no keynote speaker, and no panel of experts. Topics for discussion come from the floor, the big circle splits into smaller workshop groups then comes back together at the end of the day to vote on key points to take forward for action.
We are very grateful to Kerry Napuk, director of Open Futures Ltd who supported our idea from the beginning and guided us through the process of choosing the theme and setting the context for discussion. We are indebted to Maggie Havergal, Open Space facilitator, who freely gave her time and skill to ensure the smooth running of a day’s discussion.
Flip chart notes of action points provide a valuable record of workshop discussions and the final voting. More than that, they reflect deep concerns within our community.
What happens next?
At the end of the day’s discussion, most people in the closing circle said they wanted to come back again.
That is why we plan to hold another Open Space event within the next six months and would like to start by inviting you to sign up now. Potential topics include: how to make the media more positive, how to find role models, and how to set up a forum to develop multicultural opportunities.
If you want to explore how we can turn some of these key points into practical actions we would like to hear from you.
• Would you like to take part in another multicultural Open Space event?
• Can you help spread the word and increase participation?
• Which are the topics you want to turn into action?
• And please let us know whether you would prefer an event on a weekday or at the weekend?