Wiserd, Wilsons and Welsh cakes

Meg Wright |

Sophie and Susannah went along to a Voluntary Sector Studies Network (VSSN) conference in Aberystwyth last week at the National Library of Wales.

Wiserd is the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data, which organised the conference alongside the VSSN. The topic of conversation was “The role of community and voluntary organisations in polarisation within local communities.”, so we were keen to hear what the invited speakers had to say. However, before we could do that, we were launched into a very inventive networking session, the details of which I won’t share in case we spring it on you another time, but I did win some chocolate!

The first session concentrated on the role of community education for empowering communities to achieve change and overcome polarising discourses. Professor Marjorie Mayo talked about the inherent tensions that community educators have to overcome, with reference to a particular community in Highgate, London. Amanda Morris, from the Muslim Council of Britain’s Centre for Media Monitoring spoke very powerfully about her role in educating communities to empower them to challenge divisive portrayals of Muslims and Islam in the media. We spoke to Amanda after her talk, as she mentioned she’d just been in Birmingham giving some training – we hope to persuade her to return!

We then had the opportunity to meet different organisations who are working to overcome polarisation in their own communities. Susannah visited different tables and posed the suggested questions around the challenges they’ve faced and what activities they’ve undertaken to tackle those challenges. The organisations represented challenges such as integrating refugees, intergenerational collaborations, BAME representation, language inclusion, expressing political differences and (the last table) overcoming the division between academic experts and the wider community, that was staffed by Sophie! It was particularly interesting to talk to those from Aberaid who support refugees, as I went to their table with Amanda Morris from the Muslim Council of Britain, and she was able to give some insights for their work with refugees from Syria in particular.

After lunch (very tasty with a lot of choice and a sea view!), we heard from Anthony Ince from Cardiff University who talked about far-right voluntarism and the ‘good citizen’. He talked about the role of the third sector in either perpetuating division or overcoming polarisation, using evidence from a mixed-method pilot study he has conducted. The study provides indicative evidence that far-right individuals are not only engaged in attacks on their sector organisations in so-called ‘culture wars’ but, crucially, are also often well embedded in local communities as volunteers and ‘good citizens’, which was really fascinating. This talk was complimented by a presentation by Ali Abdi, a community organiser from Grange Pavilion in Grangetown Cardiff, who has been instrumental in creating community empowerment and cohesion in his community and created a fantastic sounding community venue.

The keynote speaker was Derek Walker, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. This is a unique position in the Welsh senate, not replicated elsewhere in the UK, and it was interesting to hear how this position’s existence makes Wales well-placed to resist division due to polarisation. The Commissioner has the power to block any legislation that they feel will inhibit future generations in Wales, whichever directorate that legislation is presented by, which I found really interesting to hear about.The final session gave everyone a chance to air their views on the media’s role in polarisation, the coronation and marmite, amongst other things!

The day has given us food for thought, lots of ideas on creating and presenting events, and a unique viewpoint into the challenges facing other areas, both organisationally and geographically. And we also really quite liked being by the seaside, even if it was only for 24 hours!