Saturday, December 09, 2006

On business and social inclusion

I was pleased to receive a long and thoughtful email today from one of the City Council's policy advisors, to whom I had written twice in the wake of the meeting of the City's Vision board meeting seven weeks ago. The first time I wrote was about the deployment of Open Source Software in the running the City's computers (see my post of 2nd Nov.). The second time was to follow up on discussions and proposals in developing an effective Social Inclusion strategy, which genuinely embraces the various religious and cultural minority groups (including the new church movements), which are part and parcel of contemporary city life.

It's one thing to make the argument that many minority groups should be challenged to engage better with shaping the present and future life of the city, that they should be encouraged to work in partnership with others on causes for the common, but it's another thing to make it happen.

A few weeks ago there was an arson attack on a Mosque in Cathays. Having met the local Imam and some of its leaders, at a civic reception I felt confident enough to pop around and express my sympathies, and offer support. Fortunately it wasn't a racist attack, but the question 'What if it had been?' wasn't far from my mind, or the minds of others. If it had been how would it be possible to get religious community groups to act quickly and together in order to protest against such actions and express solidarity? We have no social mechanisms for achieving this.

This got me thinking, or trying to think more positively about what we used to call 'Community Relations' back in the seventies - generating trust and good-will between ethnic and religious minority groups and the then-called 'host community'. Now we're a multi-cultural, multi-faith society in which the dogma of secularism calls the shots. The spectre of religious extremism has added to racism as a divisive, isolating threat to good neighbourliness and 'Community Relations'. Where now do we begin working to counter this?

'Community Relations' has become 'Social Inclusion', which I distrust, because it's a definition made by those who hold the reins of power, who may think people are a problem, or alienated, who aren't really. Many social religious groups in society, it seems to me, get on their life ignoring the fact that society isn't concerned for their welfare, looking after themselves and their kind successfully, and extending themselves only when they need to, otherwise indifferent as long as they can get what they want, not really concerned about helping to shape the great vision of urban life together. Only when there's abrasion between communities does anyone in power seem to notice. Nobody cares how much is lost when communities are less than open to creative social interaction.

One day, out of a conversation with a member of the congregation, I had the insight that the one area in which social groups break out of self-enclosure is in the area of trade and business. The city greatly benefits from its foreign restaurants and food shops. There are many successful international trade ventures rooted in ethnic and religious minority communities, and these are a means whereby the existing degree of opening up of these communities occurs. Thus I came to the conclusion that international business development was important, not only for the prestige of Cardiff as a small European city, but as a small but potentially significant player on the world stage also. The greater the success in economic enterprise, the more possibility of recognition, appreciation and mutual opening of minority communities to work together to benefit the city.

So, all these insights I shared in a brief paper, to which the email I received was a positive response. It seems as if there is some new thinking starting to develop, along the lines I was considering. Progress is slow and careful - more typical of local government culture than of enterprise culture. In a way this cultural interface is much harder to work at, than any of the interfaces between religious and cultural groups. Which makes me wonder about the current dominance of secularity and 'political correctness' as a social mindset. Religion is usually more comfortable with business and enterprise culture, than it is with government culture. The past half century has seen a phenomenal scaling up of the regulation of society by government, and at the same time, this ascendancy of secularism. Could it be that these two are interdependent bedfellows, simply because it looks like the most clean and efficient way to managing complex human affairs? Are we any better a society for marginalising creative imaginative enterprise from its organisational backbone? Is it time for a change, and what sort of change will be for the common good?

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