Antonia Jenkins is interviewed by Dr Noha Nasser, founder of MELA Social Enterprise, for her book Connections: 12 approaches to relationship-based peacemaking
What is important to you to be part of your community?
I came to this community (Archway) six years ago, I was coming from West London and I didn’t know anyone aside from my daughter who lives nearby. I am originally from France and after many years of travelling and working abroad, I didn’t have any social network in London aside from my children. For the first four years in my present neighbourhood, I didn’t even know my downstairs neighbours. It was a bit lonely so I started looking for social activities. At first I went to “Meetups” and I had to go all the way to the South Bank and other places where there were activities going on that interested me. Then, in Autumn, two years ago, I came across a week long celebration in my area called ‘Archway With Words’. A local resident with the support of the council, had put something together for the community. It was wonderful; there was a week-long programme of activities. Every night there was something on; a lecture, something for the kids; something for older age groups – all quite intellectual and/or social. And I came across an event that was going to change everything. I met a young entrepreneur named Joana, who had recently started a language pop up café called” Speak Street” and I had been thinking about starting some type of Meet Up in my area around French, which is my native tongue. It was clear from the start that Joana and I had things in common and soon we agreed that I would run the French Conversation classes under the banner of Speak Street, which is now officially a Community Interest Company.
I now have a group of French learners with whom I meet once a month, in a local pub.
Everyone is local, they love it and so do I.
Aside from teaching, I am also a coach so I applied some of my own medicine to myself:
“Instead of complaining about your circumstances, get busy and create some new ones”
I started a scrabble club in my area. And a health awareness group that I called “Healing with Food”. These have been a bit sporadic due to the lack of affordable places to hold the events in my neighbourhood. There are of course similar meetings in London, at one point, I held a Conflict Resolution Meet Up in Central London, but it’s just nice to be able to go 5 minutes down the road and have your activity with people in your community, people that you are going to cross again in the street or at the market. It creates bonds.
So a key factor is finding a place to hold your event, because most places charge. Last year, there was a community centre that opened. We got all excited and already had plans of how much we could do. Unfortunately, it was open from 8 in the morning to 4 o’clock in the afternoon and they were not willing to change their hours. It was part of a neighbourhood renovation project and they didn’t seem to be really interested in what the community actually needed. So much to our disappointment, we couldn’t use it. In my opinion that is one of the KEY elements to have in any community, a nice but free or sponsored space that community leaders can use to organise local events.
What is a community?
Well, you can live in a community, you can know people, you can know their faces etc. but not really feel integrated. The dictionary definition of a ‘tight-knit community’ is: “a group of people who care about each other and who are very friendly with each other”, or “closely integrated and bound in love and friendship”.
I thought they were quite good because most of us do meet people in the street and we see them again and again because we have similar schedules. Perhaps there is the nod of the head of recognition but we don’t talk. Even with people in our buildings. We cross each other but there is not really a bond. I think it is this bond that is important to create, because when that bond is not there, every little problem gets exacerbated, and people get easily negative.
Large cities in particular have a huge load of mental health problems to deal with; Loneliness, isolation, bring on depression and other mental health issues, as well as social disruption like neighbours disputes over noise, use of outdoor spaces, or negative and hurtful attitudes such as racism, or the fear of the stranger. It weighs heavily on any potential crisis between neighbours, between generations in the Council Estates. So I have been thinking about how can we create this bond so our communities can deliver the support they have the potential to bring?
How do you create community?
In each situation, in each community, you have to almost take a poll and ask people what’s important to them. Because I like scrabble but not everybody does. So activities have to be arranged according to people’s shared interests. But then there is also great value in activities across cultures and across interests. That’s where fairs, or cultural events, relating to one particular culture come in. For example, someone sets something up during Eid – some celebration for Eid- and shares some food with others. There will be something similar for each mini-community, so everybody learns about each other. I think that sharing and partaking of each other’s culture can bring down the invisible walls of separation.
That was something that stood out for me when I spent several years in Lebanon. It is a very mixed community. I got there at the end of the twenty-year long civil war, you can imagine how fragmented the different communities were between them. Very strong prejudices! Some of the young people had never been outside of their immediate area, and during the war it was not safe, but once peace was restored, it took years to bring down this invisible wall that kept people prisoners of their own fears and mistrust. I used to joke that I knew how to get around their country better than them!
The war and the partition had created strong negative stereotypes of the other. But I also came across some wonderful initiatives. Some of the religious colleges started to invite other colleges from Muslim areas to create links between the children to break down the barriers; to break down the stereotypes. It was wonderful.
I did something similar in my programs in the prisons (I was responsible for several prison projects)- I refused to give in to sectarianism and it was a fight, but anyone who wanted to take part in our educational programmes was to have an equal opportunity – Christian Lebanese, Muslim Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians (considered there the lowest ring on the totem pole). You can imagine how I felt when at a graduation of the English programme at the men’s prison, the top student’s place of honour, held by a prisoner who was Palestinian, was instead given to a Maronite Christian, who had come second place in the programme. This was all done behind my back by some of the people helping me. I can laugh about it now but I was very upset. These were prison politics and in prisons, you don’t always win!!! However, for the most part, our little programme managed to build a camaraderie across religious lines and nationalities- and it was at times quite a fight! I had trained a core team of teachers who spoke English well and we had 2 Palestinians, 1 Lebanese Maronite, 1 Druze, and 1 Shia Muslim. Here, in England, it feels awkward to even speak in those terms but there it is very real. People’s identity is absolutely tied to their religion and their place of birth. To get them past their prejudices and work together was sometimes quite a task. It took work!
It is a well known fact in Lebanon, that before the war, people did not know who belonged to which religion, the children played together in school. They didn’t care. (except during religious classes in school). That was all.
A close friend of mine, who was from a Christian community in the south, where there are mixed communities, said that she would bring cakes to Muslim families at Eid, and they would go and break the fast with their neighbours for Ramadan. Then at Christmas, their Muslim neighbours would bring things for Christmas. There was this sort of acknowledgement, respect and appreciation of the other. I was thinking this is what we need, at a smaller scale, in different areas in London, especially where there are such a mix of cultures.
I think people want to but it is quite heart-breaking when you hear talks of such fear on topics like immigration. I went to Calais to the refugee camp, I was working on a translating project with Caritas France (Secours Catholique). It’s just amazing how these people, who are there in transit, living in appalling conditions, started to build a community. I was surprised when my colleagues in Calais mentioned that despite the harshness of their situation, they often opted to stay there rather than try something new and uncertain, and the key reason was that they had built a community, they were not alone. One was running a café, another one was making bread for others; they all had a sense of belonging, a sense of community. Most of the camps there are set up along cultural lines; For the most part the Afghans are together, the Syrians are together, Pakistanis, Kurds, along language lines, common memories and points of references. It is human nature. But I understand that they ALL help each other across nationalities, they are united by the same fate after all.
It was quite an awakening for me to realise how deep this sense of community is in the human psyche, and how much we have lost it in places like London or any of the big cities across the world. It is a known saying in the coaching world “like attracts like” we are attracted to people who reflect us, our background, our values…. This is part of being human, so I supposed it is normal that budding communities huddle together when they moved to a new country. And this is where governing bodies can and need to approach this normal behavioural pattern in a positive way in order to create bridges between cultures, encourage friendships across cultural and religious lines.
In Bridging Cultures how do we overcome self-segregation?
We need to create an understanding of the other in order to have acceptance, communication and “togetherness”. For example, an Irish friend of mine lives in Hackney right in the middle of a Bangladeshi community was invited to a Bangladeshi festival, at her neighbour’s house. The Bangladeshi women there were lovely, received us warmly, they had delicious food, but they didn’t speak very much English and I was soon quite bored. I asked myself: “How would I live here and feel a part of this place?”
In my friend’s case, it had all started when her child was very young, and she saw the need for a place for the mums to get together and help each other with the young children. As the mums of different background joined in, it created a camaraderie between all of them, that lasts till today. So it was around a project, an act of involvement together.
In their case, it served multiple purposes: keeping the children happy was the main goal but with it came bonding, sharing of each other’s views and in that way learning about the other.
And going back to my own experience, I think communication and interaction creates the obvious need to speak the same language. It is an important issue in Bridging Cultures.
How does conflict resolution help to bridge cultures?
In terms of conflict resolution, many conflicts arise when people are trying to “read” each other. If you have a British person, a Polish person and an Arabic person, you can already know that there will be issues of boundaries and interpretation of each other’s responses. Those are cultural issues and it is normal, the solution is in realising that and talking about it.
That’s what we do in conflict resolution, we get people talking, to us first and when they feel understood, eventually they are able to talk to the person they are in dispute with.
I think the ideal would be to help people communicate and get to know each other before crisis arise. That is why activities become so important for that. Laughing together. Eating together…
I see it at my granddaughter’s school. The children go to school together, but the mums don’t really mingle and don’t know each other because the other is a little bit foreign. So somehow breaking those barriers down, helping people mingle in a happy situation would help them participate, not just in passive activities –like something you watch – but actually have to get involved in activities with people not from your same cultural background, or not of your same age group.
For this, you need spaces. That’s where the architecture comes in affecting how a community is built. If you just have huge blocks of flats and no common spaces and nothing to do then you are going to have trouble, like some of the infamous Paris suburbs.
But equally, we need community leaders. You can have a nice space, and people who would participate but if no one is actually ready to take the lead, it is wasted. I have years of experience of community activities abroad, in varied cultures and settings, and any project always started with someone deciding, I want to do something about that! I don’t like the way this is, and I am going to change it!
That’s the start, actually the most important factor! Money is needed, Spaces are also necessary but if you don’t have someone who will take the lead, nothing happens. Many projects are staffed with volunteers, people from the communities.
Joanna, for example, the founder of Speak Street, started with an idea, and as she started to put it into effect, she found the rest, the magic happens when we believe in what we are doing.
People often have this idea that the council should do this, or that, and I agree that sometimes it should. But if it they don’t, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be done! I have found a lot of volunteering willingness in the community. Of course, even potential leaders in the community need the support and encouragement of the government bodies in the long run.
“If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.” Jim Rohn
What does a Conflict Resolution Coach or a Mediator do to bridge cultures?
It is my opinion that greater community cohesion would lessen to a great degree the disputes, the crisis and anger of people with each other. At the basis, it comes from a lack of communication, people don’t talk to each other, or rather, they don’t listen to each other.
As a conflict resolution consultant, I would initially be called in when there is a crisis and I think it would be wise for the councils to have some of their people trained in conflict resolution. That’s really important. Rather than waiting for things to escalate, they can catch it at the beginning before it turns into a crisis. By the time a dispute has been festering for years as I have witnessed in some disputes, people are deeply entrenched in their positions and it is all the more difficult for them to shift. The role of a mediator, and of a conflict coach, is to help people out of their entrenched position.
A key skill is to really actively listen because that person has been hurt. For whatever reason, they are placing the blame on the other person, but they have been hurt, and their hurt needs to be acknowledged and treated with great care and empathy. Only then might they be willing to examine options. The role of the mediator, or of the conflict coach, is to get the person to take some of the responsibility for the problem, or rather for finding a possible solution, because it is not about blame. We usually do that through asking questions, helping the person feel validated, and at times challenging them a bit. The tools are the soft skills the mediator has to have along with a general framework of how to move someone along. Listening and empathy are most important; It helps people feel understood and like they don’t need to hang on to their “defending position”. Once they are assured that their needs are understood, they are willing to consider ‘where do we go from here’? They might then be willing to meet with the other person for an exchange. With time, people come around. Conflict resolution can sometimes be done in a day, but that is a lot of pressure on the mediator. It is easier if it is done in separate meetings, helping them explore their emotions, feelings and needs. Often the client is angry at the other person because they did this or that to him/her. Most of the time it can be brought down to the fact that they have been deprived of one or some of their most basic needs, as per the Maslow pyramid of needs. That acknowledgement alone can radically change the dynamics of the conflict.
Can you give some example of cases you have encountered?
I worked with a gentleman, recently, who was very unhappy because of all the noise from his upstairs neighbours, a young Polish couple with a 1 year old. He was very quick to point out that he didn’t dislike his neighbours but that the toddler’s running around was just too much noise for him. Because it was during the day, it was most unlikely that the Council would do anything about it. But he was very ill and needs to rest during the day. So it was a great disturbance and annoyance when he needed to rest and this child was banging upstairs and playing. It had become such an issue in his head that he started recording the times and level of noise throughout the day. It was really stressful for him. So helping him see that the problem is that he needs more rest than he is getting and that his situation is perhaps not adapted to his needs. We were able to explore options and one of them was that he might consider moving to an area that is quiet all around but then of course he has been in that community for over thirty years. So it is a very difficult decision and not one he was willing to seriously consider initially. It was important for him to feel validated in his need to rest during the day, and get him to actively look for solutions rather than just blaming. Last time I saw him he was a lot more relaxed, and was considering ways in which he can get more rest, rather than getting all upset and recording every time there is a noise from upstairs. His upstairs neighbours are a young couple with a child who had very severe health problems, and they almost lost him. Once he was able to run around, it is possible that they might have been a bit overly tolerant, but the real problem is that the older man needed more rest than he was able to get. Helping him focus on that, changed his attitude and his outlook on his situation and he is talking to his family to find a solution that would work for him. In his case, he didn’t want to have mediation and have us contact the neighbours.
A useful training tool and the reason why it helps to get a coach. The person can see what they are showing to others, and what they keep private, but not the blind window that the coach can see. Offering the information from the blind window at the right time can help the person move forward.
I want to share another example because it was quite an amazing turn around in a couple of hours. This lady had come to me because she was in dispute with the people who were running her allotment. She had this allotment with her husband for several decades. Her husband had passed away seven years before. She was very angry at the people in the allotment because they were doing things she thought they shouldn’t be doing. She was quite critical, as unhappy people can often be. So she got into a dispute with the management and they terminated her contract, asking her to remove her tools from the shed. When she first came to me, it was all about the manager of the allotment; a young man in his thirties who probably didn’t understand the psychology of an older woman, that was quite clear. So they had this dispute going on and it was eating up her life. He had the upper hand because he was the boss. She started talking and it seemed there was something about her husband in the issue because it was the allotment she had with her husband. We started talking about that. Then by and by she started to say the allotment was a burden. She couldn’t cope with the workload. She was 70+ years old and it was just too much for her. But it was associated with her husband. It was something they had done together. Then she started talking about painting and all of a sudden she realised she would much rather be painting and doing new things with her time than with this heavy situation in her hands which was making her so unhappy. She wasn’t sleeping well because of it. Crises and disputes can take over your mind and absolutely ruin your quality of life. So finally she realised that was what she wanted to do. By the end of our chat, she had decided that she was going to ask someone to help her get her tools out of the shed and start a new leaf. At the heart of the dispute was her grieving for her husband which needed to be validated, empathised with and receiving that acknowledgement allowed her to get on a new course.
What is the importance of *Mediators and Conflict Coaches in mixed neighbourhoods?
*A mediator works with two or more parties and helps them communicate- A conflict coach works with one person in a conflict and help them through the conflict.
I think people with training and skills in Conflict Resolution in each community could do wonders. They could be volunteers. A friend of mine, Irene Grindell, one of the best trainers and mediators I have met, was running a volunteer mediation service in Tower Hamlet with just volunteers. She would train them. Funding was needed from the government to run the office, but it was all volunteer- staffed, at minimal cost. If you had a handful of people who could handle cases on a regular basis, even volunteers, it would solve so many of the problems. What is important is to get to the underlying concern and upset, and what their needs are and the emotions that they are dealing with.
What are some training tools you use to train people in Conflict Resolution?
In training for conflict resolution coaches, a lot of the work is about self-awareness When we understand our own reaction, we are able to recognise these emotions in the other person. We often use interactive games. An interesting one is to set different animals that represent different types of reactions and personalities. So you give a scenario and ask people to place themselves with the animal they most equate with their reaction. It is very interesting how someone quite mild and accommodating can all of sudden admit to aggressive behaviour in some circumstances, for example if their child is being unfairly treated in school or their teenage son leaving his dirty socks all over the place. Some of these situations trigger emotions in us, and going through a little activity like this helps us to become more self aware, a must especially for anyone working with conflict. It enables us to recognise our own judgements, biases and triggers so we can better deal with others conflicts and emotions.
So to sum up, there are some hugely important pillars in building community cohesion: We need spaces, open spaces, gardens, rooms to do activities in, we need leaders and organisers of events, we need support from the community and decision-makers, and we need activities that will involve the community, help them communicate, laugh together, and bond, build bridges! It doesn’t happen by itself, we have to create it!