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Ingredients of Transition: Inclusion and diversity

Today’s ingredient follows on nicely from last weekend’s ‘Diverse Routes to Belonging’ conference in Edinburgh….

Context

At the stages of FORMING A CORE TEAM (2.1) or BECOMING A FORMAL ORGANISATION (2.7), diversity and inclusion need to be designed into how the organisation functions. Some of the tools that underpin this will influence how the group sets about RUNNING SUCCESSFUL MEETINGS (2.4), and ultimately, a more diverse and inclusive organisation will be of benefit to the PERSONAL RESILIENCE (1.5) of those involved.

(We are collecting and discussing these Transition ingredients on Transition Network’s website to keep all comments in one place. Please leave feedback and comments, suggestions for alternative pictures, anecdotes, stories and projects for this ingredient here).

The Challenge

Transition tends to appeal to what academics call the ‘post-consumerists’ i.e. those who have reached a level of sufficient wealth and education to feel comfortable in letting go of some of it, who are often, but not always, white and middle-class. However, if Transition is serious about creating resilient communities but fails to create a process over which all sections of the community feel some sense of ownership, it will not truly be creating resilience.

Core Text

This ingredient looks at both inclusion and diversity. The two are intertwined but are not the same thing. If a Transition initiative brings down any barriers to participation that it might have, it in turn becomes more inclusive which should lead to it becoming more diverse. At an event held in November 2010 by Transition Scotland Support called ‘Diverse Routes to Belonging’, Danielle Cohen of Transition Stoke Newington (TSN) held a workshop on diversity where, introducing herrecent research on Transition and diversity, she played a recording of an interview with a black woman, who had been one of the initiators of TSN, but who had recently left. Here are some excerpts from that interview:[1]

“It’s quite hard being the only…um…like, not-white person or something sometimes and I kind of, as well, feel like a lot of people have more maybe experience of talking and stuff like that and I’m not always very eloquent in my speech or whatever. I have really good ideas but I’m not always that great at saying them and putting them forward and… so I definitely didn’t always feel that comfortable. And it wasn’t because of even specifically, you know, people, but it was just like… I didn’t feel like there were that many people like me.

Our meetings have often been quite formal and quite quiet and quite sit-downy and chaired and stuff, whereas in a lot of other cultures you don’t get that, you just get people talking in a really animated way and over each other and blah blah blah and…like…there is no right or wrong way of doing things and I felt like as well if I brought my family or something there it would be…they would be disapproved of and it would be looked at as if they’re not serious or they’re not doing things in the right way because they’re not taking notes and they’re not blah-di-blah. I don’t think Transition Town Stoke Newington was in a place to…would have welcomed a whole new way of doing things.

If you’re, say, working class and you’re around a lot of middle class people it makes you feel really stupid, you just do and especially when those people aren’t that aware as well, so often we just wouldn’t say anything. I remember being in meetings and there was someone just chatting complete shit for 15 minutes but thought they were saying amazing stuff and it’s like we kind of knew so much but were so quiet and often just found it really hard to talk. We did the training as well and we really should – I mean there’s no point saying should have – but could have taken an initiative there and just structured it differently so everyone did talk. Even kind of doing that for me just felt really scary. I just feel quite, like, insignificant or something.”

Listening to the recording at that event was challenging and thought-provoking, as it represented a voice that is not often heard, and because it was referring to something I care very much about, the Transition movement, voicing a deep sense of disappointment with her experience of it. There is a danger that people involved in Transition, as with many of those in the wider environmental movement, can sometimes see inclusion as being about bringing more people over to ‘our’ agenda, that it is about winning over those who don’t ‘get it’. This somewhat smug and superior approach is not appropriate for the work Transition is doing. As Danielle puts it:

“…people in Transition…. often talk about inclusion with a view to bringing different people into the movement. I have argued that this view of inclusion can imply and perpetuate hierarchical power relationships underpinned by assumptions of assimilation and integration. As one … participant (in Danielle’s research) put it, Transition should perhaps not be seeking to include others but should be seeking to be included by them”.

Transition, an approach designed to build resilience at the community level, needs to actively include the needs of everyone in that community in order to truly create resilience. Also, inclusion is simply the right, fair and just thing to do. In our society there are many truths held by many different people. Certain versions of the truth tend to dominate groups and society, but there are many others, and Transition needs to create space for this wide diversity of truths.

A societal transformation such as that on the scale envisaged by Transition which imagines it can look at inclusion later in the process is deluding itself, it needs to be central from the start. The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers took a decision a few years ago to stop preaching to the converted, and to actively work with those who, up to that point, they hadn’t engaged with much. They intentionally sought to develop projects and initiatives in as inclusive a way as possible, by ensuring that those running the organisation asked themselves the following questions, all of which are just as relevant to Transition initiatives, offering a great checklist for Transition core groups to keep referring back to:

  • Do we really mean it? (that is, do we really mean to address this issue?)
  • Do we know where we want to get to?
  • Do we know why we’re doing it?
  • Does our leadership champion this?

There is a perception often in environmental groups that some sectors of society are ‘hard to reach’. What is less often considered though is the possibility that it is actually we who are ‘hard to reach’, that for many people, due to how we work, communicate and position ourselves, we can be seen as remote, distant and irrelevant. Sometimes the idea that some groups are ‘hard to reach’ and “harder to engage” than others are simply not the case. For example, the environmental movement has traditionally viewed BME groups as ‘hard to reach, yet one recent study found that only 5% of white respondents were happy to engage with community voluntary projects, whereas 23% of black respondents were.

I asked Catrina Pickering, Transition Network’s Diversity Coordinator, who has been running trainings around the UK with Transition groups, for the main tips and insights she communicates in the training:

  • Listen: seek out common ground and common language. Work with people where they are at, for example if working with a faith group look at Transition from their point of view, if working with low income groups, it may well be more useful to focus on the building of economic resilience.
  • Language: avoid jargon and imagery, language and approaches which may marginalise people
  • Choose your medium: explore alternative means of communication, such as the arts, and try to make events fun and celebratory. Traditional meetings or events with a speaker can be a real turnoff for lots of people, and many different sectors of society meet each other in very different ways to that
  • Learn to Recognise Power Dynamics: this means that when coming to this work having honesty and a commitment to an ongoing inner dialogue with ourselves that explores our own feelings about prejudices, power and being taken out of our comfort zone. Being mindful that this will be a process of being open to the discomfort and questioning of assumptions that may well arise. How do we feel about letting go of ways of thinking?

Transition Town Tooting (TTT) in London have, since the group’s inception, seen diversity as ‘a way of operating’ rather than an optional add-on. Tooting is one of the most diverse areas of London, and the group has striven to reflect that. In the summer of 2010 it held the Trashcatchers’ Carnival, which involved about 30 groups in creating a street carnival around the theme of caring for the Earth, using nearly 1 million plastic bags in creating the amazing floats for the event. Over 1,000 people took part in the parade, and many thousands turned out to watch it. They also hold an annual ‘Earth Talk Walk’, which visits all the main centres of worship in the area to share thoughts on caring for the Earth, and also the Foodival, an annual event which brings surplus produce from allotments to chefs from different ethnic restaurants in the area who cook them in their tradition. AsHillary, a member of TTT, and an organiser of the Carnival, put it, “I’ve lived in Tooting for 22 years, but I think I’ve lived more in Tooting in the past 2 years since I’ve been involved in Transition than I have in the last 20 years”.

Whether we are talking about Totnes, Manchester, Forres or Los Angeles, inclusion will look different in each place, but it is equally as important. Every community has a diversity of political opinion, incomes, backgrounds, gender and sexuality and so on, as well as of dominant and non-dominant people. In practice Transition initiatives need to start out from a position of recognising that everyone is important and has a role, regardless of the above, and should seek to acquire the necessary tools to make diversity and inclusion central to their work.

In conclusion, Alastair Macintosh put it beautifully when I spoke to him, and to return to the food analogies that run through this book, he suggested that in terms of diversity, the challenge for Transition is to move from being the oil on top of the gravy to being like salt which is able to dissolve quickly into the gravy. A very clear assessment of that challenge this ingredient is addressing.

The Solution

Building an Initiative that integrates all the strengths and concerns in your community means starting with everyone in that community and interweaving diversity into everything you do. In practise, it’s about a lot more than putting up posters in a few carefully chosen places. Rather than inviting people to your meetings and expecting them to come along, it’s about going out to other people and listening. It means finding out about the strengths, concerns and the passions that fuel the fire of everyone in your community and then together with your own ideas, using that as the building blocks for creating an inclusive vision that informs everything you do. The result will be a just, fair and infinitely more resilient Transition.

Connections to Other Ingredients

Inclusion and diversity can strengthen greatly many aspects of your initiative’s work. AWARENESS RAISING (2.9) will be much stronger if it involves BUILDING STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPS (2.12) with a diversity of organisations. ORAL HISTORIES (4.7) can be a great way of hearing the stories not just of those whose roots in that community go back generations, but also those who arrived into that community from elsewhere, and the difficulties they faced. When you are considering HAVING AN OFFICE OR NOT (3.1), it is good to remember how where you choose to have an office comes across in terms of inclusion. In many cultures, the ROLE OF STORYTELLING (4.13) is much stronger, and it is good to weave this into events. In terms of how the initiative functions internally, it is important to be mindful that those in the minority in a group often feel uncomfortable and find it hard to find their voice in meetings. RESPECTFUL COMMUNICATION (1.7) and considering HOW OTHERS SEE US/HOW WE COMMUNICATE (1.6) are important, as is the possibility that some people may need some support with STANDING UP TO SPEAK (1.8). For the initiative to design in regular SELF REFLECTION (3.8) is important on this topic.


References

[1] Cohen, D.M.K. (2010 Reaching out for resilience: Exploring approaches to inclusion and diversity in the Transition movement. A MSc Dissertation. University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

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