Interesting times for our city of many cultures

In case you somehow haven’t heard yet: last week Coventry fought off stiff competition from Paisley, Swansea, Stoke-on-Trent and Sunderland to be named UK City of Culture 2021. This brings an initial £3million grant funding into the City, but will lead to much greater benefits – Hull has benefited by an estimated £60million from having the title this year, hosting the Turner Prize, involving over 90% of its citizens in cultural activities, attracting both private and public funding for a wide range of cultural initiatives, and boosting tourism significantly.

Laura Macmillan, manager of the Coventry City of Culture Trust describes the DCMS decision as “a win for Coventry, a win for young people and a win for diversity”. I sit on the Community Engagement working group of Coventry’s City of Culture Bid Team, and can report that our city’s bid success rests on a busy programme of community engagement activities throughout the last couple of years, as well as unprecedented levels of co-operation between Coventry’s two universities, the City Council and the cultural sector. The value our bid gives to Coventry’s diversity will have been one really important factor in our win.

Earlier this autumn I worked with Mohammed Ibrahim, Community Co-ordinator at Coventry City Council, and 27 local community facilitators to plan and run OneCov2017, which brought together 120 people from across Coventry, of a wide range of ages and backgrounds. We came together to celebrate the diversity in our city of many cultures, but also to talk about our various fears and concerns about living together well, to identify what it is that makes Coventry as effective a multi-cultural city as it is, and to consider what we should do in future to improve and strengthen cross-cultural relationships here.

Participants valued Coventry as a diverse, multi-lingual and multi-cultural city, with many cultural activities and festivals which for some made the city like a big friendly village. Their fears and concerns included many about community relations, hate crime and a lack of genuine engagement; alongside concerns about housing, poverty and reducing services. The great majority of suggestions for the future “focused on activities that would connect diverse communities across the City and within neighbourhoods and many of these focused on planned events that would bring people from different backgrounds together” (from an analysis of participant comments carried out by Kusminder Chahal of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University).

So, our diverse and often friendly city now has three years to prepare for perhaps the biggest cultural year of its history – while many of its citizens, from a wide range of backgrounds, worry about community relations and want to see planned activities to bring people together from different backgrounds for meaningful interactions that build understanding. In my many years experience of inter-cultural community building work, such events are eminently possible, and work best when organised and run by a diverse team, and when alongside a warm and friendly welcome there is space to talk directly and to listen to each other about lived experience of racism and austerity and other “difficult issues”.

Last year, Dr. Khursheed Wadia and I, with others from Warwick’s BREM (Borders, Race, Ethnicity and Migration) network, organised a discussion about “Race and Racism in our City of Many Cultures” at the West Indian Centre, attended by people from many communities in the city, from a variety of voluntary and cultural organisations and from both local universities. Those attending raised a range of concerns about Coventry bidding on the strength of our “diversity” without paying much attention to the effects of racism and austerity impacting differently on the various communities that make up that diversity – while acknowledging that the bidding process was necessarily about marketing and packaging our city to look good.

We have our “win for diversity” now, and I think there is enough expertise, experience and commitment in our city to use this opportunity to really look directly at the chequered history, and challenging present reality, of our city of many cultures. I’m looking forward to it!

About the Author

Mark Hinton is the Centre for Lifelong Learning’s Community Engagement Development Manager. He focuses on building long-term relationships between the University and communities across the region. As part of his role he sits on the Community Engagement working group of Coventry’s City of Culture Bid Team

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