Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Curating Spaces of Hope: Intra-Communities Dialogue and Post-Pandemic Society

4 May 2022

This blog is the second of three produced by Research Fellow Dr Matthew Barber-Rowell, as part of our Fellows Fund Programme. In this series, Dr Barber-Rowell sets out the potential role for intra-communities dialogue and local leadership for Curating Spaces of Hope in a post-pandemic society. This will be followed by blogs published on the 10th of May. 

In my first blog, I set out the uncertain context we are living in, prompted by the pandemic, climate emergency, Brexit, the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis. I posed the question of how we might respond to this uncertainty. I introduced Curating Spaces of Hope and proposed that this is an overarching approach I believe offers potential for the development of intra-communities dialogue and local leadership, in a post-pandemic society.

Spaces of Hope Dialogues

In this blog, I turn to intra-communities dialogue (ICD) and its significance to this new proposed agenda.  Dialogue has been formational for Spaces of Hope.  In 2017 I was commissioned by a local authority in northwest England to develop networked gatherings across the borough. I used dialogue to support the faith, community and voluntary sector to respond to the impacts of austerity, divisions exposed by Brexit campaigning, unprecedented changes to public services and a growing epidemic in mental health largely caused by social isolation and loneliness. This commission followed on from Vanguard work exploring Health as a Social Movement, led by the Royal Society of Arts, of which Spaces of Hope played a small part.  The issues faced struck right at the heart of civil society, impacting personal resilience and the community resources change to public services relied on.

The Spaces of Hope dialogues took place at different community hubs across the borough, engaging nearly 170 people across 9 gatherings from 70+ community organisations, who brought nearly 300 perspectives on what Spaces of Hope meant to them and their perceived barriers to realising those Spaces of Hope in their lives. A case study for the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in England summarised these dialogues as

“bringing together innovative mixes of civil society actors – from professional community practitioners through to individual community activists – to ‘meaning-make’ as a response to experiences of pointlessness and emptiness in personal, community and professional life.”

 A Local Authority Officer said whilst reflecting on the dialogues

“In the past we have had a situation where the policy team has been the policy team … and [use] this kind of council speak … talking in the language of hope or hearts [feelings] over the last relatively short period of time [has exhibited] a shift.”

65% of respondents associated Spaces of Hope with personal vulnerability, personal freedom and social connection and 40% understood people’s suspicions and perceptions around different cultures and worldviews to be barriers to Spaces of Hope. This intervention opened up scope for values based dialogues within this locality.  In terms of impact, a senior advisor within Public Health in Greater Manchester said

“[Spaces of Hope] delivers both added value in existing work and produces new projects and networks across neighbourhoods and localities.”

1/3 of respondents said that the Spaces of Hope dialogues had catalysed something new within their own work. Further, 90% of respondents said that they valued the Spaces of Hope dialogues and would participate in them in the future. Spaces of Hope gatherings continued. All told, 35 dialogues took place in 36 months from October 2016-2019.

The Spaces of Hope dialogues were not without interruptions. For example the Beast from the East cancelled one gathering at short notice. Inconvenient yes, but nothing compared to how we experience things now.  The pandemic struck in March 2020 and lockdown ensued. UK wide research was conducted into the response, including the role of faith groups during the pandemic. This work found that whilst conditions of uncertainty have been accelerated, there was an affinity between local authorities and groups with different beliefs values and worldviews, who had stepped up during the pandemic. Local authorities wanted to capture and preserve this for the future. The report noted,

“Almost every local authority in the study endorses a commitment to build on this and to deepen relationships supporting long-term policy interventions and partnerships in ways that are different to the current practice and norms.”

This was followed up with parliamentary debate in Feb 2021, which suggests a need for networked and values based dialogues is only growing in response to the uncertainties we are facing.

Intra-communities Dialogue

The uncertainty of the last 2 years has forced us to reconsider where we find hope. Face masks have become a symbol of hope. Baking bread between Zoom calls brought hope to our work day, whilst we reconciled ourselves to the stress of the nowhere office. Our morning walk became both acts of obedience; adhering to laws prescribing one piece of exercise per day, and an act of defiance against the virus, glimpsing forgotten freedom, before returning to our COVID induced confines. New frontlines emerged through pop up hubs packing and delivering parcels of hope. Street level organising and WhatsApp groups nurtured new networked responses to the chaos of COVID and opened up spaces of connection within a changed and uncertain landscape, catalysing alliances and empowering local communities, making the case for a new modus operandi.

With this in mind, the question becomes, how are we going to do it? How do we hold together these diverse experiences and discern the leadership we need? Last year the Journal of Dialogue Studies published an article where I set out intra-communities dialogue as mapping and listening to shared matters of concern, of those with different beliefs values and worldviews, sharing and shaping public spaces together. I have given examples of how listening and mapping of this kind can take place.  Intra-communities dialogues is a development and a deepening of the Spaces of Hope approach that succeeded pre-pandemic. I have shown how we might proceed, through networked gatherings and dialogues. With this in mind, I am proposing that we use intra-communities dialogues within new learning communities made up of those who responded to the pandemic in their local community, to reflect on and discern how we Curate Spaces of Hope within post-pandemic society.

In my final blog I will set out what I mean by ‘Curating’ and its implications for local leadership for post pandemic society.

For more information contact Matthew at matthew@spacesofhope.co.uk

Biography: Dr Matthew Barber-Rowell has been working in activism and academia in the north west of England for the past 10 years during which time he developed Spaces of Hope. Matthew is a Research Fellow with the William Temple Foundation and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. During the pandemic Matthew supported local food provision; packing and delivering food parcels in his local community, acted as a trustee of his local church and was a team member delivering UK wide COVID research. Matthew has led work scoping responses to Net Zero in the north west, and is continuing this work through ecological change projects within churches in the north west.  Matthew completed his PhD at Goldsmiths University of London, which discerned and defined Spaces of Hope, offering the basis for new work developing intra – communities dialogue and local leadership. 

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