“There isn’t anything particularly radical about saying people want to connect and they want to belong but how that happens is pretty important”
So today was a nothing kind of day, a combination of exhaustion and jet lag. Only it wasn’t.
A short walk in search of food brought me to Wychwood Barns Park, a small area of greenery where a selection of people had gathered to make the most of the early morning sunshine a…man gently stretching his limbs in the warmth, a woman whose smiley dog insisted on licking her face as she tried to reach her toes. And in amongst it all a small area of raised beds, freshly cultivated but not yet planted which, it turned out, are part of eight Global Roots plots, each devoted to particular ethnic communities with large populations in Toronto – Chinese, Tibetan, South Asian, Somalian, Italian, Latin American, Polish, and Filipino.
In Toronto it appears that the kinds of narratives and messages that we have been trying to develop in the UK and across Europe about the importance of bringing people together and of creating connections between different groups are part of the every day. In this particular project, gardeners meet once a week to tend the plots, socialize, and cook food. Bringing together older people, many of whom were food producers in their countries of origin, with young people who don’t necessarily have any experience gardening, creates opportunities for building social solidarity and shared learning.
Which is not to say of course that things like this don’t exist in the UK. The media and political focus on ‘the problem’ of migration conceals a wealth of projects and initiatives which try to improve understanding of the lives, and contribution, of different migrants to British society – RefugTEA, for example brings people together over tea and cake (always a good bet in the British context), Refugee Week highlights the contribution of refugees to British culture and society more generally. I’ve been actively involved with both for many years.
But the problem with these kinds of approaches is that they take huge amounts of organisation, are often time-limited and focus on one specific group of people (usually refugees) in ways that are not necessarily conducive to building wider networks of social solidarity and support.
And you don’t just stumble across them when you are on the hunt for breakfast!
The longer that European – and especially British – politicians and the media continue to peddle their toxic politics of hate, exclusion and division, the more convinced I am that change will never come from the top nor from projects organised from within the ‘refugee sector’ but from the small, and cumulatively significant, actions of people who don’t work directly with refugees and other migrants but are willing to stand up for change and prepared to act collectively to make that happen, in their own communities at least. These initiatives – which are often framed in terms of social justice rather than tackling ‘the problem’ of migration – may not be prominently placed in mainstream media and political debate but they are there, quietly – and sometimes noisily – challenging the dominant narratives that can feel all-powerful and resistant to change. They offer hope that it is possible to mobilise people power and create a new narrative on migration and diversity that moves beyond fear and hate. It’s the reason why I’m such a fan of the #MoreInCommon campaign and others like it.
To be clear, I don’t think for one minute that there aren’t also deep seated issues of structural inequality and marginalisation in cities like Toronto, just as there are in every single city. But having a different political narrative and being prepared to understand migration as intrinsically related to wider issues of social (in)justice and global (as well as local) inequality opens up fundamentally different ways of starting to respond that address the needs of the many and not the few.
Any if you still need some inspiration to get out and do things differently, take 3 minutes out of your life to watch this!
An addendum – a dear friend and colleague has pointed out that similar initiatives exist in the UK, for example Living Under One Sun actively creates welcoming places to share stories, ideas and skills for people to become “can do” communities, embracing and leading positive change to include and benefit all cultures, abilities, ages and Nature – in neighbourhoods and globally. I have no doubt that 100s more of these kinds of projects exist up and down the country. We need to hear much, much more about the work they do, it would be a powerful counter-narrative to the one that currently dominates British politics and the media.