In this section

Resilient communities

MENTER works to build cohesive and resilient communities where the diversity of different cultures in Britain is valued. In 2004, the Chief Officer made one of her first speeches at a coffee house discussion to highlight the destructive impact that racism could have on resilient communities. Below you'll find this speech.

Debate organised by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) on resilient communities

Speech by Ila Chandavarkar, Chief Officer on 19th July 2004

I’d like to begin by speculating about communities before going on to resilience and building safe, strong and diverse communities. When I first came to Cambridge in the mid seventies, it felt a much smaller place with family run businesses like Heffers, Joshua Taylor and Eaden Lilley. There used to be an alcoholic man who sat at the fountain in the market square shouting at the shoppers and I don’t know how but I knew his name was Trevor, I knew something about his history and that when he died a large number of people attended his funeral. That was one indication of a community feel to Cambridge, although I was constantly warned that fen people were decidedly unfriendly. As someone I know said, “I like living in the fens because you can see visitors miles away and decide not to be at home”.

Today Cambridge is much bigger, most of the family businesses have been swallowed up by larger chains and our communities are different. Children are discouraged from playing on their own without adult supervision – an illustration of the lack of trust in community. Communities may be virtual through the internet or through watching soaps or reality shows. They may be what we refer to as “communities of interest” – a phrase often used in describing Black communities. Most of the Black / Minority Ethnic community groups, I know today, came together from the mid 80s – relatively recent. To a Black person, community means both the geographical area they live in i.e. their neighbourhood, and the cultural group they belong to. Often, sadly, the two contradict each other so they feel part of the cultural group but an outsider in the neighbourhood.

The best way I have of elaborating on this tension is through quoting from Ralph Ellison. He was the author of “Invisible Man”, first published in 1952 but recently reprinted, and still amazingly relevant today in his description of the Black experience. This quote is from his introduction to the reprinted version and centres on a story he had written about the experiences of a captured American pilot who found himself in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp in which he was the officer of highest rank and thus by a convention of war the designated spokesman for his fellow prisoners. As the only Black man this was resented by the other prisoners and the resulting tension was exploited by the German camp commander for his own amusement. This was given a further twist by the pilot’s awareness that once the peace was signed, the German camp commander could immigrate to the United States and immediately take advantage of freedoms that were denied the most heroic of Black servicemen. And here is the quote: “having to choose between his passionate rejection of both native and foreign racisms while upholding those democratic values which he held in common with his white countrymen, my pilot was forced to find support for his morale in his sense of individual dignity and in his newly awakened awareness of human loneliness….he had either to affirm the transcendent ideals of democracy (and to me that means community) and his own dignity by aiding those who despised him, or accept his situation as hopelessly devoid of meaning; a choice tantamount to rejecting his own humanity.”

This is one illustration of the conflict experienced in being in a community. Although this is specifically about a Black experience it is equally true about any rejection within communities – they are never homogenous and are dynamic in inclusion and exclusion. In terms of the Black experience migration, media hype, prejudice, isolation and racism have intensified exclusion. I feel that this in the end, is what makes resilient communities – enough people who have conquered the conflict and chosen to embrace humanity and what this means. Enough people who do this reshape the agenda on exclusion and involvement. We will not then be faced with artificial choices as the recent debate triggered by Trevor Phillips’ speech showed – a choice between cultural awareness days or getting at the root causes of inequality. Sharing food is an important part of building communities and a key illustration of difference. Inequality is already being addressed if people see that no one food is “normal” while the rest is “exotic” or “strange” but that diverse people have developed different foods to enjoy. Cultural awareness is a route, not the only one, but an important one of addressing inequality.

Once enough people have embraced humanity we can then find enough of the common values that drive the community,  truly celebrate our differences and build safe, strong and diverse communities. Black people, or any group facing discrimination, who in spite of ridicule or hostility turn barriers into strengths emerge as strong people the whole community can learn from.

« Top of page