Vital to build better understanding between communities in a divided society

Phanuel Mutumburi, business and operations director at the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE), explains the role of ISCRE in a divided society.

I’m writing this column in the days after a mob attacked and broke into the US Capitol in Washington DC.

Whatever the immediate stimulus for such an event, it is clear that the underlying causes point to a very, very divided society.

While the situation in the UK, even under the additional stresses caused by the COVID19 pandemic, does not seem to be as extreme, we at the Ipswich & Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE) are increasingly concerned by recent developments.

It does appear that some of the strands that bind our communities together – everything from shared experiences, a common purpose and an acceptance that differences of opinion can be expressed without malevolent intent, are coming under great strain.

As a charity, our focus is two-fold. Firstly, to work towards the elimination of unlawful discrimination. Secondly, we exist to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between all.

In the case of the latter objective, we are guided by our five-year strategy, launched in 2019, called ‘Towards a Fairer Suffolk’.

In intent, this is to encourage mutual understanding through positive dialogue between people of different backgrounds and beliefs resident or working in Suffolk. In practice, this has seen us step up our initiatives aimed at providing opportunities for different parts of our community to listen to, talk with, and be heard by others.

ISCRE convenes a wide range of such encounters, including the Stop & Search Reference Group and the Rules of Engagement which bring together the Police with people from our minority ethnic communities, our personal development work among inmates in local prisons and through the #WhatAreWeMissing? campaign that allows health professionals to hear at first-hand ways in which their services can be improved for some of society’s most vulnerable groups.

Our default position is to identify areas where different groups are being unfairly treated AND to constructively engage with all relevant parties to bring about dialogue and positive change.

In short, because of our closeness to minority ethnic communities and the respect we have built up over decades with councils, elected representatives and other public figures, we are in a unique position to identify problems before they get out of hand and work with others to find sustainable solutions.

In the past, such ISCRE overtures have been positively taken up by those in leadership roles and we remain grateful to them for their ongoing support.

However, we do feel that such active community leadership is becoming rarer – at the very time when it is needed most, by all of us.

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement – and the increasingly politicised and visceral response in opposition to it in some quarters – is a case in point.

ISCRE certainly supports the core aim of the campaign – to ensure genuine equality of opportunity for all and end the systemic discrimination against BAME communities once and for all. That said, we may not always agree with some of the tactics used in places other than Suffolk and especially outside the UK.

While principled, nuanced evidenced debate and disagreement is fine and to be encouraged, it is disappointing that some local critics of the movement have resorted to exaggeration, falsehoods and, in some cases, dog-whistling to divide communities from each other.

We hope that such influential people will respect the traditions of tolerance that so characterise Ipswich and the whole of Suffolk and with us, help celebrate the successes and benefits of living in a diverse county, especially given our country’s renewed focus on international trade. The Suffolk way is usually an inclusive and fair one.

History is likely to be harsh on those responsible for the attack on the US Capitol. We believe that history will be much kinder on our local leaders if they seek to bring together and not divide our communities.

This article appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times on February 5, 2021