In response to rising rates of hate crime, and a desire to make communities more resilient, Nottingham City Council sought to tackle prejudice by equipping people with the skills and confidence to effectively respond to it.
Through a programme of consultation the council developed a project called Let’s Talk, to help upskill residents to change attitudes through listening and conversing, rather than arguing.
Delivered through a partnership approach, Let’s Talk emphasises all the ways in which people in Nottingham stand together, providing an alternative narrative to the rhetoric of division and polarisation.
Although Nottingham is rightly proud to be a diverse city where, according to a recent survey, 93 per cent of the population agree they get on well, Nottingham Community Safety Partnership agreed to adopt hate crime as a partnership priority in response to rising hate crime rates. Hate crime per capita in Nottingham was at least 50 per cent higher than the national figure, with that disparity growing by 2018/19.
As a result of this, Nottingham agreed to adopt hate crime as a community safety priority and sought ways to tackle extremist views as well as providing a consistent response to incidents when they occurred. Only through behavioural change and increasing community resilience could Nottingham address the underlying factors which led to occurrences of hate crime.
To support this approach, Nottingham successfully bid for funding from the EU’s Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme to develop a novel programme to help build communities. This work was then combined with Home Office counter-extremism projects and began with a significant public consultation.
Residents in Nottingham reported that they felt disempowered to address prejudice; that they lacked the inherent skills to tackle hate when it appeared.
In response, Nottingham developed a programme of training and resources to upskill residents to feel comfortable to respond. This included sessions on compassionate communication, behaviour change and community cohesion through conversations.
The central tenet of all of this work was that ‘arguing does not work’; it merely entrenches people into positions. True behaviour change comes about when people feel that they are being listened to and can have their views challenged in a supportive and constructive fashion.
“Don’t just tell people that they’re wrong – ask them why they think that. We’ve seen people go away, think about it, change their views. Where in the past you’d walk away from people because ‘it’s not worth the trouble of the argument’ – well actually it is” – Nottingham official.
The development of the ‘Nottingham Women’s Voice’ project after the Manchester terrorist attack in 2017 started Nottingham City Council on the conversation journey. Initially instigated by a group of Muslim women in the city, it quickly developed into an inclusive group open to all, and seeds from their success sowed the ground for a broader ‘conversations’ project. Whilst they have continued to maintain a women-only space for difficult conversations such as about female genital mutilation (FGM), responses to terrorist attacks and latterly responding to the pandemic, this group has been embedded in the process of developing ‘Nottingham together – Let’s Talk’.
As part of the EU programme, the council and police hate crime leads also designed a comprehensive training programme and trained 200 council workers and police officers to become hate crime champions, building skill bases amongst practitioners to drive behaviour change in their organisations to increase understanding of hate crime and help encourage reporting.
This group was also invited to become part of a wider ‘Difficult Conversation’ programme. Working with the Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball Peace Foundation a further 207 officers and community reps/residents were trained to have the ‘difficult conversation’. This group found new ways to engage communities, including ‘field conversations’ – encouraging people to sit down at community events and discuss local issues. This has also been successfully taken online and conversations have continued throughout the pandemic. Managed properly, these sessions covered sensitive topics in a challenging way, allowing controversial discussion to happen in a safe environment.
This work with the Difficult Conversations group also resulted in the development of a set of shareable resources to help expand the reach of this methodology: Nottingham Together, Let’s Talk! – Changing attitudes through talking and listening.
More recently, members of the Difficult Conversation group worked alongside COVID vaccination buses in areas of the city where they felt they were most likely to get verbal resistance to the vaccination programme. Using the skills they had been provided with, they were able to engage with those who had been exposed to anti-vaccination propaganda (often emanating from the far-right) and challenge their views respectfully.
The methodology has been used elsewhere to explore the experiences of non-UK European residents in a post-Brexit landscape, empowering them and ensuring that they are listened to and their issues addressed by the council; it has also enabled conversations around nationalism and how to have national pride without this being divisive.
These approaches have been adopted by neighbouring councils, Stand Up To Racism, and as a mainstay of Nottingham’s hate crime strategy. Council officers have found that this work has provided them with opportunities to engage with specific groups across the city, enabling access to groups who may have otherwise struggled to be heard and ensuring a more rounded policy landscape for all residents.
An evaluation by Nottingham Trent University found that the training provided was successful in equipping facilitators with the knowledge, skills, tools and confidence to facilitate community conversations, and that these were being employed. Those attending sessions also said they had a better understanding of hate crime.
This programme seeks to address attitudes. By doing this successfully, there should be an impact on hate crime across the city over time, alongside a more resilient, cohesive community. Where specific issues are identified through engagement these can be escalated to Nottingham’s hate crime partnership and addressed through local tasking processes.
The reception from communities to ‘Let’s Talk’ has been overwhelming; communities feel that their past experiences of being divided, isolated and unheard have withered away and they have a voice once more. Those who have been through the training report that they have taken what they’ve learned and applied it to social situations outside of work, noting its success in bringing round people expressing intolerant notions.
How is the new approach being sustained?
With the end of both EU and Home Office funding and Nottingham City Council coming under financial pressures to disband its cohesion team, Let’s Talk is coming under review and is unlikely to be supported going forward.
However, both the Difficult Conversations and Women’s Voices groups are in the process of looking at constituting themselves as third sector organisations, which would enable them to access additional funding streams and continue this work. The next steps will include further exploration of innovative engagement, for example taking Difficult Conversations into facilities known to be frequented by those with far-right views.
Over 200 practitioners across Nottingham have retained the skills developed through the training and will continue to use these in through their roles. Nottinghamshire County Council, which neighbours Nottingham, has agreed to adopt the training methodology which will provide ongoing support for the process, and the Communities Inc organisation (who provided much of the training) still have a significant presence in the city and access to the resources and networks.
Despite the challenging financial circumstances there remains optimism that the programme will continue to deliver for the people of Nottingham in an organic way.
The key lesson reported is to find, develop and support a core group of people who believe in this approach and are consistent in how it is delivered. Local authorities and partners also need to be consistent in their own messaging and ensure than promises made to communities are kept.
Looking back, Nottingham’s project officers report that if they were repeating this work now, they would seek to push groups to become independent quicker – to support ongoing sustainability – and to have engaged local councillors more proactively across the piece.
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