Talking about beliefs

A key part of this project has been finding a way to communicate the findings in a simple and clear way. I’m really happy to everyone who gave feedback about the findings that led to this infographic. I’m really excited to finally be able to share this and would like to make it available to anyone who would like.

I have ordered 30 posters and 1400 postcards to be distributed in places where people might benefit from this message. If you would like to receive a poster to display, or any postcards, please use this form.

Presenting the project

I will be speaking to the Aston Stylistics Research Group at the beginning of next month (1 Dec, Thursday, at 16:00 UCT), as the project comes to a close. The talk will be online, so all are welcome! The talk is called ‘In a bit of a muddle’: Positioning and storylines in talk about religious identity and here is the abstract:

This talk focuses on religious identity in talk about community life in Birmingham, particularly in contexts where people of different religious beliefs are regularly in contact with one another. Drawing on interviews and fieldwork undertaken during an 18-month, AHRC leadership fellowship entitled ‘Language and Religion in the Superdiverse city’, I will discuss how self and other positioning emerges in talk about religious identity and how these positionings draw on storylines about different religions and ways of being religious in the contemporary world. Analysis will show religious identity is constructed using categories, particularly in contrast and comparison to other categories, and how the use and understanding of those categories can shift depending on contextual factors. I will argue that a more dynamic understanding of religious identity has consequences for how religious belief is understood in society and how people of different religious faiths and backgrounds come to understand one another and people of no faith in diverse settings.

Writing up

The project has begun to move on to its next phase, where I need to start to write up my findings in several different outputs. The plan for is to write several articles based on the project one focused on some theory about narrative I’ve been developing from my data, an article about the construction of identity in the discourse about religious belief, and an additional article that’s still not determined. I’m also thinking about working on a (short) book that’s limited to the project and the findings, and a longer, more extensive book called Religious Belief and Discourse pulling together some of my larger thoughts about faith as it relates to Discourse. Finally, I’m going to be working on an infographic based on the findings for sharing with the institutions and people that have been involved in the project so far.

There is a challenge, of course, in doing this sort of writing as you try to present your work to both academic and general audiences. There’s no point in just producing a bunch of writing to be stuck in a library and read by a few dozen academics. A key part of the project has included working with community organisations and talking to leaders about what they do in their communities, but as I have been working at boiling this down to some key findings, it’s not clear to me yet, how best to communicate these findings and, indeed, if I have anything worthwhile to say at all. What seems most clear to me is that deciding what is useful to share requires more conversations with people who don’t share the same language as me about data and analysis and impact, but people who work in the real world of community engagement and know how best to speak to the audiences I want to reach.

Reflections on interviews

As I sat in a conference a couple of weeks ago, reflecting on the time I’ve spent over the last year gathering data, I was suddenly filled with a strange panicked thought: why did I interview my participants? The initial answer is obvious: because that’s what you do when you’re trying to find things out about people and what they think — how else are you supposed to know if you don’t ask them? The data I’ve gathered has been more or less what I needed. People have told me about their experiences and as I’ve analysed the data, patterns are starting to emerge in how people talk about their experiences and there have been commonalities that are worth noting.

At the same time, the panic I felt, was the result of wondering, but what if people just told me things that were limited to what I asked about. What if there was something else that I needed to investigate, something beyond the limited questions that I asked and much more important than whatever it was I asked about.

This panic passed relatively quickly as I thought about it more: I had spent a lot of time with people just chatting, visiting them in their organisations and places of worship, having cups of coffee and tea with them, reading the literature, reflecting on my own experiences living in the city for eight and half years. Of course, there would always be limits to the data I collected, but the questions I asked were oriented toward the things I was investigating and the answers have revealed important and noteworthy findings.

But I do still wonder if I’ve put too much focus on the interviews as ‘data’ because they are something concrete. Unlike my notes, I treat them as more objective in some way, like they have a kind of truth that’s more tangible. I wonder what other data I could have collected, and what other things I might collect when I expand this project in the future: the recordings of worship services or websites or communications between people in a community. The interview transcripts are certainly not bad and any kind of data that is collected is oriented towards the collector in some way. There’s no magic reality where the researcher can be a kind of Emersonian transparent eyeball perceiving the world. That said, I think it’s important to treat these transcripts as only one part of the project and go back to those original notes I made when I met with people informally and give them another look in light of what I know now at the end of the project.

Are you welcome?

The Mormon church in Harborne, which opened up as a vaccination centre last year, has a sign on the front that says ‘Vistors Welcome’. I have never been to a Mormon church before and have been thinking about attending a service there if I have a free Sunday morning one day. I’ve wondered though if I actually am welcome, if I can just rock up in my normal street clothes and take part — that’s the funny thing about language, sometimes when you say something, people might think the exact opposite thing. If you’re saying everyone’s welcome, it suggests that some people must think that they’re not welcome, and they probably have a reason for thinking that.

It’s a difficult issue when it comes to religious faith: on whose terms are you welcome and how can you change perceptions when people don’t feel welcome. I first understood the power of welcome in Islam when I went to Istanbul with my family in 2011. Everyone in Istanbul was kind to us and I initially was incredibly uncomfortable: strangers picking up my children, the street sweeper telling me and my wife what a great mix our kids were. But after the initial shock, we were overwhelmed with how much genuine love was shown by everyone. I remember saying at the time that if only you could get the most hardcore anti-Muslim racist in the States and take them to Istanbul, if they could have some ice cream and Turkish Delight and wander in the markets, there would be no way they could stay racist. How could you hate Muslims when you felt that sort of love from everyone around you.

Last Friday, I attended the University of Birmingham’s community Iftar, one of the things I have most been looking forward to since Covid shut it down for two years. I didn’t go with anyone, and after the speeches in the Great Hall were done, I wandered outside to the tarps put out on the Chancellor’s Court, under the lights strung up and Old Joe, and sat by myself. In a couple of minutes, two other men, who didn’t know each other or me, and who had both come alone, sat with me, and we broke the fast together, and they invited me to come pray with them. After the prayers, we ate and talked about our lives and the challenges of living a meaningful life. It was completely serendipitous and true display of Islam as I understand it, where people of all different walks of life sit and share food together.

I left to walk home and wondered again about welcome, thinking these days not about American racists, but other people I would have loved to have seen at the Iftar. I had felt an overwhelming feeling of welcome, of course, but then again I’m a cis-gender, straight, white man: would I have felt the same way if I was gay and with my partner? I could ask the same question about St Peters, the local Anglican church that I attend as a hopeful atheist: the doors are open, and anyone is welcome, but not everyone feels welcome. Welcome is, of course, something that must be both offered and felt. I love the language of inter-religious dialogue, the focus on building bridges and finding common ground, but I wonder if it simplifies the more difficult things that we need to talk about. We say all are welcome, but does everyone feel welcome. Welcome is something you need to pursue, not just offer, and it’s probably going to require everyone being a little bit (or a lot) uncomfortable.

The power to compel change

This last week, I was away at Citizens UK‘s six-day residential leadership course, hosted this year by The Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham. The course is accredited by my very own Newman University with an award of a Certificate in Community Leadership. I did Citizens’ three-day training online last year and was really eager to spend more time learning about how community organising works. It was an intense time of personal and professional growth and vulnerability with some 50 other people, almost all of whom I had meaningful conversations with over the course of the week. There was so much that happened that it’s impossible to sum it up in a succinct way — suffice to say if you want to learn about community and relational leadership, this course is definitely worth your time. For me, though, there were three main takeaways:

  1. You only get as much justice as you have the power to compel. This quote from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides was a key part of the learning from the very beginning, as we looked at how power works in society. An important part of community organising is power analysis: looking at where power sits in different organisations and how changes can be made by compelling people with power to act. This is a messy, pragmatic process that doesn’t suit idealogues well: you almost always have to compromise to win change. Justice is possible, but you can’t get justice by simply having the best, rightest beliefs. You have to be willing to work in increments towards your goals.
  2. People act in their own self-interest, and if you want to make change, you have to understand the self-interest of the people you want to organise. Community organising is built on conversations we call one-to-ones, where people talk about who they are and what they want. By understanding what people in a community want and how they see themselves, organisers and leaders can act in the interest of the community and also have the broad support of that community, because they are asking people to act in the direction of the change the community wants.
  3. Broad changes require broad support, and broad support requires broad-based organising. On Wednesday, we took a coach to London to support an action on Parliament Square where community organisers, activists, and workers met together to call for the government to pay social care workers the real living wage in England. MPs came out to meet us and we had an assembly in Methodist Central Hall in Westminster with nearly 400 people. Looking around the assembly, you could get a sense of how diverse civil society is in the UK. Seeing broad-based community organising in action, and people come together in an organised way and demand change was incredibly inspiring. While we haven’t one this campaign yet, you can see how we get there, by growing the base of the movement through specific, targeted actions on the people whose minds we need to change. The more people we have standing with us, the easier it is to speak loudly enough to be heard.

Learning by teaching

This past weekend Citizens UK hosted 15 incredible young leaders for a day’s training about leadership at Aston University. The students were really incredible and did an excellent job of engaging with the content and thinking together about how to win change and strengthen institutions, the core focus of Citizens UK’s work. As a part of the training, I spoke about the importance of one-to-one conversations and why we think they’re so important in community organising, both to understand other people and to articulate our own values. One-to-one conversations are about building public relationships between people and to better understand the self-interest of people within a community or organisation or institution.

I have had many one-to-ones over the last year, as I’ve been working in Bartley Green to expand and develop our organising capacity here. I know what I’ve been doing in one way, but getting the chance to talk about it and teach it to a new group of people really impressed on me how you don’t ever really know anything for yourself until you teach it to someone else. Speaking about the power of one-to-ones I was able to say something I believe strongly but had never really articulated: that people in our lives will only be as vulnerable as we are. If we want to have meaningful relationships where people open up and share what’s important in their lives, we have to be willing to do the same ourselves and be willing to be vulnerable when other people are not. Everything is complicated by power structures, our own positions and how people see us, and whether people we interact with are interested in engaging with us. The starting point, however, always needs to be a willingness to who our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and that is easier said than done.

Take me to your leader

In this project, I’ve quite often found myself looking for leaders in the wrong places. You think leaders are easy to identify — they have titles, surely, and offices and email addresses on webpages. Those people are, of course, sometimes very effective leaders and can tell you a lot about their organisations and the people in their community. Many times, however, the people that are actually leading or influencing or changing minds in a community are not out in the front and not speaking down from some high position. They’re grandmothers who are taking grandkids to school every day and having a chat with everyone at the gate. They’re the people making sure that the church roof has been checked after a bad storm. They’re the retired Auntie that you wouldn’t take much notice of because she doesn’t try to get noticed, but knows everyone in the mosque and everything going on.

It’s really hard to fail in community organising, I’ve found so far. You only feel like you fail when you’re trying to do something that the community doesn’t actually want to do, or is your priority, the thing that you think everyone should be doing. This rarely works, but even if you could make it happen, it’s not actually community organising. Community organising requires the people in the community saying what they want and need, and leading to make those changes happen. The organisers stand where they need to stand to make that happen: sometimes it’s at the front of the group, of course, but sometimes it’s at the back. Or the side. Or the middle. Every day I work on this project I’m reminded that what I think people need, or what I think they should be doing, is never right unless it is informed by conversations with people, conversations where I listen to them, and their stories of struggle and success. When I can listen, I can start to see where things are actually going and where I fit in.