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.


This last month, the New York Times released a podcast on the so-called Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham. The podcast is really good listening for anyone interested in the various issues that come into play when racist structures and ideologies come into contact with the petty disagreements of day-to-day life in institutions. What seems to be the driving force behind suspicions about Muslim leaders in schools during this ‘scandal’ was that there were latent prejudices about Pakistani Muslims in Birmingham that manifest themselves as abstract stories about terrorists being groomed in certain areas of Birmingham. Those abstract stories were just that: abstract. They represented strongly held beliefs, so when evidence (in this case, very weak evidence: a clearly inaccurate letter) appeared, it was much easier to believe that it because it fit with that abstract storyline with which people already were familiar. If you believe that immigrant communities are up to no good and plotting terrorism, it’s much easier to believe someone when they tell you that they have evidence of a terrorist plot.

In the stories I have been analysing so far, it’s struck me how easily people move between specific details of stories to how those stories represent the regular sorts of things that people in their lives do or did, or how those details represent the way that specific categories of people do things. It’s not just stereotyping and racism — it’s in everything people do to explain the world around them. Your father was very kind to you, and you can remember one specific time that he was particularly kind. Or the school that you went to was very strict and you can remember one time when they were particularly strict with your friend. These estimations and judgements seem to be tied to stories, and those stories, in their telling, also seem to be stories that people have told before. They aren’t ad hoc memories that appear for no reason — they are the stories that define how each individual sees the world. Hopefully, further investigation will reveal more about how exactly the process of storytelling becomes moral reasoning.

17 June: Save the Date

As a part of the project, Newman University is going to be hosting a Language and Religion Symposium on 17 June (Friday) in Birmingham. The event will feature academics, students, and practitioners talking about the role of language in religious experience and expression. The event will be a hybrid event, so you can attend online or in person. A full speaker list will be circulated in March.

Six months of Superdivercity

Today marks six months of work on this project, one-third of my time has now been completed. When I began, I wasn’t sure exactly how the different elements of the project would come together and how I would balance my desire to understand the work of community organising with gathering and analysing data about religious identity, and I wasn’t even sure it would be possible. Now, having worked for the last six months, I’m still not entirely sure how it does come together, but I have come to have a much better sense of how different communities of religious believers talk about the interactions within their communities and how they see themselves in the city, more generally.

This part of the project has really been focused on coming to understand how things work within the organisations in Citizens UK and to develop relationships with organisations around Bartley Green, where Newman University is located. To do this, I’ve been visiting religious and community organisations around the city, but particularly in Bartley Green, to understand better how the different organisations work together. I’ve visited many different mosques, churches, gurdwaras, and other religious and community organisations to hear people talk about the work that they are doing and how they see that work as integrated into the life of the community.

I’ve been really impressed with how people talk about themselves as religious believers in their communities and their interest in working with people from different backgrounds with different beliefs and practices. Everyone I’ve spoken to has had a similar sense that a part of living in a context with people of different faiths is the need to respect those other beliefs and treat everyone as they would like to be treated. It’s been truly inspiring, most of the time.

I’ve also been reflecting on the extent to which people represent themselves and their faith and their community in a particular way when a friendly researcher is asking them about how they get on with others in the community. I wonder if there is any way, in a project of this scope that has been set up in the way that it has, to hear anything but positivity. Of course, no one has told me anything that is untrue, far from it: people have been incredibly forthcoming and told me about many struggles and difficulties. But the stories are all, in some way, oriented toward a sense of how things should be. How people can work together and religious differences become less important in the light of shared values and community goals.

As a researcher, I’m also reflecting on how my initial thoughts simply show the belief I already hold from my previous research, something I’ve written about in many different ways: people position themselves and their beliefs in particular ways when they are asked about them in contexts that value the discussion of faith in a positive way. But there is more to think about and as I begin to look at my transcripts, and interview more and more people, I think I will become more aware of the ways that the complexities come up.

Gathering Data

After the initial rush of the project, and spending many useful weeks travelling around speaking to a variety of different people, there has been a noticeable slowing in the pace as I try to follow up with various people and arrange times for interviews. I have agreements in principle with many different people to get my interviews going, but finding times that work for everyone has been difficult so far. I remember this occurring in my project on diversity in church schools as well, that trying to get the last school interviews was much more difficult than the first three and we spent several months trying to work out an agreeable time. Of course, after the project is done, the month or two or three you waited seems insignificant. You can barely remember it.

While I am changing gears for the project, I am beginning to think about how I will analyse my data. One thing I am interested in how people understand their experiences in common sense ways. Like, if someone mistreats you, or treats you well, you’ll have some reason for why it happens. And the reasons you give will likely relate to what you believe about the world and the sorts of things you expect to happen to you. This is, of course, a problem when the common sense beliefs we have about the world are problematic in some way, like when they include some stereotypes or prejudices. I’m hoping as I gather stories about experiences, I am able to understand better how those stories start to become common sense. And if, in understanding how these stories turn into common sense narratives, we can better identify and disrupt the production of stereotypes. And from that, perhaps we can encourage people to tell new, positive stories about their experiences of people not exactly like themselves.

Talk at Anglia Ruskin University

I will be speaking about my research at ARU in a couple of weeks. Booking is essential to get the link!

AHSS Research Seminars
27 October 2021, 12:00-13:00
Researching Language and Religion in Different Contexts
Stephen Pihlaja

Religious faith and identity is often treated as a single, stable category. However, interaction between religious believers and people both in their own community and those who don’t share the same religious beliefs reveals that religious identity is more complex and beliefs can be articulated in different ways depending on the context. This presentation will focus on how discourse analysis can be used to track and trace positioning around religious belief and how constituent parts of religious belief shifts depending on the people interacting. The effects of social media and other mediated contexts on the presentation of belief will also be explored, with a focus on how linguistic methods can be used to understand the emergence of religious identities in interaction.

From notes to data

For the first several months of this project, I have been meeting people, taking walks, having meetings, and doing anything I can to expand my contacts past the most obvious connections I had known before the project started. I have been keeping notes on my interactions with everyone I meet. These notes have been my memories of things that have happened, or things people have told me. As I read write them, I have been trying to hard to stay as ‘objective’ as possible; that is, I’m trying to avoid evaluative language or write things that veer off into my own interpretations. But of course, simply remembering is a kind of implicit analysis. You can’t remember everything and what you remember is inevitably a complex mix of your own identity, the identity of the person you’re talking to, and the context of the conversation.

I have not decided yet what role these notes will play in my analysis, if they will simply act as a reference for me, or if I will try to do some more formal analysis of them. For now, I am moving into the more formal interviews for the project, with recordings and transcripts to analyse. The informal conversations, however, will play an important role in how I think about the interviews that I will now do and the things that these interviews will inevitably focus on. I’m confident that these conversations have been essential for the next step and for building the necessary background for showing me where the project should focus and where the analysis is needed.