Including minority ethnic communities’ views and heritage in the built and natural environment
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Immigrant minority ethnic communities’ cultural heritage is not commonly well understood by the host society. Lack of awareness of different cultures can easily become self-perpetuating; orthodox approaches understand heritage only in terms of the majority community, so minorities feel their heritage is not a part of planning for heritage conservation, and so do not get involved, with the result that decision makers and planners remain ignorant of differences in cultural heritage.
In Swansea, the Black Environment Network (BEN) tackled this problem by working with African, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Filipino and Iraqi communities to gather information about their past, present and future in relation to where they live and the surrounding countryside of South Wales. The Who We Are project focused on stories of life and family history in the five countries of origin, aspects of living in Swansea today, the ways these communities contribute to the look and feel of the city, and their visions for Swansea’s culturally diverse future. It created an opportunity for these ethnic communities to celebrate their past as part of the city’s history, and to suggest ideas for improvements to Swansea’s buildings and natural environment.
Their work was supported by the Balchder Bro scheme (Welsh phrase for ‘Pride of Place’) – a two-year pilot project implemented in Wales to enable communities to protect and enhance their heritage. BEN developed a series of workshops to encourage communities to consider what was distinctive about their local environment and heritage and motivate others to appreciate and care for it. People shared photos and created audio recordings and text aimed at capturing and celebrating their ideas, skills and opinions. These were used to create a website in order to share aspects of cultural heritage with the wider community and to inform community planners, local authorities and other mainstream organizations about how to assist minority communities in realizing their vision for the city’s future.
Within a year, more than a hundred people took an active part in the project. In the longer term, BEN hopes to raise funds to employ a part-time worker from within the ethnic communities to build on the Who We Are project and encourage other communities to develop their own web pages and celebrate their unique cultural heritage and contribution to the future of their local built and natural environment.
The organization of workshops around diverse events, ranging from community festivals to picnics in the park, is a good way to bring together people from different communities, and train them in consultation skills so they can themselves conduct workshops within their own communities. People display genuine pride in their heritage and are keen to participate, sharing stories about their backgrounds. This is well reflected through the lively Who We Are website, which offers a variety of links to learn more about different ethnic festivals and customs, discover communities’ contributions to their built and natural environment, or download recipes and songs. A key skill in the implementation of such multicultural projects is the coordination efforts required to oversee the facilitation of workshops and the management of content uploaded to the website.The project has allowed a formerly marginalized section of Swansea’s population to suggest improvements they would like to see in their urban environment. For example, one person from the Bangladeshi community describes on the website the contrast between a very peaceful village back home with bamboo buildings, and the rather dull buildings and unsafe streets in some parts of present-day Swansea. She dreams of a cleaner city with fewer cars, more trees and safer places for women. Who We Are also provides a map of the area indicating the high points and low points in the built and natural environment, as identified by workshop participants. Ethnic communities are pleased when mainstream organizations show an interest in their culture. It builds confidence and feelings of inclusion, as they are able to make their voices heard for the future of their community and living environment.
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Black Environmental Network website: www.ben-network.org.uk
60 High Street