Meet Your Neighbours
Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council
Promoting interaction and understanding through inter-faith dialogue
What happens when you take a group of girls from different schools – one Muslim, one Roman Catholic and one secular – on a two-day trip to get to know one another? They talk.
In 2007, 18 teenage girls from three different schools – one Islamic, one Roman Catholic and one secular – left the comforts of their familiar surroundings for a residential weekend away in Darwen, Lancashire, where they spent two days getting to know one another. The aim? To bring girls from different backgrounds together to learn from each other, to engage with each other, to talk together about their different beliefs and cultural traditions; but most of all to discover the many things they had in common.
The “Meet Your Neighbours” program that brought these young people together was developed by Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council in a unique partnership with the Department for Communities and Local Government, Unison North West (a branch of the largest public sector union in the UK and Europe) and the Improvement and Development Agency.
Designed to bust myths, create understanding and build friendships across communities, the Meet Your Neighbours programme came out of a pioneering community forum, the 100 Voices Project, convened by Blackburn with Darwen after a 2006 report found Blackburn to be one of England’s most segregated cities. The borough has a large, established and growing Asian community and the highest proportion of Muslims (19 %) outside of London. Half of all schools are at least partly segregated on religious grounds.
City and community leaders learned that opinions are often shaped by misconceptions and stereotypes and that it is important that people from different background have the opportunity to meet. Open and honest dialogue builds understanding and relationships across perceived differences and, by focusing on shared experiences, interests and aspirations, it is possible to move beyond previously held preconceptions.
“Meet Your Neighbours” was designed to build bridges across faith groups through intercultural dialogue. Ice-breaking exercises got the girls to discuss their favourite things and where they hoped to be in ten years time. The teenagers discovered they had shared interests, such as music, and similar aspirations and ideals. The girls participated in team games, drama and art activities and had debates about cohesion and difference, as well as enjoying a celebratory group dinner. Two weeks after the trip they reunited to share the experiences with funders, teachers, school governors and parents. They were also encouraged to share what they had learned with their peers at school.
Reflecting on the program, some of the participants commented: “We all got on really well without spotting the differences”; “It has opened my eyes”; “I thought different, you know, about how Catholics were and how they would react but everyone was really nice.” Participants described how the experience had changed their perceptions and given them a greater awareness and understanding of other faiths and cultures.
The success of the project, and its capacity for fostering lasting inter-faith friendships, is evident in the fact that the girls who participated in 2007 initiated a reunion later that summer. The program was rolled out again in 2008, this time for 24 boys from four different schools. It was thought that boys would not take so well to a program which relies on social mixing and conversation; however, feedback was overwhelmingly positive. One boy commented, “I was surprised that many people could get along so easily, without different religions being a problem.”
The project produced a toolkit that can be used by other local authorities and has potential for building lasting links between schools. The strength of the “Meet Your Neighbours” program is summed up best by one of the participating teachers: “There is so much more that unites them than divides them.”
Making it Work for You:
- Teachers who act as ‘mentors’ rather than leaders create opportunities for students to open up and actively participate.
- When not inhibited by ‘correct’ answers or ‘sensible’ questions, students and young people are more likely to contribute to open, honest debate.
- Using an inclusive coaching style to introduce topics and activities allows debate to stem from pupils’ own curiosities.
- Take care that participants are students who will share what they have learned confidently with their peers on return.
For this Good Idea contact:
Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council
King William Street, Town Hall