How can co-ops bridge divided communities? Advice from Protection Approaches

In an increasingly divided world, what role do co-ops have to play in building strong, cohesive communities?

For many co-ops, it may feel like second nature to consider their role in bridging divides and building stronger communities where they operate. For others, a change in the local or wider context might illuminate the need for more focus on this area at any given time. Wherever different co-ops might be on this journey, there are pitfalls to avoid and tried and tested approaches that can be applied to this work.

One organisation with useful insight in this area is UK charity Protection Approaches.

The ultimate aim of the charity’s work is to prevent identity-based violence – that is, any act of violence perpetrated against someone because of an aspect of their identity. 

“To achieve that, really what we need is strong, resilient, just, kind, inclusive communities”, says Andy Fearn, co-executive director at Protection Approaches.

As part of his role, Fearn heads the charity’s UK Stronger Communities programmes. Fearn explains that this work is based on the understanding that the people in communities are likely to be the best placed to ensure those communities are strong, resilient, just, kind and inclusive, but might not have all the skills, tools and resources they need to do so.

This is where Protection Approaches comes in. Through the Stronger Communities programmes, the charity delivers training on topics such as community building and how to be an active bystander.

They also directly support communities to develop and lead on initiatives, for example, setting up a national helpline for southeast Asian communities facing hate crime. 

Related: How co-ops worked to heal divisions in Northern Ireland

“We’re in the process over the next year of handing that over entirely to full community leadership. But we worked with them to get it going because there was a recognition that there weren’t any organisations that had the skills and resources to be able to do that to start with,” explains Fearn.

For co-ops considering how to better connect with and strengthen the communities they are a part of, Fearn recommends this as a first step.

“The very first thing you could do is sit down and think about if there are people missing from your membership, or the wider community that engages regularly with whatever you’re doing. 

“And if there are people missing from that – people that we might see represented in our wider community – can we understand why they’re not engaged with us, why they’re not part of the co-op or why they’re not accessing whatever it is that we’re doing, and start to think of ways we can rectify that.”

Often, says Fearn, this is the point at which organisations decide to put on a community cohesion event. 

“People often think, oh, let’s do something to bridge divides, let’s do something to make sure our community is cohesive. So let’s think of an idea of something we can do and you know, they come up with an open day – fantastic, or a street party – fantastic. These are lovely things absolutely, but they miss so many of the other ways that work.”

Fearn advises that it’s actually more effective to think about how existing work can be adapted to help build stronger communities, rather than seeing community building as a separate activity to your co-op’s core work.

For example, if a co-op running a community sports club wanted to reach out to a certain group, rather than putting on an event to bring in members of that group, they could instead find out how the activities they are currently delivering could be adapted to better enable those groups to get involved.

This approach can also be used when considering how to support the development of relationships across different sections of a community.

Fearn shares an example of an organisation that helps people into work, who realised that there were some significant divides between certain groups in their community, and wanted to do something to rectify that. Because of their unique position around employment, they had existing relationships with these different groups.

“They changed the way they did the programming, so that it was focused on bringing those people together, talking to each other and sharing with each other.”

By providing the service that they were set up to deliver, but shifting the mode of delivery to a more collective one, they were able to bring disparate groups together through a common interest of access to employment.

Once they had people in the same room, the organisation used their CV workshops as a tool for relationship building between participants.

Fearn explains that instead of simply delivering one-to-one CV building sessions, “how much more meaningful it is, if instead of just doing that, you get them talking to each other, and sharing some of the reasons that they’re out of work or that they’re trying to seek work, or what their fears and hopes are”.

“So that’s just a really nice example of where it wasn’t, let’s come up with a completely new programme we can do that’s about bridging divides, but instead saying, actually, we already have the power to bridge divides in the work we’re doing. How can we change that work slightly?”

Another consideration for co-ops looking to bridge divides is the work that is already going on outside of the co-op.

“There are loads of organisations, individuals, groups out there doing brilliant things already to bridge divides in our communities, or to address the things that cause marginalisation”, says Fearn, suggesting that co-ops ask themselves:

“How could we as a co-op do something to support that work that’s already happening? How can we have a meaningful long term partnership, perhaps with a community organisation supporting a particular group that’s marginalised from our community, and make sure that ongoing, meaningful, mutually beneficial engagement is working for everyone?”

Asked if co-ops might hold a special place when it comes to community building, Fearn says: “I think they probably do”. 

He puts this down to the fact that co-ops are service driven rather than profit driven. 

“Where co-ops have that uniqueness is that…it’s not the making of the money that’s most important. It’s the creation of something [rather than purely making money]. This gives a greater chance to build in all those ways of bridging divides, and to create communities where marginalisation is less likely.”