Work that builds real community

16th May 2008 at 01:00
Thirteen years before the Home Office inquiry into the 2001 riots in towns across northern England - an inquiry that addressed measures needed to bring about social cohesion - an organisation in Cardiff was already actively working in this area
Thirteen years before the Home Office inquiry into the 2001 riots in towns across northern England - an inquiry that addressed measures needed to bring about social cohesion - an organisation in Cardiff was already actively working in this area.

Since 1988, Butetown History Arts Centre has been pursuing activities that engage the understanding of diversity and pre-empt disturbances on such a scale ever emerging within Wales.

The findings of the Home Office inquiry, and others set up to identify the root causes of the disturbances, all identified a common underlying theme; whether in respect of separate educational arrangements, community and voluntary bodies, employment, places of worship, language, social and cultural networks, many communities were operating on the basis of a series of parallel lives. Often, these lives did not seem to touch at any point, let alone overlap or promote meaningful interchanges.

As schools are increasingly seen as vehicles for promoting social cohesion in communities, the work of Butetown is a living example of good practice. The centre specialises in bringing communities together, using people's history, arts, heritage and education as means to combat social exclusion and help social cohesion.

Based in the old Tiger Bay area of Cardiff, now known as Cardiff Bay, the centre works with the multi-ethnic and multi-racial dockland communities, recent immigrants and refugees, and the new incoming, largely white, middle-class population.

Its work has attracted schools and other visitors from South Wales and beyond. In recent years it has extended its remit to encompass minorities throughout Wales, aiming to produce educational materials and exhibitions that can travel and be used widely in the promotion of understanding of diversity and social cohesion.

Although both Wales and Cardiff are often thought not to have a significant race problem, the history of ethnic minority groups, who settled in the dockland areas from the 1840s onwards, suggests otherwise. Negative racial, religious and ethnic stereotyping and social exclusion have been, and remain, significant features of their lives.

Tiger Bay has been subject to negative media coverage for 150 years, and the people of the area continue to suffer from this. Participation in education and employment testifies to the material effects on their lives of the prejudice and social exclusion to which they are subject.

More widely, Home Office statistics suggest that the number of reported racist incidents in North Wales rose by 20 per cent between 20045 and 20056, and in South Wales increased from 734 in 19989 to 1,719 in 20056, according to Ministry of Justice figures.

The basis of Butetown's work is the collection, preservation and display of the life histories of varied populations of Cardiff Bay and wider Wales. This work challenges racist, religious and ethnic stereotypes, instilling a sense of pride in a rich multi- cultural history, enabling understanding between communities and giving socially excluded ethnic minorities the skills, community pride and self-confidence to participate more fully in the wider society.

Butetown's educational work encompasses all levels, from primary through to higher education and lifelong learning. Visits from primary and secondary schools are welcome, in which issues linked to key stages 3, 4 and 5 syllabuses can be addressed. Centre staff can also visit schools.

Professor Chris Weedon is director of the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory at Cardiff University and chair of Butetown History Arts Centre.

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