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Green Spaces Issue

Issue 3

This quarter's issue is "Multicultural interpretation of the environment".

The following article, "Who We Are" by Judy Ling Wong OBE, addresses the issue.

We are grateful to the Association of Heritage Interpretation for their permission to publish the article, which was "Who We Are", first published in their magazine Interpretation Journal. Volume 7. Summer 2002.


Interpreting cultural identity

Interpretation does not happen in a vacuum. It is set in the context of personal and organisational worldviews. The approach to interpretation sets boundaries for what we think and feel.

Who we all are

Who we are and what we can achieve depends on how we see ourselves against the enormous pressure of how others see us. Across the world, no community can feel this more than the Muslim community at present, subsequent to the events of September 11. But issues of social exclusion and cultural identity is not just for embattled minority groups. It is set within the urgency to move towards social cohesion as the basis for a democratic society, within which the work of social inclusion is only part. Threats to identity, among the supposedly `secure' and dominant mainstream population, is also deeply felt. Indeed, it is the clarifying of what cultural identity means in our time, for everyone, that will allow the multiplicity of minority identities.

In my vision of multiculturalism, the representation of cultural diversity is about interpreting the heritage and potential of the one human race, with each unique contemporary cultures defined as unique combinations of multicultural elements. Of necessity this exercise is set in the integration of neglected histories and shared histories.

The acceptance of a multi-cultural British history as fact changes how all of us see ourselves here in Britain and within the world, re-positioning minority cultural communities in the social history of contemporary society. This scenario finds its parallel in any country.

The inclusion of multi-cultural facets of sites and collections inevitably brings them onto the world stage. The population at large will come into contact with the reality of people who are the continuity of world communities. It is part of the process of the healing of a society that can contribute to the re-positioning of inter-cultural relationships in the world.

The scope of an inclusive heritage

To move interpretive initiatives towards examining the scope of an inclusive heritage, we may ask the following questions:

• What do we mean when we identify something as `local'? Is this a spatial definition? If so, what is the spatial limit of this concept?

• When does an ongoing foreign socio-cultural influence become local?

• How does someone qualify as a `local' person in relation to heritage?

Is it through how long one has been there? Or is it through simply being physically present in a locality? Is it through subscribing to the ways of a culturally dominant group? Or is it through being a person who has obvious influence on the evolution of local heritage?

• Is heritage a fixed quantity or is it re-assessed and re-constructed for each period?

A progressive civilised society consciously takes responsibility to assess and refine its values. Each culturally dynamic generation transforms its heritage in order to take us into a better future.

For example, often, on the subject of ritualised hunting, the words `tradition' and `culture' are used as if anything from the past is unquestionably valuable. In particular, certain forms such as hunting with dogs has recently come under enormous pressure to be banned. While recognising hunting with dogs as having been `traditional' for a long time, the manner in which it inflicts prolonged suffering and death is in contemporary terms no longer acceptable.

How do we value mythology that we no longer identify with? Is there a case for the creation of new mythology?

Is local heritage conceived as something which is embodied in concrete artifacts within a locality or the manipulated character of a landscape? Or, on the contrary, is it the unmanipulated character of the landscape? Is it considered as being also embodied in the living memory of local persons, including those who bring their heritage with them when they arrive?

Should a local heritage initiative take its inspiration from existing artifacts or landscapes, or seek to identify and celebrate meaningful heritage that is invisible through the creation of new artifacts?

Does the significance of heritage have anything to do with how old it is?

Who decides what is significant and meaningful local heritage?

Should a local heritage initiative involve everyone in a locality?

Putting interpretation and participation into place

Towards an inclusive expression of history and heritage in Britain

Significant ethnic communities are settled here in Britain because of the engagement of their countries of origin with Britain. Ethnic communities may be concentrated within the inner cities but each one of them is bound to every British person, even in the remotest parts of the countryside, through a common multi-cultural British history.

The time has come for ethnic communities to visibly express their presence in the British past and present. It is time for them to make their legitimate claim and situate themselves within the socio-cultural history and heritage of this country in order to advance from the position of the normal social strength of being rooted in a common history and heritage into the future.

The significant absence of ethnic groups from many episodes of official history means that they cannot begin to mould their presence and make their contribution towards an inclusive heritage. Many ethnic groups have not yet thought about the significance of inclusive history and heritage projects to their communities.

The work of BEN, constantly putting ethnic participation on the agenda, and the high contemporary status of social inclusion has created a climate for change.

Funding bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and organisations such as the National Trust, or the Council for National Parks, and initiatives such as the Local Heritage Initiative are now making important efforts to re-assess the pivotal concepts which draw the boundaries of participation for particular social groups.

It is exciting times. The tasks at hand are momentous.

A necessary sea change in key heritage institutions

Good examples of multi-cultural work and work involving ethnic communities do exist and are very important. However, if one looks across the environmental and heritage sector as a whole - the statutory and voluntary environmental organisations, museums and galleries, the countryside and leisure and recreation services of local authorities, or major funding bodies - social inclusion is haphazard. Access issues are enshrined in policy, but if you ask institutions and organistaions if their personnel have the skills to work effectively with ethnic communities, or try to look for focused and consistent positive action, you would be very disappointed.

It is time that those in power , sitting on the boards or management committees of environmental agencies, heritage institutions or leisure services, are asked to stand down if they are not committed to Equal Opportunities, because they are out of step with the contemporary world. They are damaging social progress. Working with disadvantaged and excluded groups is not about doing a favour to small groups of people. It is about working towards a vision of an equal society which we can all be proud of.

We are calling for strategic organisational awareness raising with the view to instigating a sea change in the positions of management boards and senior personnel, resulting in the necessary re-positioning of key heritage institutions:

Moving away from the domination of a mythical and exclusive mono-culture that is no longer relevant to the contemporary world

Filling the gap that is the fact of Britain's multi-cultural history and heritage

The recognition of the essential involvement of ethnic communities in filling the gap that is Britain's multi-cultural history and heritage and therefore the importance of working in partnership with ethnic groups.

Re-defining pivotal concepts in relation to participation in heritage by ethnic communities, and embodying the transformed concepts in policies and strategies.

The nature of the tasks at hand

It is now the time for ethnic communities to reach, beyond fear, towards framing the reality of our belonging in the environment all around us, with pride, with confidence, enveloped within the generosity of wishing to share what we have brought.

Heritage strikes at the heart of the validation of the historical relationship of the countries of origin of ethnic communities with Britain. It should confirm the legitimacy of our arrival as part of the web of Britishness across the globe. Heritage is the big picture against which everyone situates their personal reality. This paper is a call for ethnic communities to step into the big picture of heritage in order to complete it.

Action for change by heritage institutions

Things are changing but at the present time, special efforts still need to be made to enable ethnic groups to have the courage to undertake initiatives which make them more visible.

Government should, as part of their social inclusion policy, strategically enable the concrete expression of multi-cultural history and heritage. They should consider requiring key heritage institutions to undertake, as reparation , but also with joy at arriving at this point :

• Initiatives which aim to uncover the currently invisible multi-cultural aspects of local and national history and heritage.

• Initiatives which aim to encourage, support and assist ethnic communities in making connections with the multi-cultural aspects of local and national history and heritage.

• Initiatives which aim to encourage, support and assist ethnic communities in the creation of new artifacts which embody and celebrate cultural memory, and multi-cultural history and heritage in the urban and rural environment at large.

Initiatives which enable the population at large to see themselves positively in the context of Britain's multi-cultural history and heritage.

Stimulating new thinking and supporting ethnic participation

Many apparently vulnerable ethnic groups are repositories of enormous strength, which can be switched on through frameworks of empowerment. There needs to be focused investment in the development of ethnic groups:

• Invest resources to strengthen infrastructural ethnic minority organisations such as Black Environment Network (BEN) or the National Museum and Archives of Black History.

Key ethnic minority strategic organisations are small in number and scale. They are true survivors, with focused skills maximising the barest resources, set against years of lack of support from funders, society, and government. These highly efficient organisations and networks are the main actors in the new commitment to ethnic participation in heritage.

They can enable ethnic groups to:

- Set their agenda and represent their issues, concerns and wishes

- Pool ideas and join together as partnerships to take forward initiatives

- Support each other as part of a network

- Create a forum for debate

- Form a movement working for ethnic inclusion

They can be funded to undertake initiatives aimed at new audience creation for multi-cultural history and heritage, employing Developmental Officers to reach out to support ethnic communities to access and make links with multi-cultural history and heritage, stimulate new thinking and engage them in the production of relevant resources for intellectual access to heritage

Funding schemes can use such organisations as delivery mechanisms to encourage and support projects focused on cultural memory, multi-cultural history and heritage to come forward from ethnic groups

Parallel to this there needs to be investment which aims to shift the vision of British history and heritage within the mainstream population. Mainstream infrastrutural institutions - schools and universities, museums and other heritage organisations such as the National Trust should undertake to :

• Highlight the multi-cultural nature of history and heritage in Britain within the mainstream population

- Identify and integrate multi-cultural aspects of history and heritage into all publicity and resource materials whenever relevant

- Express the ownership of history and heritage by everyone through the use of positive images of its multi-cultural audience in publicity and resource materials

- Organise special events and programmes of activities highlighting the multi-cultural nature of heritage in Britain

• Strategically develop multi-cultural interpretation to enable intellectual access to cultural memory and multi-cultural history and heritage by everyone

See associated paper “Multi-cultural Interpretation and Access to Heritage” by Judy Ling Wong re the concept of multi-cultural interpretation

- Research multi-cultural aspects of heritage sites and collections of artifacts

- Undertake the multi-cultural interpretation of sites and collections of artifacts

• Undertake initiatives which enable physical access to multi-cultural heritage by everyone, and in particular by ethnic communities enabling them to catch up on lost time

- Undertake initiatives enabling physical access to multi-cultural heritage through the provision of transport, entry fees and programmes of activities for economically disadvantaged groups including ethnic groups

- Re-define significant catchment areas in the context of access strategy, according to the special significance which certain aspects of heritage sites or collections of artifacts may have for particular social or ethnic groups

• Undertake initiatives and produce resource materials which enable intellectual access to multi-cultural heritage by everyone, and in particular by ethnic communities with regard to aspects with cultural relevance

- Undertake initiatives creating new socially and culturally relevant resources to enable intellectual access to multi-cultural heritage by traditionally excluded groups including ethnic groups

- Involve relevant ethnic communities in the creation of resources relating to cultural memory, multi-cultural history and heritage

- Recognise the importance of the local presence of affordable facsimiles and replicas of particular artifacts for various social, cultural or ethnic groups

• Research, document and celebrate the cultural memory of ethnic communities and multi-cultural history and heritage associated with collections of artifacts, properties or localities

- Work in partnership with relevant ethnic groups to research cultural memory and multi-cultural history and heritage associated with particular properties or localities

- Create new artifacts in the built and natural environments of heritage properties to celebrate and mark the cultural memory of ethnic communities and multi-cultural heritage related to properties or localities.

It is not enough to look only to the past for landmarks and artifacts. For many excluded groups, the lack of these is in itself an expression of the denial of their role in heritage.

The powerful human urge to leave a mark or create meaningful artifacts in the landscape ranges from frivolous “I was here” graffiti, to the gravity of war memorials “Lest we forget”. ( Artifact - An object made by a human being - Concise Oxford Dictionary).

It is a natural human need to confirm one's historical presence through the minutiae of concrete elements that form our urban or rural environment. The absence of artifacts celebrating the role of ethnic communities in the settings of history and heritage within which we should be cradled has left us without vital points of reference in the environment.

- Create innovative projects through the imaginative use of landscape, properties and artifacts enabling ethnic groups to make meaningful links to their cultural memory and heritage.

A local heritage initiative ?

At the present time, the Countryside Agency is promoting its new funding scheme for England - the Local Heritage Initiative.

Without some probing of the key concepts driving such an initiative, it can easily become a force for the reinforcement of a mythical purist and mono-cultural English history and heritage.

To move interpretive initiatives towards examining the scope of an inclusive heritage, we may ask the following questions:

• What do we mean when we identify something as `local'? Is this a spatial definition? If so, what is the spatial limit of this concept?

• When does an ongoing foreign socio-cultural influence become local?

• How does someone qualify as a `local' person in relation to heritage?

Is it through how long one has been there? Or is it through simply being physically present in a locality? Is it through subscribing to the ways of a culturally dominant group? Or is it through being a person who has obvious influence on the evolution of local heritage?

• Is heritage a fixed quantity or is it re-assessed and re-constructed for each period?

A progressive civilised society consciously takes responsibility to assess and refine its values. Each culturally dynamic generation transforms its heritage in order to take us into a better future.

For example, often, on the subject of ritualised hunting, the words `tradition' and `culture' are used as if anything from the past is unquestionably valuable. In particular, certain forms such as hunting with dogs has recently come under enormous pressure to be banned. While recognising hunting with dogs as having been `traditional' for a long time, the manner in which it inflicts prolonged suffering and death is in contemporary terms no longer acceptable.

• How do we value mythology that we no longer identify with? Is there a case for the creation of new mythology?

• Is local heritage conceived as something which is embodied in concrete artifacts within a locality or the manipulated character of a landscape? Or, on the contrary, is it the unmanipulated character of the landscape? Is it considered as being also embodied in the living memory of local persons, including those who bring their heritage with them when they arrive?

• Should a local heritage initiative take its inspiration from existing artifacts or landscapes, or seek to identify and celebrate meaningful heritage that is invisible through the creation of new artifacts?

• Does the significance of heritage have anything to do with how old it is?

• Who decides what is significant and meaningful local heritage?

• Should a local heritage initiative involve everyone in a locality?

Multi-cultural participation and the contemporary world

The acceptance of a multi-cultural British history as fact changes how all of us see ourselves here in Britain and within the world, re-positioning ethnic communities in the social history of contemporary society.

The inclusion of ethnic groups in a local heritage initiative inevitably brings it onto the world stage. The population at large will come into contact with the reality of people who are the continuity of world communities. It is part of the process of the healing of a society that can contribute to the re-positioning of inter-cultural relationships in the world.

Collections of key articles and papers on ethnic environmental participation available from BEN

Ethnic Environmental Participation

Volume 1 ISBN No. 1 874444 16 1
including the articles “ Multi-cultural aspects of developing urban schoolgrounds” and “Ethnic identity and integration in action”

Ethnic Environmental Participation

Volume 2 ISBN No. 1 874444 41 2
including the paper “The social and cultural values of plants and landscapes”

“Multi-cultural Interpretation and Access to Heritage” by J.L. Wong. Commissioned by the Heritage Lottery Fund

BEN publications are free to BEN Network members.

This paper was written, as a contribution to the continuing debate on heritage participation, to coincide with the BEN Networking Conference in Birmingham March 2000.

Download article here


Guidance Paper 3

Organisational Capacity to work with Ethnic Groups around Cultural Identity
Black Environment Network - March'03

Action around cultural identity

Aspects for multicultural interpretation is covered in the paper “Who we are - Interpreting Cultural Identity”.

The main themes for action around cultural identity include:

  1. Putting into place new features and activities which recognise the presence of ethnic communities in the locality
  2. Making visible and promoting the multicultural history of the green space through interpretation and education
  3. Providing socially and culturally relevant activities specifically for particular ethnic communities as part of the green space's programme of activities
  4. Providing multicultural and inter-cultural activities which bring the mainstream community and ethnic groups together
  5. Enabling ethnic community groups to run their own programmes of activities in the green space

Successfully engaging with local ethnic communities

Involving ethnic groups in a range of actions around the recognition and expression of cultural identity in a green space is the most challenging areas of work in engaging with ethnic communities. It focuses our minds on the fact that any organisation new to working with ethnic communities needs to embrace organisational culture change and address organisational capacity to work effectively with ethnic groups.

Themes around addressing organisational culture change and organisational capacity include:

  1. Promoting cultural awareness across the organisation
  2. Promoting commitment to cultural equality at all levels of the organisation
  3. Identifying and putting into place the skills needed by organisational personnel
  4. Identifying and putting into place the time and resources needed to engage effectively with ethnic groups
  5. Opening up employment opportunities for ethnic groups in relation to green space
  6. Ethnic minority representation on advisory groups and other decision making structures

Addressing organisational culture change and organisational capacity

1. Promoting cultural awareness across the organisation

Cultural awareness lays down the essential basis for all involvement with ethnic communities. If the organisation is new to this work, expertise need to bought in to assist the organisation to map out its needs in relation to addressing cultural awareness and to gain the confidence to visualise and implement a programme of work which successfully engages with ethnic communities. Cultural awareness is as much about aspects of culture as about social and cultural needs which stem from the position of cultural minorities within society.

This can take various forms and proceed in different ways, including:

  • Needs assessment surveys, where experts are brought in to assist personnel at different levels of the organisation to explore and identify their needs, resulting in an action plan.
  • Various off the shelf forms of diversity training offered by different agencies.
  • Tailored awareness training, where an initial mapping of themes of need direct the design of awareness training sessions.
  • Learning at the coal face through encouraging organisational personnel to volunteer for ethnic community groups. Here the staff go without their own agenda but learn about and engage with the agenda of ethnic communities. Expert de-briefing of the experience is needed to enable staff to read and learn from their experience properly.
  • Seminars/events enabling contact and dialogue, e.g. a programme which invites members of various ethnic groups to make presentations about their communities' needs and aspirations, followed by facilitated dialogue. It is good practice to develop these with ethnic groups.

2. Promoting commitment to cultural equality at all levels of the organisation

Many organisations simplistically believe that commitment by staff working on the ground is enough. Commitment at all levels of the organisation is the basis for long term success:

  • Commitment at board level marks the direction of the organisation as a whole and informs the policy and strategy of the organisation.
  • Commitment at senior level ensures that implementation of ethnic involvement is driven from the highest level. Their awareness and understanding of the issues allow for the appropriate human and financial resources to be released. New work with ethnic groups must be properly and supported. Infrastructurally, working with ethnic groups should be written into job descriptions where appropriate, and funding for specific initiatives earmarked.
  • Commitment at middle management means that ground staff will get the support needed for their work. This is particularly important in the early stages when ground staff are working for their first breakthroughs. Committed middle management will also play the role of feeding back upwards through the organisation, giving senior personnel and the board a good understanding of both successes and emerging concerns which need to be addressed.
  • Commitment by staff responsible for the organisation's public image, and the delivery of information.
  • The need for commitment of project staff at ground level is obvious.

3. Identifying and putting into place the skills needed by organisational personnel

  • Properly resourced training and developmental support is vital. Everyone who has not worked with a range of ethnic groups need to acquire skills.
  • Employing someone from the local ethnic community may work to a limited extent because of the inside knowledge of a particular culture and community carries by the employee. But, persons from ethnic communities do not have an inborn skill to work with a range of different cultures any more than a person from the mainstream community. We all need to be trained and to learn the generic skills of how to assess cultural knowledge and to engage with different ethnic groups, finally winning the ultimate prize of the trust of many long neglected groups. For mainstream community members, training may include facilitating contact with ethnic groups and de-briefing the experience. For persons from ethnic groups, training may include addressing particular experiences of discrimination so that the necessary understanding and emotional distance from these experiences free them to work with clear objective views about issues relating to ethnicity.
  • Training for skills to work in a socially and culturally aware manner is the basis for effective work
  • Developmental support is also vital. Much of the initial training, done at the level of intellectual understanding, will not fully make sense until one is in the field. Additionally initial training cannot fully address the specific focus of the work of an organisation. It is only when one is engaging with ethnic groups that further areas of training need are brought to light. Continuing developmental support for staff new to this work builds their confidence quickly and helps them to solve problems head on with instant access to expertise and new learning. Developmental support can mean buying in a number of hours of telephone support to advise on situations arising or periodic de-briefing.

4. Identifying and putting into place the time and resources needed

All new initiatives should view their first outline work programmes as an indication of possible areas of work. For any organisation new to the field of ethnic environmental participation, periodic review and evaluation of progress is needed in order to regularly re-focus the work programme to ensure its success. Are the following adequate or are more resources needed ?

  • management support
  • personnel time
  • training and developmental support (hand-holding)
  • expert advice
  • facilitation of contact with ethnic groups
  • financing the above

If more resources are needed and can be found, the work programme may be expanded. If not, a longer timescale may be needed, perhaps with the initial objectives re-designed.

5. Opening up employment

Because of decades of neglect and rejection, many members of ethnic communities look inwards for what they would do for a living, drawing on a restricted range of jobs. Ethnic groups need to be introduced to the full range of jobs available. Young people in particular need to be able to aspire to new areas of endeavour. Opening up employment will the subject of another paper in this series.

6. Representation

Unless one is very lucky (and it can happen that someone comes forward immediately from an ethnic group), representation from ethnic communities on advisory groups and communities is the ultimate expression of success in the long process of nurturing interest, winning trust and building the capacity of ethnic groups to participate fully in decision making alongside everyone else.

Representation will be the subject of another paper in this series.

Useful Information

  • The article “Who we are - Interpreting Cultural Identity” appears under Issue 3 of this section - Green Space of the Month - on the BEN website. It is downloadable from the Resources Section as part of Ethnic Environmental Participation Volume 4, a BEN publication
  • There are funding bodies which will give grants for training which strengthens the organisation in its ability to engage with communities. These include the Baring Foundation's “Strengthening the Voluntary Sector scheme” www.baringfoundation.co.uk and Charities Aid Foundation's fund for consultancies aiding organisational development www.CAF-online.org. NCVO can help with identifying others www.ncvo-vol.org.uk. Freephone for information 0800 2 798 798
  • A computer programme called “Funderfinder” is really useful. www.funderfinder.org.uk It costs a voluntary group 150 to buy the software. Just type in the subject matter and the amount needed and it will print out possible funding sources. You do not need to buy your own. Many local authorities and libraries have this. Their website also have some useful free software in relation to finding funding.
  • Diversity UK Ltd. 01234 881 380 can advise on accessing a range of diversity and equality trainers and consultants
  • Training and consultancy Information pack on the BEN website www.ben-network.org.uk.
  • Training programmes of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations www.ncvo-vol.org.uk
  • Training programmes of the Community Development Foundation www.cdf.org.uk
  • Range of consultants with expertise in using participatory techniques to involve ethnic groups. Some of them will train others to use these techniques. NCVO can advise re contacts
  • Common Ground's ABC project - a springboard for involving any community group to discover and map the local distinctiveness of their local environment. www.commonground.org.uk
  • General reading on ethnic environmental participation - Ethnic Environmental Participation Volumes 1-4 on the BEN website in the Resources Section www.ben-network.org.uk

Download Guidance Paper 3

Green Spaces | Features



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