Not Black & White: Bridging the citizen/authority gap

It was a treat to be working with West Midlands Police Small Heath neighbourhood team and the local community organisation Maandeeq last week at Birmingham City Football Club.

Thank you to delegates, public services and 3rd sector representatives – and especially Birmingham City Football Club for the lovely venue. And, not least, to Sgts Neil Loy and Rob James, Ayan Tifow of Maandeeq Community Engagement CIC and to Amina of Amsom Media Empire – the company name says it all.

This conference used Cooperative Learning activities to let various services (from NHS Mental health to Counter Terrorism Unit) present their case to small groups in turn, to get intimate face-time with members of the Somali community.

“…so much positive feedback from both those attending the event and from the presenters…”

– Police Sgt Neil Loy, Small Heath neighbourhood team

Responses were overwhelmingly positive from all sides (thanks for the hugs, Omar, look forward to working with you, inshallah). It was especially clear from my interviews with representatives afterwards that this format helped achieve deeper understanding of the communities they serve. Several noted that the intimate, small-group format meant questions were asked that would be unthinkable in a more conventional setup.

In fact, Offenders Management Team noted quite personal questions had been asked candidly. As for Somali delegates, their comments indicated that Talking with, rather than talking at, is the way to bridge the citizen/authority gap. No technique does this more elegantly than Cooperative Learning, perfectly designed for guided collaborative enquiry and knowledge sharing between peers.



Birmingham City Football Club 1

Two of the eight presenters; In the front, Offenders Management and in the background, NHS lines up to discuss mental health. Especially such sensitive subjects benefit from the small, familial group format. And no-one needs to feel shy about approaching a certain table: the tight control of the event means everyone meets everyone anyway.


Cooperative Learning and effective community outreach

Cooperative Learning balances the easy-going social aspect with achieving clear objectives and outcomes that will pay back the investment in time and money many times over.

The specific objectives in this workshop were:

  • Personal engagement/face-time with various services.
  • Building personal contacts and networks, and documenting these through sign-up forms for further networking.
  • Ensuring every attendee meets all services, not only those they may be superficially interested in.
  • In a practical way demonstrating the benefit of following rules and procedures for equality and empowerment, and tying this experience to democratic processess.
  • Understanding, through this practical demonstration, the personal duty upon each citizen to make the system work to mutual benefit. (I.e. the notion of rights & responsibilities).
  • Effective use of precious time for both presentation and Q&A.
  • Equal participation for all, including women
  • Securing adequate translator support in every situation.

All this is achieved solely through staging interaction through Cooperative Learning activities. (More about community building through CL and the Small Heath project).

“The feedback I am getting from everyone is ‘simply amazing’…”

– Ayan Tifow, Founder & Director of Maandeeq Somali Community Engagement & Chairperson of Birmingham Somali Network.


The Somali community in the UK is highly challenged. As one delegate dryly noted, “Though we are Muslims, we’re not in with the Asians, not black enough for the blacks, and too black for the whites”. The community is young with huge cultural gaps, especially related to the level of organisation and procedures of such complex societies as Britain, and a deep scepticism towards authorities based on experience. An example of a toxic combination is when Somali youngsters feel they are not welcome in the police force, because they are not aware of how to submit an application.

One of the key objectives was therefore to demonstrate, in a hands-on way, that rules and procedures may actually provide, rather than limit, empowerment. By not letting people rove freely between presenters, but keeping them organised in small (with one exception, ladies!) groups  it was possible for every individual to pitch in and get direct face-time. It also ensured that every attendee got to meet every represented service, to get an all-round view of what was in offer.


BCFC Slide 1

Introducing rules: A slide from introduction.  

An example of the importance of this ordered approach was a gentleman who came only to discuss housing, but instead expressed amazed that Offenders Management actually worked to help people back on track.

Only through collaboration and open enquiry can a successful, multi-ethnic society of active citizens be realised, and I remain fully convinced that Cooperative Learning, to children in schools and adults in the wider communities, will provide the scaffolding for this process. We have seen this in primary schools, where Year 5 pupils choose interactions based on task levels and group dynamics, we have seen it with Tertiary education, and we are now seeing it directly with community building.

My long term goal is to help such challenged  local communities activate internal resources to prevent crime, engage youth and support the new “Participatory Budgeting” community-lead spending decisions. The benefit to police and other official bodies hosting or partaking is the that community empowerment saves huge resources thanks to situational awareness and effective collaboration with stakeholders.

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