Thursday, December 17, 2009

Parliament Session notes: Silicon Valley and the Partner City Process

[Saturday Programme reference]

Interfaith activity has been considerable in the UK for quite some while, so could it host a future Parliament? I hope so, but what would it take? At the very least more visibility to the Parliament's Council; this session ('Developing an interreligious community: how Silicon Valley used the Partner City Process') presented an opportunity to learn how in particular to foster constructive engagement in metropolitan areas. If the volume of notes is anything to go by, I certainly found this session edifying. I'll try to indicate salient points.

Imagine you feel inspired with the Parliament concept and the mission of its Council, which is inter alia to foster engagement with world and guiding institutions; to achieve a more just, peaceful and sustainable world, through learning, cooperation, dialogue, engaged action on issues of mutual concern across … cultural and natural boundaries with a particularly focus on Metropolitan areas.

So how do you sell this to the city (or metropolitan area) in question? The presenters from Silicon Valley phrased it like this: what partner city process engagement can make possible.

The general theme (which seems worth repeating constantly) is that of cooperation: to work with other guiding institutions, i.e. especially, as it turned out, secular civic institutions. The Council was evidently impressed with these initiatives as they highlight their approach as exemplary, giving impetus to further initiatives. Here in Melbourne, the Parliament launched a broad-based initiative to stay connected to engage in initiatives when we return home, inviting direct participation with the Council's work – both individuals and communities – particularly through a new social networking site, PeaceNext (more about this, I hope, later).

There are some prerequisites before the Parliament will look favourably upon a city's proposition. First, dialogue must already be in place. The Partner Cities attribution is to a large extent recognizing what should already be vibrant inter-religious movements who have put together structures to work with guiding institutions..

In this respect, the Parliament will look at the diversity of organisations and the way they are functioning within this dialogue. Wider awareness appears essential (and, I think, the UK is very aware of this factor), as captured by the term glocalisation, a term that I first heard in the late 90's (with the refrain, “think global, act local!), but I suspect it's been around for a lot longer than that; indeed, one of the first online initiatives that showed promise for developing countries was (on , which connected church communities around the world, addressing c ommon issues. But I digress. Here Roman Robertson stressed that globalisation is not monolithic and does not necessarily lead to homogenisation since it is realized in local settings.

One fact that sprung out at meet was [in San Jose, I think] that there's no majority ethnic group, with recent statistics showing 40% White, 30% Asian, 30% Hispanic. At present there is no UK city in this position (all have white majorities), but there are two or three, including Leicester, that on current trends will be in this position within 10 or 20 years. Civic leaders from these UK cities may do well to learn some lessons (if they're not doing so already), but given the current economic climate they probably should do this mainly via online conference facilities etc.

For religious communities, there's evident a need to tell their story as a means to help establish their identity in a foreign land; local paper profiles local stories and many congregations have histories, all helping to weave the rich tapestry of the area. Local government analyses often support these and I expect there's a lot tucked away in libraries and municipal offices. But how to capture this diversity in the public square; how to create a unified identity made up of local voices? Some illustrations were provided through visual statements in the form of art and sculpture. More academic initiatives included a “Carry the vision” conference promoting the principle of non-violent actions “one person at a time..”

Strategically, it seems sensible to observe and understand how the Parliament operates. Members of Silicon Valley attended the Barcelona Parliament and on returned organised an event modelled on the Parliament with representatives from different traditions, reducing large number into small groups, all leading back to one common purpose. Goals were clearly articulated in terms of local benefits, sense of community, increased social cohesion bringing business, civic authorities and others together. The role of the organising committee was to act as facilitators.

So what does the process make possible what wasn't before...? (The presenters referred to guidelines from Parliament; on how to do case study; the parameters for presentation, stressing the need for a representative group.) There was a very positive attitude to newcomers: rather than taking away a piece of the pie, each group brings new inspiration, resources, c.reativity etc – so the pie expands (this image was also conveyed at the Coalition meeting I attended before the Parliament).

It appears to galvanise efforts to train ourselves, on leadership, organisation and facilitation; to develop networks, and work within the civil structures to whom we show worthiness to be involved for the common good. Whilst it may already exist within many and between some interfaith groups (and this I know is the case in many UK cities) the communication outside these networks is often poor and lacking coordination. These have to be made more effective to be treated seriously.

Partnership is seen as the hook. Some examples were given, including “The Beautiful Day” - practical work to fix people's homes … Such initiatives raise visibility and a point is reached where faith groups understand the importance of interfaith. [If this can be properly realized, I sense the initiatives will become self-sustaining]. Gitish Shah recounted how this was put into effect with a Jain centre which came to realize the importance of wider participation, hosting interfaith forums at temple. (In the UK, it's much more unusual for SE Asian communities to get involved in this way, though some such gatherings do take place – e.g. a gather at a Thai temple in Kings Bromley. Furthermore, faith communities need to cooperate since if it's just one community working unilaterally, there may be a questionmark [whether it's a request for particular help or whatever] whereas coming together gives combined strength, amplified voice and eliminates competition.

Moreover, for the civic leaders, talking to a broader base gives leverage and enhances profile, particularly with global links to other metropolitan areas, who are doing similar work [thereby creating a para-network].

In conclusion, there was a threefold recommendation:

  • catch the vision
  • commit to enter the process - take back to community,region and share
  • reach out to Council of Parliament

In the UK, interfaith has featured very prominently in civil society during the past decade, with excellent coordination through the Interfaith Network for the UK, but when I asked one member of the Council perceived there to be actually too many interfaith groups! So the coordination needs to really well demonstrated.

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