Perspective: Social Cohesion & Inclusion Conference -
An opportunity to strengthen collective resolve
By Ida Walker
On the 8th of November 2019, some 120 individuals gathered in Sydney for the ‘Social Cohesion and Inclusion National Conference’. Hosted by the Baha'i community and held at the Harbour View Hotel in North Sydney, the one-day conference brought together academics, faith leaders, representatives of government and civil society, artists and many more to discuss the importance of fostering a cohesive and inclusive nation. The participants represented the great diversity of the human family that call Australia home - men and women of different ethnic and national backgrounds from cities and towns across the country.
The conference's plenary sessions included presentations and panel discussions with leading thinkers and practitioners, including social researcher and Australian author Hugh Mackay AO, Scanlon Foundation CEO Anthea Hancocks, and UTS professor of journalism and former ABC journalist Monica Attard OAM. All sessions were designed to be interactive and participatory with increased time allocated for Q&As with presenters and small group discussions where all conference participants were involved in contributing their ideas on themes and practical steps related to social cohesion.
This is a dynamic time for our national community. Many of our long-held norms and structures are in a state of fluidity and change, with many feeling we are going through a time of disruption or transition. Hugh Mackay AO noted in his keynote address, “We are becoming a more socially fragmented society than we have ever been. This is reshaping our society and putting pressure on the stability and cohesiveness of local neighbourhoods and communities.” He further commented, “The more we focus on one aspect of our identity, the more likely we are to conflict with those of a different identity. These identities are crucial to our sense of who we are, but we also have to look more deeply and see that beneath these identities, we are all human.”
The conference allowed all to pause, listen, reflect – a mode of operation for which we don’t often have time – and to analyse the progress and strength of social cohesion in Australia and to consider the principles and convictions which shape a cohesive society and the steps we can take to move forward together. A wide range of themes made visible those concepts at the heart of creating a socially cohesive country – the need to build a compassionate society where we do not lose the ability to see ourselves as one; having a vision to guide our path forward and to take courageous steps; deepening our understanding of Indigenous values and the richness that its peoples bring to the conversation on inclusion; the ways in which the media can either bring us closer together or widen the fissures in society; the glimmerings of hope from grassroots initiatives and the insights gained which can be applied to current and new community projects; and the indispensable role of consultation and dialogue in deepening understanding and unifying the country. A session with the objective to “Create an Inclusive Narrative” enabled participants to learn from diverse perspectives during roundtable discussions. Professor Asmi Wood, Interim Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at ANU, encouraged everyone to “…ask what kind of faith the Indigenous people of this land held, and to learn from them… how they lived, what they did, what allowed them to survive here for 80,000 years, and try to understand them based on truth,” as a simple and tangible step forward.
“Social cohesion is a process, we have to have a vision for tomorrow and beyond”, commented Anthea Hancocks in her address to the conference. She advocated a positive approach that draws on the strengths everyone brings to society: “Our strengths are what will carry us forward and we need to build on them.” Fortunately, there seems to be a surge in activity to address social fragmentation in recent years from an increasing number of organisations, forums, conferences, media outlets and literature.
In his closing remarks, Dr Brian Adams, Director of the Centre for Interfaith and Cultural Dialogue at Griffith University, posed the question, “Are we, as a nation, falling or flying?” He noted both experiences give the same sensation, but when we choose to fly we are clear about our destination and the path to get there. How much is every individual, community group and institution consciously creating a socially inclusive and cohesive country for the future?
Speaking with the conference participants throughout the day, it was clear many came with common aspirations: to build a society founded on truthfulness, justice and freedom from oppression; to serve humanity with sincerity, generosity, compassion and love; to strengthen unity; and to lay the foundations of fellowship and collaboration. These are concepts and ideas that have for all time breathed a spirit of hope into the world. The conference not only shed light on new ways of thinking about our common humanity and new approaches to creating an inclusive society; it also strengthened our collective resolve to strive, in the face of both victory and setbacks, and to remain ever hopeful of the limitless capacity in the people of our nation.
Ida Walker is the Director of Public Discourse for the Office of External Affairs of the Australian Baha'i Community.
The Australian Bahá’í Community collaborates with a number of people to help develop contributions to thinking around issues of social concern. This article represents some of the thinking that is helping to inform the work of our community and its participation in Australian public discourses. This is not a position paper or official statement from the Bahá’í community, but rather a set of reflections on an event that draws insight from the Bahá’í teachings and the experience of the community as we seek to apply them to the betterment of society. Further thoughts or comments on this paper can be addressed to: firstname.lastname@example.org