Conference videos and images can be found here.
The 2021 National Social Cohesion and Inclusion Conference saw over 180 participants explore the various settings, approaches, methods and experiences that can assist Australia to move to higher levels of social cohesion and inclusion. The past year saw the global health crisis affect every facet of our society. While this brought about many challenges, it also provided the opportunity to reflect on our way of life. We have grown increasingly conscious of how interconnected our society is, yet the numerous challenges to social cohesion have been made increasingly visible.
The conference provided a chance to reflect on pressing questions that have arisen through the themes of Oneness, Diversity and Inclusion:
How does our heightened sense of interconnectedness find expression in our efforts to be a more inclusive and socially cohesive society?
How do we move from a mere acceptance of diversity toward harmonization of diverse values and perspectives?
How do we invite the participation of growing numbers in a collective conversation about who we are as a nation?
The first session was opened by The Honorable Natalie Ward, MLC, the New South Wales Minister for Multiculturalism followed by a keynote address by Pastor Ray Minniecon of the St. Johns Anglican Church and CEO of Buji Consultancies. He was joined in conversation with Ms Penny Taylor, Race Relations Researcher from the University of Tasmania and Ida Walker, Director of Public Discourse of the Australian Baha’i Community to further explore the themes of Oneness, Diversity and Inclusion given our new societal circumstances
The final session featured a panel discussion entitled “Creating spaces of constructive and unifying dialogue.” Panellists from the Australian Human Rights Commission, Multicultural NSW, Youth PoWR and the Fred Murray Community Centre were invited to share experiences. Their initiatives illustrated how the creation of spaces for constructive and unifying dialogue have impacted social cohesion from grassroots to national levels.
Key Insights and Contributions The conference opened with a Welcome to Country, by Yvonne Weldon a representative of the Local Metropolitan Land Council. As she paid her respects to the Indigenous elders past and present and welcomed participants from across the country to Gadigal lands, she spoke about the importance of inclusion and participation in strengthening social cohesion and invited participants to reflect on how these values are embedded in over 60,000 years of Aboriginal history and tradition: “Whether you come here by foot, air or water, our people include everyone. We don’t turn away...This is who we are and who we will continue to be. We are all the fabric of this land, woven together with all our culturally rich differences, and all of us must work together to build a cohesive, inclusive and harmonious society.”
The Honorable Natalie Ward shared that in her role as Minister for Multiculturalism she readily recognized the importance and benefits of diversity and its contribution to enriching our way of life. This was particularly notable in the resilience and countless acts of unity shown across the country as diverse peoples worked together to respond to the global health crisis. She also thanked the Australian Baha’i Community for its role in contributing to the diversity and inclusion in the state noting that, “The Baha’i community plays a valuable and much-apricated role in fostering this cross-cultural friendship.”
In his keynote Pastor Ray Minniecon spoke on the principle of oneness and the values of inclusion and diversity, with a focus on an Indigenous experience that can bring a new understanding of these concepts. Uncle Ray noted how Indigenous approaches to reconciliation, such as those captured in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, can serve as a model for the application of these principles while addressing challenges of exclusion and disenfranchisement. Such approaches invite a collective and inclusive exploration of our core values as a nation. Referring to the implications of the concept of oneness and reconciliation on our approaches to participation and the interactions amongst peoples, he said, “First and foremost, let us be truth-tellers. We’ve got to speak to each other with faith, hope and love. We can’t approach each other with a deficit mentality. We want to build this future with everyone.”
Pastor Ray and Ms Penny Taylor explored the inherent interconnected and interdependent nature of our society, which become readily apparent during the global health crisis. They reflected how this heightened consciousness can help to shape a higher vision for social cohesion in Australia. Ms Taylor shared the need to see society as one common whole and all groups of society as a part of that common whole: “when we come together, we make up something that is greater than the sum of its parts.” She shared the analogy of the human body: “Each of these cells [in the human body] has a contribution to make to the wellbeing and well-functioning of the body, and each of these cells has to receive everything it needs from the body to make that contribution and to be a healthy cell. If any of these cells are deprived of what they need to be a healthy cell and to make their fullest contribution, then the body as a whole is disadvantaged.”
During the panel discussion, participants shared insights from experience and built upon the ideas shared by other panellists. Ida Walker, Director of Public Discourse of the Australian Baha’i Community, noted that creating spaces of consultation that inform decision making and action will require movement beyond contemporary trends. Such spaces, “don’t have to be formed in the realm of debate, or [be limited to] those who are the loudest speakers, or those who are the most charismatic, or those who are experts, or those who know. [Consultative] spaces bring together, equalize and harmonize many thoughts.”
Speaking about the important role that consultative spaces play in strengthening social cohesion and inclusion Ryan Epondulan, Youth and Networking Coordinator for Youth PoWR, shared such spaces invite participation and “give voice and opportunities to people to share their ideas, to share their experiences and to share their context.” He referred to the important role that sincere listening plays in allowing space to “uncover hidden gems of knowledge that we didn’t know before.”
Consultative spaces should also have as their goal the desire to strengthen unity amongst their participants and to reach a common understanding together shared Mateen Navidi, Project Coordinator of the Fred Murray Community Centre. From his experience with community consultations, participants cannot merely, “agree to disagree. To actually strengthen unity and to reach common understanding requires people to want to build that together.” Participants need to be helped to approach consultation this way, looking at how a space is framed and how they are prepared to attend. He went on to share that achieving such common understanding requires participants and facilitators to build the capacity to “find points of unity that everyone can coalesce together around.”
Jospeh La Posta, CEO of Multicultural NSW, shared their experience with the ongoing Religious Communities Forum. He noted that the diverse and differing views that people share should not be approached through the lens of right and wrong, nor should they be used to define an individual. All have to be okay with diverse views being expressed and understand, “that is just their view on that matter, and then we need to go and ask ‘I wonder why you think that?’” to find out where such perspectives come from. He also shared that during the pandemic Multicultural NSW saw that the unifying relationships built among members of the Religious Communities Forum greatly assisted the collaborative response of the government and diverse communities during the crisis.
When consultative spaces are sincere about listening and incorporating insights and building on the perspectives of others, wholehearted and constructive participation from more groups in these spaces increases. Dr Maria Koleth and Rosalie Atei, Policy Officers at the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Anti-Discrimination Team, noted this from their experience with the many consultative spaces informing the National Anti-Racism Framework. They also shared that consultation with all participants, at all stages, was very important to the development of their project. Being open to shaping and framing their consultative spaces in diverse ways to suit the different needs of those that were attending were significant factors in creating an environment where every participant felt they could contribute meaningfully.
The two sessions were followed by breakout groups where participants shared insights from their experiences on the topics explored to help shape further action and refine current endeavours. This allowed participants to learn from each other's experiences, ideas and questions. Participants were invited to consider how they might apply insights obtained during the conference to their professional fields, organizations, community or projects.