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  • Australian Baha'i

Social Cohesion & Inclusion Conference - - Summary

On 16-20 November 2020, some 220 participants joined a national conference on social cohesion and inclusion hosted by the Australian Baha’i Community. The conference explored the approaches and experiences crucial to building a more socially cohesive and inclusive country in the years ahead. It was designed to be a space where those concerned with the progress of the country could come together to deliberate, reflect on action, and share ideas. It was held online with daily 90-minute sessions over five days.

The conference opened with a keynote address by Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC, Governor of New South Wales. Additional presentations were offered throughout the week by Dr Anne Aly, Member of the House of Representatives, Dr Brian Adams, Director for the Centre of Interfaith and Cultural Dialogue at Griffith University, Rev Tim Costello AO, Chair of the Community Council of Australia, and Khayshie Tilak Ramesh, Youth Commissioner at the Victorian Multicultural Commission.

The conference also included two panel discussions: one dedicated to exploring pathways for action and the other focusing on social cohesion and the future that we want. The panelists came from diverse backgrounds and fields, including Indigenous, migrant, religious, education, media and neighborhood experiences.

The opening session featured the launch of the Creating an Inclusive Narrative publication. This document is the culmination of a series of roundtables held across the country over the past year, hosted by the Office of External Affairs of the Australian Baha’i Community. It captures the insights and experience distilled from hundreds of participants—including government officials, representatives of civil society organisations, journalists and many other social actors—across all states and territories.

The document conveys the vision, hopes and aspirations of those Australians who were engaged in this process, in seeking to foster a more socially cohesive country. It describes our past and current reality while also offering a vision of the kind of Australian society participants hope will be built in the years ahead. The themes contained in the document, including suggested pathways for action and two concept papers on ‘Consultation’ and ‘Diversity and Oneness’ which helped to frame the direction of the conference.

Key Insights and Contributions

In the opening session of the conference, the Governor of New South Wales shared her reflections on the Creating an Inclusive Narrative project, while speaking to the important role that government and institutions can play in strengthening relationships among citizens. “The inclusivity of the discussions that led to the excellent Bahá’í document Creating an Inclusive Narrative”, she said, “is in itself an excellent example of an institution taking the time and the steps to engage in a multi-level process of discourse with people of diverse backgrounds, genders, abilities and disabilities, culture and faiths.”

Ms Ida Walker, Director of Public Discourse of the Australian Baha’i Community, explained that the experience of developing this publication revealed the challenge to finding common ground is not a lack of shared values, but rather that there is a lack of spaces where people can come to know one another at a deeper level. “The problems we are experiencing cannot be solved by one group for another,” she said. “We see so much capacity in the country that can be released simply by providing spaces where shared values and vision can be fostered and translated into action. Many people, by being part of the round-table process, have strengthened their resolve to contribute to society.” The conference was a continuation of this consultative process, where the insights and ideas brought to light in the roundtables could be discussed further, to strengthen vision and resolve over the coming years.

During the opening session Dr Adams highlighted that, in order to harness the power of diversity, we need to move beyond tolerance to a new type of relationship between peoples, one built on respect and appreciation. “To address the problems we are facing, to thrive in the global conditions in which we now live, we should move from a foundation of tolerance of different views, to a foundation of respect of different views, that we not only accept as valid, but learn to value them as the contributions of diversity.”

Looking at the impact of the global health pandemic on social cohesion in Australia, Dr Anne Aly noted that the conception of a common humanityenshrined in the quote from the Baha’i Faith, “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens”has actually been strengthened as our country has rallied together in response to COVID-19. “I think that’s the starting point for social cohesion: to see ourselves all as equal citizens of a world that goes beyond national borders, that goes beyond the differences of race, the differences of religion, the differences of social or economic status,” she said.

Dr Aly also drew on insights from academic literature to explore how new conceptions of social cohesion can more broadly permeate society. “Much like how we cannot consider peace to merely be the absence of war, so too social cohesion cannot merely be considered the absence of discord or disunity within a society.” She further explained that social cohesion should not be treated as a siloed policy area, but that all policies should contribute to a more cohesive society.

During the session dedicated to overcoming social and economic inequalities Ms. Kayshie Tilak Ramseh spoke to the need for inclusive participation in consultative spaces. She emphasised specifically the participation of those populations most impacted by social and economic inequalities in the consultative and decision making process. “People understand that consultation is the way to go. But I think there is a whole other uplifting that can happen when we empower and build capacity, but also move out of the way for our young people and for different diverse cohorts to move forward and actually take a seat at decision making tables, rather than creating a whole new table for them...we can invest in the very people who will know [more about] the solutions from the get-go and put them at the table itself... And we need to reach out and find them, because it's hard for them to reach out and find us.”

In the final panel looking at the future we want for our country, Pastor Ray Minniecon spoke about the importance of history in helping to give us a vision of where we want to go. “The moment we turn our back on history we lose ourselves, we’re lost...Walking backwards into the future I think is one of the things that helps us to know where we have come from, in order to give us hope for where we are going and can inform the decisions that we make.”

He spoke of the important lessons the past can teach us, lessons captured in the lived experience of those that came before us and which need to be a part of any conversation for the future. Ms Ida Walker shared an example of this, highlighting that the participation in consultative spaces by those that have experienced various forms of injustice in the past will help us to better understand injustice as a whole; how such injustices come about and its effect on populations. This in turn can help us learn what is required to build a more just society in the years ahead.

Throughout the conference and on more than one occasion, speakers underscored the importance of reframing what social cohesion is and why it is so important. For it to have value, they said, social cohesion must be more than a “nice idea”. It should not be treated merely as an end in itself. Rather, social cohesion and the principles and concepts that help foster it create the conditions for a much bigger end to be achieved: creating conditions for the intellectual, spiritual and social flourishing of society as a whole, which can only come when the latent potential of each and every individual and group in society is released and harmonised.

Three of the conference sessions were followed by online breakout groups where participants shared their insights to help shape further action and refine current endeavours. This created an opportunity for participants to learn from each other's experience and ideas. Participants were invited to consider how they might apply insights obtained during the conference as well as from the Creating an Inclusive Narrative publication to their field, organisations, community or projects. To continue and broaden engagement in this national conversation official launches of the publication and consultations are being arranged for 2021 in every state.

Conference videos, images and more can be found here.

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