A big part of my role at The Challenge involves communicating what we do and why to policy and decision makers. My team works to ensure that politicians and officials understand our organisational mission and vision and recognise the unique value of our work towards building a more integrated and connected society.
Back when I joined The Challenge, I found that some people I met instinctively understood our mission but others didn’t. Now, it’s taken for granted across Westminster and Whitehall that our society is becoming increasingly fragmented, and that we must take action to build bridges across social divides. Partly, that’s because a series of disruptive political events – the Brexit referendum, the election of President Donald Trump and the resurgence of far-right politics across Europe – have exposed the cultural divisions which have long been brewing underneath the surface of our national life. It’s also because a little over eighteen months ago, a phrase entered the public consciousness which neatly sums up what it is that we at The Challenge believe.
We have far more in common than that which divides us. Jo Cox MP concluded her maiden speech in the House of Commons with these words, which people the world over rallied around in the wake of her murder. To me, this phrase represents a poignant encapsulation of what politicians, academics and charities like The Challenge are trying to explain when we use terms like social integration, cohesion and connectivity. To put my own slant on our organisational vision, a well-integrated society is surely one in which we are able to understand and appreciate but also look beyond our differences – to recognise just how much we’re alike as well as the immense value of our distinct cultural and social inheritances.
Jo recognised that our lack of connectedness affects people from all backgrounds and reaches into every corner of our society. Today, the Prime Minister announced the appointment of Tracey Crouch MP as the first Minister for Loneliness – putting into action a recommendation of the Commission on Loneliness which Jo setup prior to her death. We look forward to working with Ms Crouch to make sure fewer people in our society suffer from loneliness and are thrilled that this important element of Jo’s legacy has been recognised at the highest level of government. She worked tirelessly to make our communities better – more joined-up and vibrant – and her example continues to inspire us in our work.
That’s why I’m so pleased that The Challenge was able to play an important part in the movement to keep the flame of Jo’s appeal for unity burning throughout 2017. In June, The Challenge ran two events as part of the nationwide Great Get Together. Run by the Jo Cox Foundation, the Great Get Together was a weekend of street parties, picnics and community gatherings organised to coincide with the first anniversary of the MP’s death.
At our event at Chorlton High School in Manchester, pupils discussed their ideas for boosting community feeling with the city’s then recently-elected mayor Andy Burnham. Meanwhile, in Birmingham, hundreds of pupils from two schools formed a heart-shaped human chain around the name ‘Jo’. The teenagers had been drawn from two Birmingham secondary schools – one with predominantly white British students and the other with mostly British Asian students. A photo of this went viral and was published in newspapers up and down the country – a visual reminder that, if we are to build a more united country, we must come together in common purpose and connect through shared experiences.
More recently, a number of HeadStart participants shared mince pie moments with older people in their areas as part of last month’s Great Christmas Get Together. And we’re looking forward to supporting and collaborating with the Jo Cox Foundation and the teams behind these campaigns as their plans for more events in 2018 take shape. Also, in the coming months, keep an eye out for news about other exciting projects we’ve been working on with young people, the Jo Cox Foundation and the U.S. Embassy.
As most of the people who were closest to her have said, the best possible testimony to Jo would be more work to build stronger and better connected communities. As the only UK charity whose driving purpose is to bring Britons from all backgrounds together to meet, mix and connect, we’re proud to be doing our bit to bring that vision to life. After all, we do have far more in common than that which divides us, and The Challenge exists to prove it.
Richard Bell, head of public affairs, policy and research