Our differences needn’t divide us. In fact, research by the Social Integration Commission shows that the opposite can be true - when people from different walks of life meet, mix and lead interconnected lives, trust grows and communities flourish.
But how do we make sure we meet people from different backgrounds to ourselves? Even better, how can we do this while working towards a common goal? For many, the answer is through sport.
Last month, a piece in The Guardian demonstrated the role football can play in helping recently-arrived asylum seekers integrate into British life and find a place in their new community. The team profiled in the piece, the All Blacks, are made up of young British people and teenage asylum seekers who arrived in the UK alone - all have been, or are, in care. Their manager, Alex Jones, says: “When you’re playing football, everyone is equal.” Absolutely.
Those of us living in industrialised nations are increasingly mixing in circles made up of 'people like us' - people of the same faith, ethnicity and generation and from the same culture, educational background and income bracket. We need to harness the broad appeal of sports programmes like the All Blacks, but this needs to be supported by a community infrastructure that generates a shared identity through shared experiences.
From Kenya to Northern Ireland, team sports contests have built bridges between communities by fostering a culture of co-operation and friendly competition. In fact, studies show that the emotions triggered by playing sports can accelerate the bonding process and reduce anxiety.
The government’s Sporting Future Strategy - a cross-governmental plan produced at the end of 2015 which outlines the positive outcomes brought about through sport, and how the sector can be supported to achieve them - recognises this. The Strategy emphasises the role sport plays in bringing people together, often from different backgrounds, and increasing social trust within communities. Let’s build on this and make sport a central pillar of a national social integration strategy in the next parliament.
The next parliament’s social integration strategy should provide support for fantastic programmes like the All Blacks, but it should also be explicit in its formulation as a strategy for all - one that aims to forge a Britain at ease with itself, in which people from all backgrounds are encouraged to meet, mix and lead interconnected lives.
1 Ramsbotham, O, Woodhouse, T and Miall, T, 2011, Contemporary Conflict Resolution, Cambridge: Polity