Re-opening the open space: what we have learned in five years

Five years ago we took a step into the unknown. We invited  every multicultural organisation we could find to a meeting in a huge open space at the top of Ocean Terminal. We did not know how many people would come or what they would choose to talk about. Invitations to the event simply asked people to bring their ‘burning issues’ around the question of what it is like to live in multicultural Leith.

We have learned a lot since that  first meeting on a cold November Saturday afternoon. On the fifth anniversary of Leith Open Space (though we didn’t call it that right away) it is good to celebrate the achievements without forgetting how much more needs to be done.

First a brief flashback:

We invited people to take part with a question ‘Can we listen to each other’. The answer came on Sunday 20 November when over the course of four hours around 50 people came to take part in a day of discussion – and a buffet lunch – in the open space at the top of Ocean Terminal.

Together we symbolised the rich diversity of cultures in the Leith area – Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, African, Caribbean, Polish, Irish, English, and Scottish. Some came as private individuals; some represented the arts, health, education, and police; many came from voluntary organisations providing information and social support for different minority ethnic groups. In large circles and small workshop groups everyone in the room showed willingness to listen to each other – even when the discussion covered difficult ground.

The top 7 action points were very clear

  • stop media scaremongering
  • welcome immigrants
  • develop opportunities for multicultural relationships
  • political parties to deliver on ethnic minority representation
  • positive role models from the Islamic community
  • to rediscover how to look out for each other
  • and to encourage employers to see the competitive value of multicultural society

We followed up all those action points. Beginning with the media, which was an eye-opening experience.We sent letters to every newspaper in Scotland and got three replies – perhaps significantly not one from a newspaper editor  (we’ll come back to the replies another time ).

Our  best achievements so far are Opening Doors Shadow Scheme, getting into collaboration with ACTive Inquiry the community activist theatre group,  and our active involvement as founder members of  World Kitchen in Leith – the shadow scheme picks up that point about  ethnic minorities in politics; World Kitchen is simply about the fun we discovered at our first multicultural lunch. Everyone brought a dish representing their culture, it was definitely the best part of the day.

But many problems remain.  This summary from our first report is a reminder of the obstacles that may well harden in the new economic chill.

Frustration at wasted opportunities was voiced everywhere. Funding inequalities for multicultural arts events mean human talent cannot be exploited to the full. Many people said they want to see changes to benefits systems and immigration laws to enable skilled people to earn a living and contribute to the community they live in. Language barriers can be overcome through teaching but Scotland’s ESOL funding is half that allocated per student in England.

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