We should all be able to agree that integration is a good thing. So why does it always seem like it’s so difficult to achieve?
The way we tend to talk about integration can make it more difficult to realise its potential. By focusing on certain populations we deem in need of integration, we risk stigmatising those populations as somehow deficient, or un-integrated, thus putting in place additional hurdles to their eventual integration.
By expecting would-be integrators to pass a Life in the UK test or adopt and embody ‘fundamental British values’, we’re saying that successful integration is somehow equivalent to becoming British. But even if we can agree on what it means to be British, this can only have meaning if it’s somehow connected to our everyday lives.
A lot of the things we call ‘integration’ can end up emphasising the very differences they purport to lessen.
If integration is to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem, then it requires a fundamental rethink.
Our approach to integration involves everyone. If we stop thinking that integration entails ‘them’ becoming like ‘us’ then we’re left with just ‘us’. Integration shouldn’t require some people to become like other people. Integration should give everyone the opportunity to come together in ways that matter to them.
Our approach to integration starts from the bottom-up. We focus on the details of everyday life, the routine encounters and exchanges we already experience every day. We think these encounters and exchanges are the building blocks for integration. We can learn from the way they work, and we can also look to better understand the things that get in the way of them working.
And our approach to integration is local. For some people national attachments are important. But these national attachments are still experienced locally in the routine contexts of our everyday lives. Most of our lives are lived locally, so if we want to understand integration, it makes sense to begin in those local settings where life is experienced.
By changing the way we think about integration we think we can improve people’s lives.
We can do this first by involving and investing everyone in integration. If integration begins with the encounters and exchanges of everyday life, then everyone can and should have an interest in it. This is not about us becoming more like them, or them becoming more like us, but about all of us appreciating our common interest in constructive exchange.
We can also do this by simply recognising there are plenty of ways in which we’re already integrated. If exchange and encounters are the bedrock of integration, then there’s no shortage of examples of how this is already happening in our everyday lives. We can learn from this: what works, what things bring us together in positive ways, and how can we scale up some of these routine interactions into more fruitful integration.
We can do this by trying to better understand the things that continue to get in the way of integration. Racism, prejudice, insecurity, poverty, precarity, fear, immobility, and loads of other things prevent us from coming together in productive ways. If we can understand where, how, and when these barriers operate, then we can work together to reduce them.
And finally, we can do this by working together to develop our approach to integration. It’s not for us to tell people how to integrate, but rather to get rid of the things that get in the way of integration. We do this by tapping into the local knowledge and experience we have in Bristol by partnering with over thirty different organisations across the city, Bristol City Council, and the Mayor’s office. It’s through this collective approach we will collectively and collaboratively develop our evidence-based approach to integration from the ground up.