Posted by: Andrew | November 13, 2014

The Increase of (mis)Representation

I’m on a number of different groups and bodies that try to include people from across the city or region. If the conversation gets round to the membership of the group it’s not long before the word ‘Representation’ is mentioned. Usually with the idea that we could invite a select number of key people who can legitimately represent the various groups living in the city.

What is becoming increasingly apparent is that in a ‘Superdiverse’ city like Birmingham with 187 nationalities and members of every major faith group – and every branch of those faiths along with many of the smaller faiths and sects – the notion of representation is increasingly problematic.

Firstly there’s the problem of just how many people would you need to have in a room for it to be truly representative? eg do you need to include all the Christian denominations or groupings, and what about the different ethnicities within those groups?

Secondly which groups get representation? What about members of the LGBT community would they be there in their own right or under an ethnic or religious tag? What about different classes or types of atheism or humanism? Then there’s age, gender, areas of the city which could be taken into account.

Thirdly do all groups get 1 representative regardless of size. In Birmingham there are 235,000 Muslims and 2,500 Buddhists would they each get 1 representative (by the way there are about 12 different Buddhists denominations in the city so should they get one each?)

Fourthly what if the representative of one group won’t come if the representative of another group is there as they don’t think they have a right to be in the room? Who gets to decide who’s in and who’s out? And if we say everyone’s in we’re back to the numbers problem

Finally can any of these people legitimately claim to be a representative anyway? To my mind this way of thinking is predicated on an outdated view of how communities are structured and organised where people were generally assumed  to subscribe to a meta-narrative which could be articulated by a single person. Whether people were ever quite this compliant is, I suspect, a moot point but they were certainly perceived to be so by those in authority. I still do meet some leaders from different communities who hold this view of society and believe they can legitimately represent an entire group, although I rarely find such a view when talking to younger people or women.

So what is a possible way forward for groups trying to tackle issues facing a city? I would suggest the following:

1) Recognise that no group or individual is truly representative
2) Research the changing demographics of an area to know who’s actually around
3) Keep asking ‘Who’s NOT here?’ at any gathering and try and find out why that is the case
4) Spend time outside of meetings getting to know people from different backgrounds and LISTEN to them
5) Invite people to attend in their own right and not as representatives
6) Look for people who have an ear to the ground rather than status or a title
7) Invite different people to meetings to get away from having the same ‘usual suspects in the room
8) Have meetings at different times and in different places to make it easy for different people to attend
9) Have short life spans for committees so they can be re-formed with different people
10) Don’t beat yourselves up about not being representative – you won’t be. But you can try to change the way you relate to people whose lives you are seeking to impact.


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