From shock and sadness to understanding and empowerment – first steps as Inspire tries to respond to the Manchester terror attack

Monday night’s terror attack at the MEN arena sent waves of horror across the world as news spread of the tragic death and injury of people who could easily have been daughters, sisters, neighbours, friends – and for all too many, they were. At the Inspire Centre in Levenshulme, a close family friend of a member of staff was killed, but many others know of people one step removed who have been terribly affected. Suicide bombings and the deaths of innocent children are shocking wherever they take place, but it seems all the more terrible when terror strikes so close to home.

The Inspire Centre prides itself on being a place where the community can come together in good times and in bad and so staff and volunteers moved swiftly to call a minute’s silence on Tuesday lunchtime and over 80 people from many different backgrounds gathered to pay their respects and then talk solemnly together about their shock and sadness as the news rolled in. We observed the national minute’s silence again on Thursday and our group of older people on an overnight trip to Llandudno released balloons with messages of love and peace. We Love Manchester posters have been put up in all the windows as a sign that Levenshulme was taking its place in the city-wide show of solidarity and defiance: our unity will not be divided, hope will conquer hate. Love wins.

But as this awful week has drawn on, growing attention has turned to the perpetrator and to whether such atrocities can be prevented from happening again. The fact that the bomber grew up barely a mile down the road from here and went to one of our local schools must cause us all to pause for thought. Of course, he spent time in Libya and possibly Syria too and was no doubt radicalised and taught the darkest arts of bomb-making and murder many thousands of miles away. But the fact that a local lad could be so much more influenced by such perpetrators of evil than the many other friends and neighbours with whom he shared this city, and the fact that he became prepared to kill the young men and women he grew up with, must surely give us deep cause for concern.

The Inspire statement of vision and values calls for us to celebrate our diverse community. We welcome people from a wide range of backgrounds to play, work, learn and give to our dynamic community hub; and every day our café is full of people of different colours and creeds, different ages and abilities, all eating and drinking together. I know of very few places across Manchester where people from so many walks of life share the same space so successfully as we do here. Never has it been more important to sustain this precious dynamic – the cheery welcome, the time to listen not judge, the simple acts of kindness – but while there are individuals, possibly whole groups of people living nearby, who might become so isolated and alienated that they turn to such awful violence, then we can and must do more.

While many of us celebrate the diversity in our neighbourhood and while we were quick to display our unity and solidarity this week, in truth our neighbourhood is more divided than we might want to acknowledge. How do we gather in the school playground or at the school gate? Who has been soaking up the sunshine outside The Buttery or Trove this week or was at the wonderful Levy Market last Friday evening? Is the period of Ramadan we are just beginning something we should celebrate as a whole community like we do Christmas? How are the house prices on either side of the Stockport Road?

Even at Inspire, while it is a joy to see people from such diverse backgrounds in and out of the centre, too many activities are for particular interest groups. Groups for older people, Asian women, Black young people, recovering alcoholics, yoga enthusiasts and so on are all important for mutual support and it is normal for us to enjoy common interests – birds of a feather, flock together – but we should place extra special value on those activities that encourage mixing.

There are already some good examples. Our Little Stars toddler group attracts parents and children from many different backgrounds and runs activities to encourage interaction and discussion. Levenshulme Good Neighbours, based at Inspire, encourages interaction between older people who are very often isolated with younger volunteers who can visit and support them. The Heart and Parcel sessions we host bring migrant women from many nations together with other members of the local community to make dumplings and develop ESOL skills.

But for ‘integration’ activities like these to flourish and grow, particularly involving members of the Muslim community, it seems there are two ingredients that are necessary.

First, we need a better UNDERSTANDING of ‘how we roll’. Since its inception, Inspire’s relationship with the Noor Mosque on Woodfold Avenue has been a source of great joy and mutual learning. We have shared food, community celebrations, prayers, meeting rooms and even money and from that we have built friendships with members of the mosque involved in the board and other decision-making groups at the centre. But our relationship with the much bigger Madina Mosque has, until recently, been less developed. As the Madina Mosque has begun to reach out to the wider community as part of its plans to regenerate its buildings, we must work much more closely together to understand what vision and values we have in common and what this means for the activities our different organisations put on.

Secondly, integration requires EMPOWERMENT. There is a lot of evidence that shows that speaking English is incredibly important in helping people live confidently in very diverse communities. There is no need for compulsion here though: at Inspire we find many, many people sign up for our ESOL classes and wanting to learn English. Sadly though, there is very little funding to support this vital activity and so we are constantly having to cobble together money and voluntary effort to keep classes going as the waiting lists grow.

Empowerment takes many different forms beyond language learning and so we need to devote more attention to developing other activities that give people more of a say about how our neighbourhood is organised. Another idea we have had is to launch a Levenshulme ‘inclusion charter’ which challenges local businesses, public agencies and service providers to each pledge to doing something differently to become more inclusive and empowering. We could give out certificates and awards to some of the best innovations.

At the Inspire Centre we have been thinking along these lines for several months with a project we’ve been calling ELEVATE. This week’s tragic events have suddenly made these ideas all the more important and urgent. The plan is that we turn the Inspire Centre into a hub of activity to support integration and empowerment and also a place where we can learn and understand the best ways of doing this so we can share them with other neighbourhoods in Manchester and beyond. You can read more about our ideas here and make a donation as we try to get it off the ground.

But we’d also like to hear your ideas too about how we make Levenshulme a more integrated and empowering community. So feel free to drop me a line on ed.cox or bob into the centre and complete an ELEVATE IDEAS card. By pooling our ideas and activities, we hope that the terrible events that have so shocked our wonderful city this week might never happen here – or anywhere else – ever again.

Ed Cox

Chair of the Inspire Board

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