Inclusion means citizenship
As human beings we are wonderfully diverse and creative – capable of so much love and self-sacrifice. Yet, so easily, we can be divided, abusive or even worse. Prejudice, fear and poverty push so many people to the edges of our community: disabled people, refugees, those who are oppressed because of their race, sexuality or beliefs are marginalised and disconnected from each other. Even those who seem to have the power or the money seem to be living lives that are so shallow: cut off from their neighbours, not involved in their communities and detached from a democratic systems that seem farcically removed from real life.
Often we have confronted these challenges with a call to civil rights, demanding the inclusion of the excluded and calling on the principles of justice. This is right, but insufficient. The changes we need are just about inclusion in the mainstream, they also demand the transformation of the mainstream. We don’t want people to just fit into society; we want to live in the kind of welcoming communities where everyone already fits, where gifts are valued, where contribution is expected and supported.
The ideal of inclusion offers us one way of thinking about the kinds of communities we need. But for inclusion to be real then the people in those communities, all of us, need to act differently. We need to be different people – or perhaps better – we need to learn how to act differently. Communities are just another word for us.
Traditions of thought and religion around the world vary and there are different words to describe how we should live together in community. But in the Western tradition one word stands out above all the others – citizenship.
Being a true citizen has nothing to do with having a passport; it means living your life as if you are a member of the community and as if you share in the responsibility for ensuring that others are welcomed into it. As John O’Brien puts it:
Citizens are people who can say “I belong to this place and it’s people and I am willing to act from responsibility for my belonging.” (Citizenship and Person-Centred Work p. 110)
So the ideal of inclusion cannot be separated from our own beliefs, behaviours and projects. There is no ‘community’ which doesn’t just turn out to be us, who we choose to be and how we choose to act.
Part of our challenge is to reclaim the ideas of citizenship and community from those who do think a passport is enough or who want to close down their communities, and to exclude those they don’t understand or value. We must confidently challenge this kind of exclusion and say what it truly is: the death of community and the denial of citizenship. This also means we cannot avoid thinking about political issues like Trump’s wall, the UK’s vicious approach to asylum seekers or Brexit.
Nor can we avoid connecting the different experiences of diverse groups. How society treats disabled people is not fundamentally different to how society treats refugees, people in poverty or people with differences of race, faith or sexuality. Either we are looking to celebrate diversity, welcome difference and work together to build bridges – or we are not. There is no fundamental difference between our differences.
In the past some of have suggested that we (and who are ‘we’?) must keep stigmatised and excluded groups apart. But although such a policy may be well intentioned it is in fact rooted in powerlessness and it effectively accepts the norms of the society that creates exclusion. Instead we must work to connect and to find common cause between groups. For example, in a world where disabled people are often extremely poor it makes no sense not to make common cause with the poor. We are more powerful when we find our common ground and shared interests. Even more powerfully, when one group reaches out to help or welcome another then the myths and lies that breed exclusion are weakened.
At a more fundamental level embracing citizenship is about nurturing different values. What we should seek for ourselves, for those we love, for our neighbours and for the stranger is not money, power and status. These things are inevitably scarce and divisive. Instead we need to focus on the good things that grow as they are shared. We can all have lives of meaning, we can all have freedom and we can all contribute. My increased citizenship takes away nothing from you; but I cannot be a citizen on my own.
These truths, and the wisdom of so many disabled people, so many families and so many great thinkers, like John O’Brien, are so valuable. Organisation like Inclusive Solutions have been helping people see these things for many years. But perhaps now is a good time to go further.
If one thing is clear from the present state of the world it is that progress is possible, but not inevitable. There has never been a better time for us to start talking about inclusion and citizenship within the wider world. As some politicians seek to build walls, then we citizens need to start building bridges.
This is why we have launched Citizen Network. We want to create a global community that connects all the individuals and groups who want to see a world of inclusion. Together we can be so much more powerful. We can learn quicker, inspire others, share what we’ve learned and act together to build a better world or challenge injustice. I’m so pleased Inclusive Solutions has joined us – if you’re reading this blog why don’t you come and join us too.