Organizing a ‘listening circle’ in the field: speaking about inclusion and trust Picture by Maarten van Haaff

Organizing a ‘listening circle’ in the field: speaking about inclusion and trust

Dutch policy practitioners seek to cooperate with citizens in ethno-racially diverse and disadvantaged neighborhoods. How does this turn out in the face of social inequalities and societal distrust? Drawing on his fieldwork experience, Yannick Drijfhout shows how trust and inclusion play contentious roles.

The community center is filled with neighborhood residents and professionals gathered for a resident-organized iftar. A Muslim community organizer speaks to attendees as I look at the partition in front of me, which divides the community center in two, separating attendees by gender. During the iftar attendees drink, eat, and pray together. When the fast is broken during the dua, not everyone is praying. The gathering not only has a religious function, but facilitates encounters between individuals with different cultural and religious backgrounds. As such, this gathering fits with the municipality’s policy goal of encouraging connection between different ethnic groups. The local government subsidizes iftars that are open and inclusive to all. At this gathering I am visiting for my fieldwork, everyone is welcome. And yet, the municipality does not consider our gathering inclusive. This blog traces why this is the case.

The iftar takes place in the multicultural neighborhood where I have spent the past six months exploring the collaboration between municipality, residents, and communities. I attended meetings where the municipality, neighborhood residents, and professionals discussed future plans for the neighborhood. I also frequently interacted with individuals who (claim to) represent local communities in partnerships with the municipality or welfare organizations. During this fieldwork, I experienced how the desire to collaborate with residents brought the predominantly white, middle-class municipal institution in close contact with less privileged citizens, of which a significant share also embodies different ethnoracial and cultural backgrounds.

Local state actors want to cooperate with local communities, but in this multicultural neighborhood communities are shaped along religious lines. This leads to a complex situation because the government (overheid) is, as many involved stated, secular. In my fieldwork this interplay, revolving around the municipality’s will to be unrelated to religion whilst seeking cooperation with religiously orientated communities, became a recurring theme. I talked about it in conversations with policy practitioners, social professionals, and residents, as much as it occurred during policy meetings, but it was never discussed in an open dialogue. To try to open up the discussion, I organized a ‘listening circle’ in the neighborhood. Six representatives from the neighborhood, the municipality, and a welfare organization entered into dialogue in front of a select group of invitees. On this intriguing afternoon, it became clear that inclusion has plural meanings and trust is deemed necessary whilst subject to distrust.

What’s does inclusion mean?

"A world opens up to them," says one resident about the women who attended the iftar. This resident, who perceives the neighborhood as his home and the Islam as a guiding force in his life, organizes social initiatives and gatherings that focus on the neighborhood and brings Muslim residents together. He argues that the gathering is inclusive precisely because of the gender separation, which brings women who spend a lot of time in the private sphere into public space. Otherwise, he states, without the gender separation, these women would not attend. In the public, next to me, I hear someone whisper: “That’s a male Muslim perspective though.” The audience is not permitted to respond to the speakers at this point in the dialogue, but I notice that the friction around this topic occasionally produces murmurs.

The egalitarian promise of municipal policy to “stand next to citizens” raises questions and dilemmas. "Who should I stand next to?", one municipal speaker wonders. He adds, "there are just a lot of people, with a lot of opinions." With such a diversity of people involved, there is no singular, agreed upon definition of inclusion. One resident or policymaker may interpret the iftar where men and women sit separately as inclusive, while another may interpret the same gathering as exclusive. As one ‘listening circle’ participant put it, "to be inclusive, you have to be exclusive to someone else."

The desire to engage residents and to foster community building in a multicultural neighborhood thus creates ambiguity related to inclusion. For the secular government, gender segregation is a practice out of place in the public sphere. Governmental parties embrace a contrasting vision of inclusion where the binary separation of gender roles is avoided. The question becomes whether the meaning of inclusion is shaped by governmental policy or by the social world to which local authorities seek to connect.

And is trust present?

Besides ambiguity, the dialogue in this local context reveals a certain ambivalence as well. This ambivalence arises when the floor is opened up for the audience to reflect during the ‘listening circle.’ Reactions from a local government official showed that the municipality is wary of religion- related community building, because it fears this will create “closed communities” or “separate islands” in the neighborhood. This imaginary runs counter to a strong desire in social policy to stimulate encounter and connection in heterogeneous cultural and religious gatherings.

This leads to a situation where trust is desired – it is, after all, the basis for cooperation – but is simultaneously infused with mistrust. Mistrust vis-à-vis (religious) communities is further fueled by negative perceptions and administrative concerns surrounding religious organizations. The fear of “closed communities” is also linked to mistrust; as someone in the audience stated, directing their comment toward a Muslim resident: “Can I trust you or do we then stimulate extremism?” The local government’s desire to cooperate with local communities is therefore Janus-faced: public officials and social professionals desire to cooperate with religious people and their initiatives, but, on an organizational level, these same people fall under suspicion.

The quest for commonality

During my fieldwork experience, I encountered dilemmas that revolve around shaping relations between a largely white municipal institution and an ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse local community. Conversations that touch upon these relations show how inclusion has multiple, sometimes conflicting, meanings. Furthermore, cooperation with religious individuals or organizations, particularly of the Muslim faith, appears to be sensitive. The municipality’s will to cooperate obscures a mistrust of these communities, however, this mistrust became tangible during the ‘listening circle’.

In a society where polarization lurks continuously, I hoped the ‘listening circle’ could spark mutual understanding. Some seeds were planted toward this goal; the atmosphere did not become more tense when the ambiguity surrounding inclusion or the ambivalence around relations with religiously orientated communities came up. Instead, speakers underscored the importance of empathy, mutual trust, and reciprocity. In so doing, they presented commonality as an integral aspect of cooperation in a multicultural neighborhood. As one speaker said, “atheists are religious too, but not in a theological way.” In a similar vein, a municipal professional stated: “we don’t have to be scared of our religious beliefs. We share a common interest in the neighborhood.” The concluding words of the ‘listening circle’ therefore provided fertile ground to continue the quest for commonality, wherein diversity and difference can be the norm.


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