At Paraffin, we have our own social purpose initiative called Project Bridge, a proven, person- centred co-creation method used across the UK to bring together local charities, public sector bodies, residents and communities to solve some of the complex issues our societies face. One of the great privileges of working on these projects is working with truly diverse groups of people beyond who we meet in our corporate work.
In October 2021 we ran a Project Bridge workshop in Portsmouth to build connections across different religious faith groups to strengthen the city’s community relationships and co-create an Interfaith Initiative. Participants included Faith Leaders from Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Sikh and Muslim communities.
We have learned a lot in the past about designing and leading truly diverse workshops, and we still have a lot more to learn. Here are some of our key learnings that you might use get the most out of any diverse group of participants, or indeed any workshop.
1. Who to invite
Think about the mix of representation and balance of voices being heard in the room. If there is a dominant group of people ensure there is a reason for this and include it in your workshop introduction and set up.
Roles and invitations:
Diverse groups can be worried about their role and place in a workshop. When you send out your workshop invitations clearly explain why they have been invited and the value they will bring. If they feel they are not the right fit make sure you understand why and ask them if they could suggest someone who may be a better fit. In the Interfaith Workshop we discovered that some faiths consider it impolite to pass on invitations sent to themselves to others unless explicitly asked to.
Understand structures that exist within diverse communities:
Even if not immediately apparent, certain communities can be structured and/or hierarchical. Make sure you have a basic understanding of the groups you are connecting with to ensure you connect with the right people.
2. Workshop Design & Planning
Planning the date:
Be aware of all important holidays, times of the day and days of the week, and even individual calendars when planning the date, so you are not leaving out key people. We made sure the Interfaith workshop did not clash with any religious holidays or festivals.
At the beginning of a diverse workshop it’s a great idea to find a theme that links people together with common ground. This can be the reason people wanted to attend the workshop, their hopes for what the workshop will achieve, or even concerns about the workshop if you want people to share any worries so they are identified early. For the Interfaith workshop in Portsmouth we asked everyone ‘What’s your favourite thing about Portsmouth’ which generated a really lovely conversation around why they all love being residents of Portsmouth, many reasons being common regardless of faith.
Ensure you have catered for all dietary requirements. This can be even more important with diverse groups of people and it’s important to not let anyone feel left out. The food you serve and how you serve it can be both welcoming and relationship building if you’ve been sensitive to people’s religious beliefs.
It’s a great idea to find someone to endorse the workshop in order to make people feel the output of the workshop will be truly actionable. This should be someone that all participants consider to be an important person that they trust. At the Interfaith workshop we had endorsement from 3 cross party Members of Parliament and the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, which showed how important the workshop and the participants were to the city.
3. Invitation and prep work
Set expectations and ask people what they want:
Send a friendly invitation containing all the key information and setting the tone of the event. As prep work, ask people a couple of questions asking about how you can make people feel comfortable in the workshop environment, including asking if there was anything we should or shouldn’t do, such as try to shake hands with each other or ask people to speak in front of the whole room. We know that being put on the spot to answer a question can be stressful, so do send in advance any questions you are likely to ask, such as the introductions exercise, so people feel comfortable and prepared to answer.
Make it anonymous:
We use a simple, anonymous survey to ask people what they want and don’t want, so they can be as candid as they like.
4.During the workshop
Slides and information:
Let everyone know that all documents, prep work and ideas will be shared afterwards, so people aren’t worried about writing notes or how to explain it to their networks afterwards, and they can then relax and participate.
Start the workshop by allowing people sit where they want so they feel comfortable, once you have created a good level of comfort in the room, you can then start to mix participants up for some of the break out groups. You should still invite people to move into new groups themselves, rather than be too prescriptive about where people sit or who they sit with. People who speak different languages can be very worried about talking with strangers, so let people be in charge of how they interact as much as possible.
Conflict is productive:
With diverse people in the room, as with any workshop, there can be conflict. Welcome and create space for important discussions to be had, while helping the language stay constructive and positive, with questions such as “how can we” that open the group up to possibility rather than arguing over specific points. Initially conflict can feel a bit uncomfortable, but it is important that people feel the workshop is authentically highlighting the challenges they feel and face. Make notes of these conversations to ensure they are captured in the output, keeping them phrased in positive, constructive sentences. This may involve rewording the outputs to make sure they can be understood by those who did not attend.
Make it available to all:
Create a story of the workshop, from who was invited, to what they did in advance, to the flow of the session, the key discussions and the ideas, and finally next steps and specific actions. Highlight the key outputs in a summary at the front of the document, and include general photographs of the session in the document so that people who read it can see who was there (with people’s permission of course).
Ensure you capture clear next steps and actions. The Interfaith Workshop has a follow up meeting booked in for December where will be looking back at the ideas and working to define roles, actions and dates for 2022.
Collaborating and teamwork can be challenging when there are lots of different thinking styles, backgrounds or viewpoints to consider. However, with careful and respectful planning we can all harness creative and diverse thinking so that our workshops become spaces for learning, collaboration and relationship-building.