How can a society with diverse views on history, culture, and values—some seemingly at odds with each other—forge a common identity that transcends differences and does not privilege some groups or diminish the worth of others?
The Baha’is of Australia embarked on a two-year project to explore this and related questions with hundreds of participants—including officials, organizations of civil society, journalists, and numerous social actors—across all states and territories.
A new publication titled Creating an Inclusive Narrative is the fruit of these discussions and was launched last week at a five-day national conference on social cohesion and inclusion held by the country’s Baha’i Office of External Affairs.
In the opening session of the conference, Governor of New South Wales Margaret Beazley reflected on the important role that government and institutions can play in strengthening bonds among citizens.
“The inclusivity of the discussions that led to the excellent Baha’i document Creating an Inclusive Narrative… is in itself an excellent example of an institution taking the time and the steps to engage in a multi-level process of discourse with people of diverse backgrounds, genders, abilities and disabilities, culture, and faiths.”
In another session of the conference, Member of Parliament Anne Aly quoted Baha’u’llah’s statement “The Earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.” She continued, “I think that’s the starting point for social cohesion. To see ourselves all as equal citizens of a world that goes beyond national borders, that goes beyond the differences of race, the differences of religion, the differences of social or economic status.
“This is what attracts me most to the Baha’i Faith. This central tenet of the equality of mankind.”
Initiating a Process of Learning
Ida Walker of the Office of External Affairs describes how the project began: “In 2016, the discourse on social cohesion was emerging prominently on the national stage. There was a great need at that time—and still now—for unifying spaces in which people could explore this issue, free of limitations—to have enough time, without dominating voices, where people could listen and be heard.”
By 2018, the Office of External Affairs had become more engaged in this discourse. With the encouragement of different social actors and government departments, the idea for Creating an Inclusive Narrative began to take shape.
“We knew that the process had to involve diverse voices from different realities throughout the country—east and west, rural and urban, and from the grassroots to the national level. And in order for this to scale, we needed many people who could facilitate,” says Ms. Walker.
By mid-2019, small gatherings were being held in a few states. As more facilitators from different regions of the country were identified, more gatherings could be held. Ms. Walker explains: “Orientation sessions allowed facilitators to reflect deeply on the qualities and attitudes that would be required for creating unifying spaces. These sessions provided them with opportunity to think about how they could ask probing questions.
“It was important that facilitators were residents of the areas in which gatherings were taking place, ensuring their familiarity with local issues and concerns. This approach, to our surprise, meant that facilitators and participants could continue their discussions in between the monthly gatherings, resulting in growing enthusiasm and interest among participants to continue the process.”
The project eventually sustained monthly gatherings concurrently across several states, resulting in a total of 50 roundtables.
One of the participants from the discussion spaces explored the need for deeper connections among the diverse people of the country: “What we are seeing in Australia is that lots of different pathways have come together in a really unique situation to create a knot of narratives that are bound together. … but how willing are we now to enmesh these stories? … If we are not enmeshed then we’re all these separate things and have no relationship with each other.
“If Australia is a work in progress, then how willing are we to create something new?”
Ms. Walker explains further that promoting diversity in all spheres of society, although essential, is not enough alone to bring people closer together or create consensus on vital matters. “Stories of indigenous peoples, European settlers, and more recent migrants must be voiced, but also reconciled.
“When the Office of External Affairs first began to engage in the discourse on social cohesion, we heard many social actors say that these stories were running alongside one another but not woven together. This project has allowed different segments of society to discover a narrative that would allow all the people of our country to see themselves on a common journey.”
Early on in the project, participants in the process discussed how any attempt to transcend differences would need to address the question of history. Drawing on the rich insights from these conversations, Creating and Inclusive Narrative begins with this topic in a section titled “Where have we been?”, calling attention to the rich and ancient history of the land and highlighting the challenges and opportunities of present times: “A common thread running through our history is stories of good and bad times, moments worthy of both shame and pride. No nation has an unblemished record, yet those who have endured displacement and suffering, especially Indigenous peoples, have shown tremendous resilience. The power of the human spirit to transcend injustice and overcome crisis is a primary characteristic that has enriched and shaped the evolution of our society.”
Identifying Shared Values
Participants in the project recognized that although difficult at first, identifying common values would be necessary to overcoming barriers to greater degrees of harmony. Venus Khalessi of the country’s Baha’i Office of External Affairs describes the effect the pandemic has had on the ability of the participants to develop a greater sense of shared identity. “At first, there was hesitation from participants to speak about values out of the fear of offending others. But as the pandemic hit, everyone saw that when faced with crisis, people became more kind, more generous, and more open to strangers. This had a significant impact on how we saw ourselves as a society and on our ability to articulate the kinds of values we wished to see lasting beyond the crisis. Our shared human values became a reference point, including spiritual principles such as justice, compassion, and our inherent oneness.”
These discussions have revealed that a vital capacity is required for identifying shared values, described in the publication as an “openness to adaptation and flexibility in embracing beliefs, values and practices that are helpful in addressing the issues of today, and discarding those that are outdated.”
Some of the values, qualities, and characteristics identified by participants and captured in the publication include: the oneness of humanity and unity in diversity; consultation as a means for collective decision-making; recognizing the nobility and dignity of all people; collaboration, a posture of learning in all matters, and an openness to new ways of living.
Broadening the Conversation
Ms. Walker explains how this experience has revealed that the challenge to finding common ground is not a lack of shared values, but rather that there is a lack of spaces where people can come to know one another at a deeper level. She says, “The problems we are experiencing cannot be solved by one group for another. We see so much capacity in the country that can be released simply by providing spaces where shared values and vision can be fostered and translated into action. Many people, by being part of the round-table process, have strengthened their resolve to contribute to society.”
Brian Adams, director of the Centre for Interfaith and Cultural Dialogue at Griffith University in Queensland, who also served on the Advisory Board for Creating an Inclusive Narrative, says of the project: “We are not trying to artificially create a broad identity. We are trying to tease out the threads that make up our identity and weave them together into this narrative. … [this process] is something that is done through collaboration and respectful listening, and a lot of work to create that identity together.”
Natalie Mobini, director of the Baha’i Office of External Affairs and a member of the Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly of Australia, explains the possibilities for engaging many more segments of society as a result of the relationships that have built among institutions, government, and civil society through this process. “When the Office of External Affairs embarked on this initiative, I don’t think we realized how big it would become. One of the project’s most promising outcomes is the relationships built among those who have participated. A network of people spanning the country—from groups and community leaders at the local level to state and national government departments—has emerged.”
In her remarks at the conference, Dr. Anne Aly, MP, drew on insights from academic literature to explore how new conceptions of social cohesion can more broadly permeate society. “Much like how we cannot consider peace to merely be the absence of war, so too social cohesion cannot merely be considered the absence of discord or disunity within a society.” She continued to explain that social cohesion should not be treated as a siloed policy area, but that all policies should contribute to a more cohesive society.
Dr. Anne Aly, MP, also referred to the following passage from the Baha’i writings, describing it as relevant to discussions on social cohesion: “Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity. Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face. … Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression. … Be a home for the stranger, a balm to the suffering…”
The Creating an Inclusive Narrative document, recordings of conference sessions, and more information about the project can be found on the website of the Australian Baha’i community’s Office of External Affairs.