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Global Crises, Local Impacts: Threats to Social Cohesion and How Cities Can Respond

— 18 minutes reading time

On 26 June 2024, the Strong Cities Network hosted the seventh in a series of monthly webinars on Global Crises, Local Impacts: Threats to Social Cohesion and How Cities Can Respond. Successive global crises – from COVID-19 and migration to the war in Ukraine, climate change and, most immediately, the Israel-Gaza crisis – have had impacts on social cohesion in cities around the world, including across Europe and North America. Convened under the auspices of the Strong Cities Transatlantic Dialogue Initiative, this session focused on how cities can restore civil discourse and empathy at the local level amid heightened inter-communal tensions.

The webinar featured a briefing by Zahed Amanullah, Resident Senior Fellow, Networks and Outreach, Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), on how the private sector is working to navigate tensions amid workforces and restore civil discourse, and a presentation from Richard Chalk, CEO, REOC Communications, and a former senior official at the United Kingdom Home Office, on how cities can use strategic communications and messaging to calm tensions, restore empathy and civil discourse and unite diverse communities under a shared city identity. Local government officials from Stamford (Connecticut, United States) and Birmingham (United Kingdom) shared their cities’ experiences and approaches in tackling inter-communal tensions, and the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville (Kentucky, United States) announced a new project to support cities with data that they need to measure civility and compassion and take action. 

Eric Rosand, Executive Director, Strong Cities Network, briefed participants on the origins of the Strong Cities Global Crises, Local Impacts Initiative and how the monthly webinar series was launched in response to growing requests from cities to provide support and peer learning as they try to navigate the local impacts of global crises, most recently, the Israel-Gaza crisis. He emphasised how the mission for this and other webinars in the series is to “drill down and draw out specific concrete steps that cities can take and have taken to address these challenges”.

Key Takeaways

  1. Similar to cities, the private sector is increasingly feeling the impacts of the Israel-Gaza crisis. A growing number of companies seeing examples of employees engaging in hateful speech on their internal platforms and on external social media sites around the conflict. Companies are now grappling with how to mitigate the impact of the hate that targeting some of their employers and undermining workplace cohesion. They are now looking at how to provide training to employees to make sure they are aware of definitions of what constitutes hate, hateful tropes and trends, disinformation, how hate can be exploited by foreign state and other malign actors and how to foster civic dialogue in the workspace.
  2. Identifying how to unify people – by finding common ground, need or understanding – should be at the heart of communications that create the counter effect to polarisation. As local governments continue to grapple with how to communicate in the midst ongoing global crises that are (further) polarising communities, they should focus on identifying what unites rather than divides communities and residents and avoid communicating in ways that make people choose between two sides. 
  3. Honest, respectful, consistent and inclusive engagement with all communities during times of peace is the foundation for an effective city-led response when a global crisis impacts their communities. When a crisis emerges, the challenge for local authorities is how to balance the need to be responsive and sympathetic to the different communities impacted in different ways and avoid having its demonstration of support to one side inadvertently exacerbate trauma being experienced by the other side. Among other things, this means creating safe spaces where residents can lawfully express their views, while at the same time trying to stop malign influences from taking hold and potentially creating conditions for hate to flourish by agitating and causing disruption. 
  4. Cities should be proactive in the face of a global crisis where the local impacts can be somewhat anticipated. This could mean ensuring schools and universities, which typically are impacted by divisive global crises, have the necessary tools and other resources to manage the impacts or proactively engaging those involved in speaking events or demonstrations about the crisis whom the city believes might include agitators or others with malign intentions, in order to make them aware of the potential risks involved.

Key Themes

ISD’s Zahed Amanullah shared how the Institute’s research in the immediate aftermath of 7 October showed a significant spike in antisemitic and Islamophobic narratives targeting ordinary people, underscoring how this type of hate surfaced very quickly and was linked to specific tropes. He said that the corporate sector was not immune, with companies having to mitigate the impacts of the Israel-Gaza crisis on their offices and their employees. In particular, he noted, is the challenge of navigating the rise of hateful speech among their employees. He said one company that had approached ISD for advice on how to manage this situation reported dozens of examples of employees engaging in hateful speech on their internal platforms and on external social media sites around the Israel-Gaza conflict. Some 70% of these cases have involved antisemitism, Islamophobia or anti-Arab hate.

Large companies, which employ thousands of people from diverse backgrounds, but with a common corporate identity and vision, want to mitigate the risks of employees descending into hateful dialogues with each other. This is not easy when a situation like Israel-Gaza is complex and everything is not ‘black or white’. 

Zahed Amanullah, Resident Senior Fellow, Networks and Outreach, Institute for Strategic Dialogue

So, what can companies do about rising levels of hate in the workplace? Zahed said that ISD emphasises that there are commonly agreed definitions about what constitutes antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate. Because they have resources and incentives to ensure there is cohesion in the workspace, companies can provide training to employees to make sure they are aware of what constitutes hate and the appropriate responses when it emerges. Zahed said that it is about awareness of hateful tropes, hateful trends, disinformation and digital literacy, how hate can be exploited by foreign state and other malign actors, and how to engage in civic discourse. He added that ISD has tested a model in Germany called the Business Council for Democracy, which could be relevant for companies in the United States as well.

Stamford (Connecticut, United States) is home to nine Fortune 500 companies. Carmen Hughes, Stamford’s Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, engages regularly with Stamford-based corporations that are trying to ensure that all of their employees feel safe. She said that City Hall wants to learn about if and how they are working with the employees in these divisive and polarising times to ensure that that everyone feels welcome in the city.

Strong Cities Executive Director Eric Rosand noted that local governments are facing many of these same challenges that companies are, both internally in terms of how they are dealing with their own workforces, but also how they are engaging and supporting their communities.

REOC CEO Richard Chalk spoke about how to use strategic communications to create empathy and a civic discourse in the context of polarisation. Identifying how to unify people should be at the heart of communications that create the counter effect to polarisation and this is about finding common ground, need or understanding. Richard outlined three steps to formulating what he described as a “universal response” to polarisation.   

Polarisation is the first step in a cycle of violent influence that organisations and groups across the world take advantage of to recruit and radicalise. It is the manifestation of the ‘us versus them’ construct.

Richard Chalk, CEO, REOC Communications

The first step is to understand what the need is. The second is to then explore the opportunities for expressing common need and “what joins us together”. Once you know what people want or need, the third step is to you explore the ways in which to communicate it: “You respond to the problem by focusing on what people want and what they need based on the common ground that you have identified”.

Richard shared that, if you follow these three steps, ways to unify rather than divide and to counter rather than fuel polarisation emerge. These include communicating common need at the policy level (e.g., framing around protecting and safeguarding rather than preventing), the community level (e.g., through active listening), the project level (e.g., through cultural and sports activities), and at the personal (e.g., around identity) level.

He said that as local governments continue to grapple with how to communicate in the midst ongoing global crises that are (further) polarising communities, they should consider following these simple steps and avoid communicating in ways that make people choose between two sides. 

Connecting Richard’s presentation to the reality facing cities, Sean Arbuthnot, Prevent Manager, City Council, Birmingham (United Kingdom), said one “cannot overemphasise the role that cities can play in making people feel united and bringing people together in a variety of ways, by including them in the conversation and by working with them in a respectful, honest, open and transparent way”.

The two cities taking part in the panel discussion, Stamford (Connecticut) – the 16th most diverse city in the United States, with a population of 140,000 – and Birmingham – the UK’s second largest city, with more than 50% of its population of over one million coming from ethnic minority backgrounds – have felt the impacts of the Israel-Gaza crisis, albeit in different ways.

Stamford’s Carmen Hughes said that given its diversity and proximity to New York City, her city feels “a lot of the tremors of what we’re seeing on a global basis”. This includes experiencing a spike in antisemitism and anti-Muslim behaviors after 7 October. Similarly, Sean Arbuthnot shared how Birmingham is used to feeling the local effects of global crises, but noted that the breadth and depth of the impact of the Israel-Gaza crisis on social cohesion is “unlike anything that I’ve seen in my time as a practitioner”. This includes a spike in antisemitism and anti-Muslim hate crimes following the 7 October Hamas attacks and the protests and marches at universities, private businesses and train stations since then. He pointed to divisions surrounding the conflict that have made their way into the political discourse as well. Like in other diverse cities, Sean added that the multifaceted challenge that this crisis has presented Birmingham is complicated by fact that “trust between faith communities in the city who traditionally have been best of friends, has almost completely evaporated, and the local government is in the process of trying to rebuild that trust”.

Carmen and Sean highlighted several steps that their local governments have taken to promote tolerance and civility and maintain social cohesion, which are being leveraged to help the city navigate the current crisis. For example, in Stamford, the local government continues to work to ensure that all communities and residents “feel like they have a voice” and that the city “can acknowledge their concerns on how they’re feeling, and … [create] a place where they can feel safe”. During the Israel-Gaza crisis, Carmen said that the local government has held separate meetings with individual groups impacted by the conflict, as well as meetings where it brought the groups together. Following 7 October, the city organised a diversity breakfast that was scheduled well before the Hamas attack. It brought faith and community leaders together to initiate conversation on what an inclusive city looks like and agree on what Stamford residents stand for. As a demonstration of its inclusive approach to governance, Stamford not only became one of the first cities to sign onto the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s working definition of antisemitism, but recently signed a proclamation acknowledging Diwali as an official city holiday and continues with its practice of flag-raisings to celebrate national days of other countries. Carmen said that the city “invites all communities [across Stamford] to attend these flag raisings as a time to learn and grow together”.

We invite people to the table to share how they’re feeling and to tell the city what they need, and then we’re able to truly deploy the resources in ways that are meaningful to that community, because every community needs and feels something different.

Carmen Hughes, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, City of Stamford (Connecticut, United States)

As a result of these continued investments in partnerships and collaborations across the city and emphasis on peace, inclusive and problem solving, Carmen said that reactions to the conflict among Stamford residents “have been quite muted given the expectations with the diversity across the city”.  Rather than seeing protests related to Israel-Gaza, Stamford has seen marches for peace and for community.

In Birmingham, Sean said the local government’s approach to community engagement – like in Stamford – revolves around visibility, honesty and genuinely listening to and working with all communities. In the context of the Israel-Gaza crisis this has meant listening and having honest, respectful conversations with the different impacted communities. For example, the local government held a series of community meetings on Birmingham’s response to the crisis, which senior city leaders attended. They spoke in front of communities who did not necessarily agree with them on the city’s response, which included raising the Israeli flag above the council building in the aftermath of the 7 October attack. 

Sean cautioned that as local governments reach out to diverse communities they need to remember that these “are not monoliths” and there are different individuals and groups within each one that cities can engage with. This includes those communities that are often easy to ignore because they have historically been marginalised and rarely had their voices heard. He also said that, when engaging, local governments need to be mindful that there are those individuals who want to serve community gatekeepers or are bad actors who are looking to agitate and disrupt.

The challenge for local authorities is how to balance the need to be responsive and sympathetic to the communities that were impacted by the Hamas attack in the first instance, of course. But at the same time, we have to ensure that people can lawfully express their views and solidarity with the wider humanitarian crisis that has evolved since then… [and] how to balance freedom of speech, freedom of expression, etc, whilst at the same time trying to stop extremist influences from taking hold and potentially creating conditions for extremism to flourish by agitating and causing disruption and things like that.

Sean Arbuthnot, Prevent Manager, City Council, City of Birmingham (United Kingdom)

More broadly, he underscored the importance of local government building that “trust and dialogue and those good relationships during the good times and not just coming knocking on communities’ doors when there’s a crisis”. He said that having these relationships in place allows a local to respond quickly and dynamically when something does happen to minimise harm.  

Sean emphasised the importance of a city being proactive in the face of a global crisis where the local impacts can be somewhat anticipated. For example, Birmingham knew from experience that schools and universities in particular “would be a real hotbed in terms of how people would respond to the [Israel-Gaza] conflict”. As a result, he said the local government “proactively engaged with all of the schools and education settings in the city, providing them with resources, guidance on political impartiality, how to have compassionate, open conversations to ensure that children have a voice whilst being respectful of the boundaries of law and not supporting violence”. It held regular meetings with a diverse range of communities, but also engaged with the harder to reach residents, whom he described as “those who are less heard”. This meant community focus groups and coffee mornings for women from diverse backgrounds, which were conducted with the local police and generated what Sean described as “unique initiative”. For example, community observers were invited into the police control room while protests were being policed “in order to see for themselves the decision-making that police had to make and on a split-second basis”. He said that this helped build trust with local communities quickly. Another initiative involved proactively engaging with those involved in speaking events or demonstrations whom the city believes might be agitators or otherwise have malign intentions. In such cases, Sean said the local authority and the police make those involved aware of the potential risks associated with those events and speakers. This approach, he underscored, has as helped “stave off some concerning issues and events” in a potentially volatile environment.

Despite these effective preventative steps, Birmingham has seen a number of issues emerge, whether in the schools or the raising of certain flags through the city, which if not properly addressed, could foment further polarisation and potentially lead to violence. However, Sean underscored that the local government has been able to avoid having the Israel-Gaza crisis undermine social cohesion in the Birmingham primarily through its “honest and open conversations” with communities. Yet, he expressed concern that, given the simmering tensions, “it feels like we are one significant incident away from that being the spark that sets off another series of crises”.

Representatives of the Muhammad Ali Center explained how the new Muhammad Ali Index, which aims to be the “world’s foremost study on compassion”, seeks to generate a digital understanding of how to build compassion in cities and communities. Erin Herbert, the Ali Center’s Vice President for Education and Programming, said the Index will start with a 12 US city pilot, accompanied by a report on how cities can measure compassion. She said it will be a synthesis of the Index’s data with practical recommendations about how we can improve compassion by working with cities and civil societal leaders.

Local leaders lie at the heart of building compassion and civility and the Muhammad Ali Center is working with mayors and other impact partners to help amplify and take data [that measures levels of compassion] and turn it into practical programs, policies that will move the needle on compassion.

Erin Herbert, Vice President for Education and Programming, Muhammad Ali Center

Robb Henzi, a partner at Sparks and Honey, a cultural intelligence and strategy consultancy that is partnering with the Ali Center on the project, said that Index will rely not simply on opinion surveys and research polling, which is not always reflective of how respondents are acting and behaving in their day-to-day lives. Rather, it will also engage in behavioural analysis to understand how civility, compassion and pluralism are being either expressed or not expressed in social and digital platforms. To this end, the research will also involve examining patterns among some of the cultural trends that Sparks and Honey tracks using a platform that that is ingesting tens of thousands of cultural signals daily, with a view to better understanding what trends are really shaping compassion and pluralism in cities and communities today.

Simon Cohen, the Index Lead at the Ali Center, encouraged cities on both sides of the Atlantic to engage with the project, including by sharing their experiences with the Index team, as the Center is committed to scaling the tool globally.

This webinar was the seventh in a series of monthly webinars for mayors, city representatives and research organisations for timely discussion and exchanges of approaches around Global Crises, Local Impacts. The next session – Online Harms: Local Approaches to Digital Resilience – is scheduled for Thursday, 24 July 2024.

Strong Cities Resources

Other Resources

For more information on this event, the webinar series, or Strong Cities Transatlantic Dialogue or Global Crises, Local Impacts Initiatives, please contact Allison Curtis, Deputy Executive Director, at [email protected].