Diaspora, Democracy and Citizenship

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Jellicoe intern and researcher Caitlin Burbridge is working with the Congolese community within London Citizens.  On 10th December, her first three months’ work culminated in London Citizens first Diaspora Peoples’ Assembly.  She reflects on the event, and its implications for the way we think about citizenship:

With the roll call of London Citizens members waving flags and representing their various diaspora communities, 700 people gathered together for the first time with a great sense that this was to be a historic moment. Saturday 10th December saw the UK’s first ever Diaspora Peoples’ Assembly in City Temple, Central London, bringing together migrant communities who have settled in the UK from across the globe. The assembly marked a significant step towards building the power of those communities who are, as yet, vastly under-represented.

The event served two prime purposes. Firstly, it enabled the people who were forming this new power collective to recognise their mutual challenges and subsequent potential as change makers. Secondly, the assembly held to account those in influential positions on issues of street safety, immigration legal advice, opportunities for young people, and deportation.

Aside from the momentous drama of the day which saw multiple cultural performances, the celebration of diversity through song and the expression of creativity through the use of national dress, a perhaps more poignant question in my mind was raised around the nature of citizenship. For Naila Kabeer, ‘citizenship is important because it can reflect more about the ‘collective associations’ people ascribe to than ‘apparent membership of a nation state (which) often means little to its members’. The word ‘can’ in Kabeer’s statement is crucial. How does this translate into a context where official ‘citizenship’ or ‘membership’ of a nation state is insecure?
Being an official ‘citizen’ and recognised by the state is crucial to your ability to participate in a functioning democracy. Legal status allows access to the job market, and it can be argued that engaging with the communities around which one lives can broaden an understanding about how UK society functions. Often, for the diaspora communities represented at the assembly, ‘citizenship’ is defined not by membership of the state, but by exclusion from that membership; not only through a lack of legal status, but also a lack of cultural proficiency to understand how to engage with society as a whole. Therefore Kabeer’s ‘can’ alludes to a vision of citizenship which is outside the realms of ‘official democracy’.
The model which London Citizens practices seems to be one of ‘redefining democracy’ and is not dissimilar to Andrea Cornwall’s understanding of citizenship. For Cornwall, ‘enhancing citizen participation requires more than inviting or inducing people to participate’. In the context of practising democracy, how do we create an environment in which people who have never experienced democracy can empower themselves to engage with a form of ‘citizenship’ of which they have no previous experience? One group I have been working with particularly closely has been London’s ‘Congolese community’ who, having grown up in the DRC, have almost no experience of what it is to engage in a democratic society. Perhaps this is a challenge for the future journey of this diaspora power collective? How do we redefine citizenship to open space for a new form of participation, as opposed to inviting people to participate in a form of citizenship which has already been defined?   
The challenges of this form of community organising are very different from models set up in the US and UK. The communities which gathered on 10th December have a rich and varied experience of citizenship in their own countries. In the UK, citizenship tends to be discussed in the rather conservative context of a working ‘democracy’. Yet not only do some diaspora communities lack the cultural proficiency to understand the UK’s working democracy, but challenges for these communities are often perpetuated by other factors: language barriers, qualifications which do not translate to the UK, lack of documentation fuelled by a highly inefficient and unjust ‘naturalisation’ process, unequal access to the UK labour market, and a lack of spaces within which to integrate into wider UK society.
Yet the presence of these communities in the UK provides an opportunity and opens up debate around the existing structures within which we reside. The form of organising required is different and demands those involved to consider what cultural proficiencies currently exclude migrant communities, as well considering what existing forms of cultural proficiency migrant communities bring with them to the UK. Maybe now we will begin to be a little more creative with what we expect from democracy, while we consider how we can redefine citizenship as a collective who may or may not have grown up here. Here’s to a new form of citizenship, a citizenship which is enhanced by diversity and ‘actively defined’ by its integrated citizens. 

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