No, not the Scottish Referendum. I was at Beeston Parish Centre for the Aspiring Communities consultation meeting and I found myself with two jobs. I was speaking as a member of the group’s Advisory Committee and reporting on the meeting for South Leeds Life.
In my report of the meeting I have tried to be objective and represent the different views raised in the hall. I guess I’ll be judged on whether I’ve achieved that in the comments section and that’s fine. I want to use this column to tell you what I thought of the meeting as an individual member of the Beeston community.
The first thing to say is that everyone in the room had very strong feelings about the development. I would describe a few people in the room as racist, but the vast majority weren’t. Opinionated, forthright, argumentative? Of course, this is Beeston after all.
Concerns about traffic volumes, road safety and about noise from the site are all legitimate concerns. They should be raised and the planning process is there to deal with them impartially. When you feel strongly about something you tend to raise your voice – that’s OK too.
But there were things said in the meeting that weren’t OK and were either deliberately or unconsciously racist. These ranged from conflating traffic going to Friday prayers with the boy racers who annoy, worry and frighten many of us to shouts of “What about Rotherham?”
My friend Phil who challenged the assertion that people in Beeston won’t integrate was told to go and sit with “them”. As if everyone else in the audience was opposed to the project.
The abuse that the woman who accused the meeting of being racist received included being called a lesbian. This is not in itself offensive as there’s nothing wrong being a lesbian, except when it’s said with hatred.
Unfortunately half the people had left by the time I got to speak, so I’ll repeat what I said here.
Aspiring Communities came up with a project to help different sections of the Beeston community understand each other better and to integrate more. When they asked for people to help them deliver that vision I stepped forward. It’s the same motivation that got me involved in Beeston Festival and being a governor at New Bewerley Community School.
I found a group of Muslims who were aware of problems of insularity within their own community as well as within the wider community. They wanted to explain their faith and customs and they wanted to learn about other faiths and other cultures. They want everyone to ‘walk a mile in another person’s shoes’.
And they are putting their money with their mouth is. They are raising private funds for the project, there’s no public money or grants involved. If they want a prayer room above the sports hall who am I, who are any of us, to tell them that they can’t?
Actually it’s rather important that there is a prayer room. It’s an opportunity to share their faith with non-Muslims. Being a Muslim is not about driving souped up cars too fast on residential streets, it’s not about grooming gangs and it’s not about suicide bombings.
Not integrating means we live in closed little worlds where prejudice and hate can fester. Where some Asian men can think it’s OK to abuse white girls because white people have no morals. Where some white people can think all Asians hate Britain, or have ‘spoiled it’ as someone said last night. These misconceptions lead to very bad things happening, in Leeds, In Rotherham, in Syria and Iraq.
So I ask you to embrace the opportunity that Aspiring Communities are offering. What activities would you like to see going on at the centre? Five-a-side football? Gym classes? Badminton? Evening classes? Go along to do the things you want to do, but also take the chance mix with people you might not otherwise talk to.
I’ll be back in next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.