The Council of Somali Organisations shows the way

by Andy Gregg, Chief Executive, Race on the Agenda.

I recently attended an inspiring conference that brought together Somali community organisations with a variety of service providers organised by the Council for Somali Organisations. Many community organisations are unable to overcome the influence of “community leaders” who insist on talking for their “communities”, sometimes in ways that do not reflect the real views, aspirations and feelings of people who they claim to “represent”. Such community leaders often try to impose their own traditional cultural views and values and are sometimes resistant to the views and voices of women, young people or minorities. Not so the Council for Somali Organisations!

A series of lively discussions that centred on young people and women confronted some of the sensitive and difficult issues that currently face Somali organisations and individuals in the UK. Outside agencies such as the Police and voluntary sector agencies were listened to attentively but also challenged positively and productively. Serious concerns about Criminal Justice issues and Stop and Search powers and their disproportionate use against Somali young men were made eloquently. Concrete as well as imaginative plans for future action were negotiated and agreed.

Somali communities have often experienced difficulty in getting their views heard and Somalis have been stereotyped as clannish and factious and as unwilling to participate in mainstream society. Very often such stereotypes are really only a measure of how little time and effort mainstream services have been prepared to spend in listening to and understanding communities like the Somalis. However there remains a challenge to Somali Community Organisations to continue to develop new voices from within and forge new forms of leadership and representation.

I came away from the conference convinced that the Council of Somali Organisations is now in a position to help develop these vital capacities within Somali communities in London and throughout the UK. It won’t be easy – of all Britain’s Black communities Somali young people face some of the worst levels of discrimination and exclusion. Nevertheless a real start has now been made on this vital work.