21 August 2012
Can telling stories about a socialist past and sharing these with a wider public help improve understandings of multiculturalism in Britain today? Two researchers from the Department of German set out to explore this question with the East Meets West project, in which local Eastern European migrant communities play a central role.
The East meets West project investigates how people with first-hand experiences of state socialism remember their past and how it influences their experiences of living in the UK. By capturing, and then sharing, the stories of post-socialist communities living in Bristol through their own individual narratives and discussions about everyday objects kept since socialism ended, the project aims to build a new understanding of multicultural Britain. It also aims to strengthen the connections between Eastern European migrant communities themselves, developing a stronger sense of cohesion.
Led by Drs Debbie Pinfold and Claire Hyland from the Department of German in the School of Modern Languages, the project brings together former Eastern European communities currently living in Bristol to create a community of ‘eyewitnesses’, willing to share their experiences of state socialism.
“We were really interested in learning more about how people’s memories of their previous socialist lives impact upon their subsequent integration into Western society,” said Claire. “Their experiences often shape their perceptions of life in the UK. We also wanted to find out what minority voices can contribute to western society.”
Target communities were invited to get involved in the project through Facebook, specialist media and by placing adverts in local Eastern European retail outlets. People shared their stories by writing accounts on the back of a project leaflet, which was then returned to the team and uploaded to the project’s blog. Various social events were also held where the communities could discuss their former lives, swapping stories and sharing their experiences. A room was set up in the style of a Big Brother diary room, allowing people to record a personal reflection directly to camera. This enabled the organisers to gather information even from those who were less confident of writing about their experiences in English.
“The project is revealing some surprising results” said Claire. “Participants are finding out that there are great differences in how they individually experienced state socialism in their different countries. The community is really enjoying sharing their stories.”
Of the various activities planned to share the project’s findings with a wider audience, an exhibition held at Bristol’s newest museum, M-Shed, proved a powerful draw. Members of the public were helped to think through the process of cultural stereotype through a range of activities that included a virtual quiz, television footage and media headlines, as well as information on Eastern Europe’s history and findings to date from the project. Project participants helped the research team curate the exhibition, helping to choose what to include and acting rather like an informal project advisory group. Claire also helped raise the profile about the project by talking about it on Radiowski, a local Polish community radio station.
Some early common threads are emerging from the participants’ discussions. There is a shared sense that consumerism is too important in the UK, and that this seems to have replaced a sense of community. Reflecting back to state communications during the socialist period, while participants acknowledged that much anti-west propaganda was communicated, certain community members feel that there is some truth to the image of a hedonistic western society that was depicted.
Findings from the project will be developed as teaching resources linked to the PHSE and citizenship parts of the National Curriculum. More social events are also planned.
“The project has the potential to change public perceptions of migrants with a socialist background,” said Claire. “In the long-term, we hope to improve public understanding of what it means to be a minority migrant community, and the exhibition and school resources will be important in this.”
“In the future, we would also like to see how migrant communities could influence local policy and get their views into the policy arena by interacting with the council,” Claire added.
Please contact Laura Greenwood for further information.
We'd all just got back from a day out when the doorbell rang and there were suddenly two men in leather standing in our hallway...”
I lived for 12 years under state socialism. I was only a child and I have only my own memories at the end of this era.