East meets West: building a ‘remembering’ community

Can telling stories about a socialist past and sharing these with a wider public help improve understandings of multiculturalism in Britain today?

The East Meets West project investigated 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 aimed to build a new understanding of multicultural Britain. It also aimed to strengthen the connections between Eastern European migrant communities themselves, developing a stronger sense of cohesion.

Creating a community of 'eyewitnesses'

Led by Drs Debbie Pinfold and Claire Hyland from the Department of German in the School of Modern Languages, the project brought 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. 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" - Dr Claire Hyland.

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 revealed 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.”

Engaging a wider audience

Of the various events held to share the project’s findings, an exhibition held at 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.

Project findings

Common threads arose 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 have been developed as teaching resources linked to the PHSE and citizenship parts of the National Curriculum.

The project has the potential to change public perceptions of migrants with a socialist background. 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” - Dr Hyland.

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