Bridging divisions: lessons from Los Angeles and Belfast

Bridging divisions: lessons from Los Angeles and Belfast
by Madison POULTER
12 September 2023

The Imagine! Belfast Festival and Huntington Institute on California and the West at the University of Southern California (USC) hosted an in-person and virtual conversation to answer the question: how do you move forward in a divided city? Focused on fissures in both Belfast and Los Angeles, the panel comprised leading local experts Joumana Silyan-Saba (Director of Policy and Enforcement for the Civil + Human Rights and Equity Department (L.A. Civil Rights)), Jody Agius Vallejo (Associate Professor of Sociology and American Studies and Ethnicity, University of Southern California (USC)), Professor Duncan Morrow (Director of Community Engagement, Ulster University), and Stephen Wilson (artist and photographer, Peace Wall Stories).

Before the panellists delved into the question of mending division, moderator Joe Mathews (founder and columnist of Democracy Local) acknowledged the unlikely pairing of Los Angeles and Belfast.  On the surface, the two cities could not be more different: Los Angeles — the home of movies and sunshine; Belfast — the home of the Troubles and ships. One city is divided along racial and socioeconomic lines while the other is divided along ethno-sectarian lines. Despite these differences, Los Angeles and Belfast are more alike than they appear. Both suffer from the physical — and incorporeal — impacts of long lasting divisions resulting from inter- and intra-communal conflicts.  

The similarities became more obvious as Mathews asked the speakers what division looks like. Silyan-Saba anchored the conversation by defining division in the context of Los Angeles and Belfast. As she explained, divisions — both overt and covert — “manifest as intercommunal divides, intracommunal divides, and — in the worst forms — they also manifest in civil unrest and violence”.

In Belfast, division is overt; it’s built into the city landscape via peace walls. In Los Angeles, division is covert; it’s institutional. But, as Silyan-Saba, points out, whether overt or covert, both cities are experiencing the on-going consequences of division. As she continued, the ongoing divisions are “manifesting in deeper polarisation”: “We see [them] manifesting in a fragmented political landscape. And certainly with the unfortunate violence that we have witnessed not only in cities like L.A., but essentially globally.” 

These divisions, though, as Agius Vallejo underscored, “are not natural.” She continued to explain: “These dividing lines are created. They’re created over time. They’re created historically. They’re created to make advantages for some. And because they aren’t natural, we can change them.” 

With major political impasses and struggles impacting both Belfast and Los Angeles, Agius Vallejo argued, “The greatest power that we have is our civil society.” The panellists highlighted that the key to bridging divisions is long-term commitment, not from politicians, but rather from the civic community. While politics can empower and encourage change, it is not the facilitator of change; our community is.  As Wilson shared, “You don’t know who will turn into leaders in the future.” 

And while all panellists agreed that divisions in both Belfast and Los Angeles are dissipating while at the same time strengthening, the empowerment of civil society provided a sense of hope. Morrow suggested, “There’s something underpinning [the Belfast] community which is holding on to a dream which has to do with having a future, how we shape it and how we don’t.”  While Morrow’s point was about Belfast, the same could be said of not just Los Angeles but elsewhere around the world where people are coming together as collectives to create a better tomorrow. 

Despite the immense historical and socio-economic differences between Los Angeles and Belfast, that underpinning dream that Morrow mentions is the very thorough thread that the other panellists alluded to through calls of shared humanity and civil society. As Wilson said, “We all have to believe it will get better” but also acknowledge that the past is not that far away and is “still is very, very painful for an awful lot of people”. Tearing down walls — whether real or metaphorical — is not a one and done job. It’s a long-term process requiring dedication, acknowledging harm done, recognizing humanity, and committing oneself to writing a new chapter.

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