The [sameness] project has been helping to unite Dubai’s communities for more than three years. Here, in her own words, project manager Fiona Hepher tells us what the initiative is all about and why it matters.
The [sameness] project is a Dubai-based team of social innovators spreading goodness. We design and execute online and offline projects to facilitate ‘moments of sameness’, where we can look past the things that separate us. Our community works are non-political and above all, fresh and relevant, allowing all sectors of our society to engage and spread positivity.
The project was founded three years ago by Lina Nahhas, who retired from a successful career in market research in the Middle East to focus on building this social experiment. Two of the initiative’s founding employees, Jonny and Aimee-Rose Kennaug, met with Lina, acquired an instant passion for her idea and started developing the concept to take it to the next level. I came on board in March last year to help the team get these ideas off the ground. Now there are four us, one office, nine projects, a ton of good friendships and countless ‘moments of sameness’.
It all started with Water for Workers, in the summer of 2012. It was a project to engage and thank Dubai’s labourers by handing out bottles of cold water and ‘thank you’ face cloths, thereby bridging the gap between residents and workers through meaningful interactions. Everyone can give out water, but it’s the handshakes, smiles and thank yous that set this project apart. We have run this campaign about ten times since then. When we started we had ten people helping out. Now we’re at 500 volunteers per project.
Another of our initiatives is We’ve Got Your Back, which is about appreciating Dubai’s taxi drivers through emotional and physical well-being sessions. We meet them at various cafés where they tend to hang out and at the headquarters of Dubai Taxi Corporation. We also partner with FitnessLink, a community of fitness professionals dedicated to helping people live healthy lifestyles, to provide them with stretching sessions.
On social media, we set up #TheConversationChair, which pops up at arts and cultural events around the city. It’s all about facilitating communication between strangers, beyond the typical small talk conversation starters such as ‘where are you from? What do you do? How long have you been here’, and getting people to ask deeper questions such as ‘what do you find most painful? Are you in your dream job? What do you remember most from your childhood?’ This is my favourite project because so many people can get involved. The best thing is seeing people who speak different languages find a few English words in common to be able to communicate. Friendships have been formed, tears have been shed and gaps are being bridged within Dubai’s multicultural, multifaceted community.
Our upcoming initiative is Restart the Art, where we aim to transform the white labourers’ buses into moving works of art, telling the stories of the workers inside them. The artists will work with them to bring colour to both the buses and the streets of Dubai. We’re planning to launch this at Art Week in March next year. All of these projects require financial support in order to be sustainable.
We’re not a charity or an NGO. On the spectrum of traditional operations we would fall under events and marketing, but our intention stems from a social mission. Funding is our biggest challenge. We’ve created a new model of financing called The Collective where a small group of companies pay an amount annually to support the project and have their names behind all of our works. If a certain company feels particularly connected, they can wholly adopt the project. The hardest part about this new model is educating the region’s corporates about it.
When I first started at the [sameness] project I imagined we would need to do a lot to educate the community about the concept. That was necessary at first and we’ve met some cynics along the way, but it’s amazing to watch their guard come down after witnessing a simple moment of sameness with a child, or a person from another religion, culture or background, and two years on, I can humbly say that people in the community are now teaching me, through their enthusiasm for authenticity and understanding of sameness as we introduce them to new projects time after time.
For more on the [sameness] project visit www.thesamenessproject.com.
How you can practise everyday sameness
1 Look past all the differences between you and others and remember that you both share a common; you’re both human beings. You will both go through happiness, joy, love or pain in your life and your separateness won’t make the world a more peaceful place, your sameness will.
2 Give a stranger a high five every day.
3 Learn the name of the security guard in your building.
4 Choose empathy over sympathy. There’s nothing wrong with sympathy, but it only goes so far. Empathy shows the person you are present to them and attuned to what they’re experiencing.