Anti-racism as a Urban common: the first step

Nuove Narrazioni
5 min readSep 11, 2020

Recap sequence (here the first episode [link in English]): in June, the Municipality of Torino published a call to participate in the drafting of a Pact of Urban Commons on Anti-racism. Dozens of organizations have sent their proposals to participate in the process. Below, an analysis of the proposals received and of the first meeting.

The results of the selection

First, some numbers. Sixty actors responded to the announcement published on June 8 [link in Italian]: one of the proposals was rejected for formal reasons, so fifty-nine subjects (plus the Municipality) started the process. We can roughly divide them into three types:

  • community associations. These include associations or informal groups whose members are mainly (or exclusively) persons with ethnically, religiously or culturally diverse background. There are seventeen in total, including seven nation-based associations (from China, the Philippines, Romania, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa), one whose members are refugees and asylum seekers, one with a focus on gender, one composed of intercultural mediators. One proposal came from a single person, three from religious minorities (Islam, Judaism and Protestantism). The others are organizations with a mixed membership;
  • third sector. This is the largest group (thirty-four) and the most heterogeneous. Among them, ten associations have a mixed membership but deal specifically with integration or intercultural dialogue, while the others include youth centers/associations, NGOs working on human rights protection or international cooperation, social enterprises, LGBT+ groups, training institutions, foundations for the promotion of inter-religious dialogue;
  • Institutions. This group counts eight units including museums, trade unions, city-wide networks of other associations or community centers.

Those numbers are in line with what we expected/feared. As I previously noted: “[…y]ou may like it or not, but chances are high that most of the actors involved in the Pact-drafting will be… white.” Thus, the numeric relevance and the role of people with diverse backgrounds and of community associations were central issues during the first meeting. Not only because of numerical representation, but also because each of the three groups expressed different priorities in the submitted proposals:

while community associations focused on the unequal access to services, third sector actors and institutions rather prioritized other kinds of actions such as neighborhood intercultural policies or data collection.

The first meeting: specific objectives and activities

We did not want to wait too long, so we organized a first meeting on July 16, 2020, a few days after the selection process was completed. Here are some considerations.

  • The preparatory group that organized and facilitated the meeting was composed of public officers (which meant, in this specific occasion: almost all male, and all white). This may seem at odds with the inclusive and participatory approach underlying the whole process — however, doing otherwise would have been difficult. Involving all fifty-nine actors would have required much more time (or another meeting — and who prepares that?); on the other hand, selecting only some of them would have been arbitrary.
  • Specific objectives for the day: 1) to introduce the political purpose and the administrative practices of the Urban Commons; 2) to get participants to know each other; 3) to collect ideas, needs and proposals for the next meeting (scheduled for September).
  • Logistics were complex, as anti-Covid social distancing rules were still in force throughout the country. One of the most concrete effects was that participation was limited to one representative for each association/group. The meeting took place at Open011, a training center and youth space owned by the City and managed by the DOC Cooperative.
  • For facilitating the activities we made extensive use of non-formal education methodologies (what is that? Here is a brief introduction and some useful resources).

The first meeting: how it went and its take-aways

The meeting lasted a couple of hours and was divided into three moments, each of them dedicated mainly to one of the specific objectives.

First, City Deputy Mayor for Human Rights Marco Giusta introduced the political philosophy, the administrative tools and some practical examples of the Regulation of urban commons. After that, the whole team (including myself) expressed their wishes, fears and reflections about the whole process.

Secondly, participants were asked to do the same through activities that helped them getting to know each others:

  • ONE Activity in pairs. Participants were asked to introduce themselves to each other following some questions provided by the facilitators: “who you are, what does your association do” (five minutes).
  • TWO Activity in four (two pairs from the previous activity). Participants were first asked to introduce the partner of the previous activity; then, to share with the group their goals and expectations regarding the Pact (ten minutes).
  • THREE Activity in groups of eight (two of the groups from the previous activity). After a brief introduction, participants were asked to discuss “5 things that must be there and 5 things that must not be there at the next meeting”. There was no limitation: groups could pick up themes, methodologies, ideas, attitudes, places, etc.

Finally, each group from activity THREE presented and discussed its results in the plenary. Here some significant points and some personal reflections:

One. The main topic of the day, even more than race or racism, was power and power relations among actors, in particular between institutions and citizens. This raises a general question:

how much are institutions an expression of the majority and how much a power balancer between majorities and minorities?

Two. The question is not (only) philosophical, rather very practical: what role should this City play in this specific process? During the meeting, some participants criticized the fact that public officers did not participate in the activities and asked for more mingling in the next meetings. But the institution is also the actor both responsible for systemic discrimination and lobbied to for changing:

how can the Municipality be an actor like the others in the sharing activities but also the infrastructure to be challenged and changed? How to build a space in which the diversity of each actor is recognized and respected?

Three. The workspace must be safe, non-discriminatory and open, in order to facilitate mutual learning, alliance building and networking. This means working on attitudes, not only on skills and abilities: heteronormativity, sexism and racism are well rooted in everyone’s behavior. In fact, some oppressive behaviors (whitesplaining, occupation of spaces, colonization of the language, etc.) clearly emerged also during the meeting. Addressing them would require time and dedicated activities, but this is not a self-awareness group: what to do to ensure a space that is both safe and operational?

It will be essential to find a very delicate balance between the time dedicated to the construction of a practical and operational political tool and the time dedicated to the construction of meaningful relationships that dismantle, one piece at a time, the oppressive unconscious models of the participants.

Four. On a positive note: interest in the project is concrete. Despite the relatively short notice (less than fifteen days), despite the midweek afternoon hours (inconvenient for workers), despite the almost-vacation time and despite the logistics made complicated by social distancing, the meeting was attended by fifty-two participants (forty-seven from the CSOs and five public officers). Furthermore, each participant enriched the debate with their own point of view and offered his/her skills and expertise to the group. The group has a lot of skills and knowledge as a whole, but at extremely variable levels.

A common language, perspective and meaning will be needed to merge the individual strength into a working group. In a word, a shared anti-racist narrative is needed. Otherwise, singularities will prevail and the Pact will be a list of actions and projects without a unified purpose.

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