Institutions must include community associations in intercultural and antiracist policy making

Nuove Narrazioni
10 min readJan 8, 2023

The originale article was published in Italian on Matite, issue 9 by Animazione Sociale (2022) and it sums the reflections developed during the five years working as Chief of staff for the City of Torino’s Deputy Mayor for Human Rights (2016–2021). After a new administration stepped in in 2021, little was left of the intercultural and anti-racist strategy outlined below. I nonetheless hope these reflections to be helpful or inspirational for other local policy makers.

For more than a decade, the City of Torino had built its intercultural policies upon the relationship with what is called, in the Italian phrasing, “associazioni di comunità” (community associations, CAs), i.e. associations whose membership is based on a common ethnic, cultural or religious affiliation [a very different from the more classic definition of “community associations” used in the US]. This definition is preferrable to the more classic “associazioni di migranti” (migrant associations) because, as a matter of fact, several of their members are second- or third-generation who never actually migrated themselves.

A first step was taken in a 2010 resolution [in Italian] stating that a “specific objective of the city policies [is] to enhance [the] potential for planning and social participation [of community associations]”. The same approach was pursued in 2018 with the City’s “Guidelines for the coordination of intercultural and participation policies” [in Italian].

Deputy Mayors Marco Giusta (right) and Alberto Unia (left) during the press conference presenting the Guidelines for interculture and participation of the City of Torino. Photo credits: Torinoclick

Both provisions are based on the assumption that inclusion policies cannot be effective unless they involve stake- and needholders in the planning, implementation and evaluation phases. In a tweet:

it is necessary to work WITH, and not FOR, the target communities.

A participatory approach is considered crucial in several international best practices such as ECCAR’s Toolkit for Equality. The Council of Europe’s Intercultural Cities Programme noted that the “consultation and participation of communities in the development, implementation and evaluation of the intercultural city strategy is not only important and a value in itself, it is essential for achievement. A genuinely intercultural city can only be achieved through the active participation of all the major institutions, groups and communities in the city”.

The Council of Europe’s Intercultural Cities Network. Photo credits: ICC Network.

An inclusive and plural involvement

Pursuing an inclusive approach is great in theory, but how to implement it in practice? How can institutions engage an entire community, made up of thousands — or even tens of thousands — of persons who often do not even enjoy voting rights or lack other means of democratic participation?

In the last decades, local authorities all over Europe tried different paths to build relations with racialized communities: the co-optation or nomination of “representative” figures; the establishment of “migrants’ parliaments”; the top-down federation of community associations.

On the contrary,

the City of Torino neither selected communities’ unique spokespersons or imposed federation processes. Rather, it worked hard on building a relationship with ALL stake- and needholders from each community.

In this article, I will first try to clarify why the City of Torino focused on the empowerment of community associations and, secondly, to outline the lessons I learned during the five years (2016–2021) spent as a chief of staff of the Deputy Mayor for Human Rights, hoping that they can be helpful or inspirational for other policy makers confronted with similar challenges.

The limitations of so-called “cous cous policy”

White, native people tend to associate community associations with what they see and experience: the organization of events, ethnic dinners, concerts and other activities useful for making the culture of a particular community / religion visibile.

For a long time, intercultural policies were based on the assumption that racism, exclusion and discrimination are rooted in the ignorance of individuals and that projects creating bridges between cultures (and people) would be sufficient to overcome integration difficulties and build a more aware (hence more equitable) society.

Open Mosque, one of the most important intercultural and interreligious events in Turin.

To be clear: the organization of convivial, cultural, social events (often labelled in Italian as “cous cous policy”) is a vital and positive driver for inclusion, and public authorities should put an effert to attend religious or secular community celebrations (the Chinese New Year, the prayer for the end of Ramadan, the Diwali lights festival, etc.). Diversity must be visible and celebrated.

Community associations: platforms for mutual aid…

But individual racism is merely the most visible tip of a systemc and institutional discrimination. Unfortunately, the systemic or institutional dimension of racism is often unrecognized in the Italian public discourse and by policy makers or public officers:

in the lack of coordinated anti-racist politics, it is often up to community associations to create spaces to contrast forms of structural exclusion.

First of all, CAs help mitigate the shortcomings of a structurally excluding welfare. When they turn to public services, foreign or racialized persons encounter linguistic and cultural barriers as well as obstacles in accessing information, sometimes due to officers’ conscious or unconscious biases, but more often because of conscious political choices (such as setting higher criteria for accessing certain benefits or imposing extra paperwork). To ovecome these forms of structural racism, communities set up mutual aid platforms (either informal or run through the associations) enabling individuals and families to face economic, health, educational and bureaucratic difficulties. Associations run information desks for newcomers, or support families bear unexpected expenses such as a utility bill or a funeral.

Filipino association ACFIL distributing food during the first COVID19 lockdown (2020)

… and spaces for civic participation

For the vast majority of non-EU foreigners, community associations are the only spaces or civic and political action and their presidents are often informal spokepersons for the community — or, rather, for parts of it. As Sardinha points out in his volume Immigrant Associations. Integration and Identity (2009),

[i]n general terms, immigrant associations not only attend to issues of solidarity, recreation and culture, but also apply pressure and lobby the political, legal and economic powers-that-be.

In fulfilling this dual function, community associations play a similar role as mutual aid societies played for the working class during the 19th and 20th century. In the majority’s perceptions, community organizations are “bridges”: a metaphor to describe what we see. But community associations are much more: safety nets, kowledge and information networks, and spaces for elaborating collective political actions.

A far-seeing strategy

The decision of the Municipality of Torino to systematically focus on the relationships with community associations was strategic and farsighted:

over the next ten or fifteen years, public institutions — in particular local authorities — will need to make up for the time lost and catch up with the demographic changes of the last thirty years, redesigning their demography and their functioning from an intercultural point of view.

More people with a migration background in public roles

The first dimension, demography, requires local authorities to increase the number of Italians with a foreign background among its ranks, in order to truefully mirror the society they govern — and to change young Italians’ narrative of their own role in the society. And narratives, as political storytelling expert Drew Westen points out, are the rules of “what is, what could be, and what should be”.

The Toolkit on antiracism in the educational field deals, among others, on how the visibility of diversity changes the perception of so-called “new generations”

The visibility of minorities among the top ranks of institutions is certainly useful to break down stereotypes and prejudices (Simon Burgess, professor of economics at the University of Bristol, calls it the “Michelle effect”), but edges tokenism if it does not challenge the power structures.

Involving racialized communities in the construction of public policies

The change Deputy Mayor Marco Giusta and I seeked was transformative and systemic: we wanted to create spaces and tools for racialised communities to be involved in all stages of public policy making:

  • in the design, reporting problems and needs elaborated through a collective discussion and translated into political requests towards the institutions by the community associations;
  • in the implementation, breaking down the mechanism whereby foreign communities and their associations are always and only “beneficiaries”, and always and only “white” cooperatives become partners (and recipients of funds) ;
  • in the evaluation, in order to be able to assess the effectiveness of the policies upon the life of the community.

The strategic objective is to rewrite the social pact for the redistribution of resources through political processes where communities participate with equal legitimacy and dignity.

A rather difficult path

The road pursued by the City of Torino for ten years has been neither linear or simple, but some positive results (especially during the Covid emergency) convinced me that some of the actions have been effective in initiate the long-awaited structural change.

I am aware that no strategy can be simply exported to another context and that cities with different dimensions, demographics and social structures (in particular the often neglected small ones) will need specific tools. However, I hope that the following résumé can be useful in sprakling reflections and discussion: local authorities officers and policy makers urgently need it.

Structuring spaces takes time and work

First of all: setting up spaces and structural changes take time.

Intercultural policies cannot be improvised, and building a relationship with associations and with their representatives requires years of patient and coordinated efforts.

When the Covid epidemic broke out, associations and institutions looked for each others for help because they were used to do so, and they found each other because contacts had already been established.

Food donations from various community associations (above, the Hinduist community) during the first Covid19 lockdown (2020) were a result of the intercultural policies of previous years

This should not be too much of a problem for those administrations which haven’t started yet:

as Chinese philosopher Confucius used to say, “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today”.

Changing the rules of the game requires longer than a political cyclus: for this reason, administrative officers must be involved from the start and relationship should be reinforced through agreements, memoranda of understanding, regulamentations and any other legal form that binds the instutitions to pluriennal workplans.

Inclusive Community Tables

Second: co-planning is crucial, so each city should create its own instrument to facilitate it. The City of Torino, for example, has made extensive use of “Community Tables”: regular meetings that included all need- and stakeholders from a single community. The system of open participation was needed to:

  • avoid clientelism. Despite the fact that the focus of institutions should be the more marginalized groups or individuals, when an institution chooses to dialogue with a one or few persons, the risk of cronism is too high. Which policy maker would resist the temptation to dialogue only with those spokepersons whom he or she finds more conciliatory, more “reasonable”? Discordant voices are often tough to hear — and, therefore, essential;
  • weaken power mechanisms within communities. Gender, sexual orientation, age, education and class play a role within communities. If communities were to “elect” one person, that would statistacally be a middle-aged, cis-heterosexual man with a higher cultural and economic level than the average of the community he is called to represents.

Creating spaces for inclusive participation of as many stake- and needholders as possible allows the voices of minorities within minorities (women, young people, people with fewer cultural tools or economic possibilities, LGBT+ people, elderly, …) to be heard. Only in this way is it possible to maintain a true intersectional approach.

Resources and institutional racism

Third: resources matter, and pretend they do not is hypocritical:

it is not possible to build a truly inclusive society if racialized communities are seen merely as beneficiaries of public policies — and never as partners.

Some community associations — like every other associations — have structural weaknesses which make more difficult for them to manage public funding. But in the vast majority their exclusion from public fundings has directly to do with forms of institutional or systemic racism.

Beaurocracy is not neutral and public calls and tenders — designed for professional, native associations — rarely take into account cultural differences. One case out of many: an association that, among other things, runs a mosque will be systematically excluded from public and private fundings because it is considered a religious body but, at the same time, will also be excluded from State fundings for religions because Islam does not have a unique institution dealing with the Italian State. It is clear how much (and why) the Italian legislative culture in religious matters is shaped upon the example of how the Vatican works.

Administrative laws are built on a political culture and history which is unique for every country and, therefore, not inclusive by default: even if it is not possible for local authorities to simply ignore the national legal framework, it would be desirable to pay attention to question at least the most blatantly Ethnocentric requirements.

To recognize and value the CAs’ capacities as equals and partners would also help fight the so-called benevolent racism. In their essay on “Media spaces of migration”, Binotto and Bruno individuate three recurring narratives for migrants: crime and irregular immigration, both connected to fear and illegality; and pietism, enrooted in the “paternalism and [the] ethnocentric, colonial-derived gaze of superiority”. The three narratives are complementary and strengthen the mechanisms of othering: while criminals are outside (our group), poors are below (us). In both cases, they do not belong (here with us).

Professor john powell explaining the mechanisms of othering

A key element in designing inclusive projects is creating spaces for equal participation to the drafting processes, reviewing — where is necessary and feasable — outdated regulamentations or systematically excluding criteria.

A work in progress: updating the processes

Finally: intercultural policies need to be constantly updated because they have to adapt to the needs and structure of an evolving reality.

Older communities change their demography; new generations have different needs and opportunities from their parents; new communities with old or new needs settle down (Ukrainians being the latest example). Furthermore, while Community Tables are flexible and inclusive, they can be seen as a first step to start a conversation: in the long run, they tend to reinforce multiculturalism, that is quite the opposite of the work we intended to do.

The City of Torino drafted and signed an Antiracist Pact (2021) with about 60 other associations and NGOs, in a way to bind the institution, racialized communities and allies in a four-years path of co-decision.

Actually, public administrations must have as many arrows in their quiver as possible. They must be ready to re-imagining projects, networks and processes involving more communities. And they cannot simply react to present challenges, rather build the platforms to foresee and address tomorrow’s challenges. As the last few years have demonstrated, working in advance and set the ground is the only way to be ready when emergencies arrive, and they will.