Pact for an Anti-Racist Turin. A reflection.

Nuove Narrazioni
6 min readApr 13, 2021

Between December 2020 and February 2021, Licia Cianetti — a researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London — carried out a series of informal conversations with some of the participants in the co-designing process of Turin’s Pact on Anti-Racism as Urban Common: Rosalie Bajade (Filipino Cultural Association of Piedmont), Tommaso Pozzato (Balon Mundial), Ayoub Moussaid (InMenteItaca), Luca Fancello (InMenteItaca) e Joy Uzoije (Movement “Tenente Mercurio”). The text below is a summary of the key points that emerged from these conversations, written down by Licia Cianetti and then revised by all. The resulting collective reflection appreciates all that is novel and promising in the process of co-writing the Pact, but also highlights some critical points. Not with the intention of discrediting the Pact, but to provide some ideas on how to keep developing this and future initiatives.

What’s new?

The idea of establishing a medium/long-term pact between the City and civil society to build new antiracist practices together is innovative. It is an important moment of opening up, both for the Municipality and for the organisations that are taking part in the process. For the Municipality this
opening up offers the opportunity to recognise that there is an issue of institutional racism, that it is a problem internal to the institution, and that therefore the institution needs external eyes and arms to tackle it. Also for civil society organisations the Pact can signal an important cultural shift because it encourages them to find new modes of working collaboratively, as it puts around the same table organisations that are otherwise more used to competing for the same scarce resources than to working together.

The fact that many different groups and organisations have decided to engage isthis open-ended process, without a predetermined plan (and without any assurance of funding) but for a common cause can already be considered a success for the Pact. Moreover, this process of horizontal co-construction, in which civil society organisations and civil servants work together, can
be a strength for the future as it helps shielding the Pact from electoral turmoil.

Looking towards the future, if the organisations that take part in the Pact stick together, they can keep the Pact alive and push its objectives forward even with a political change in the local administration.

Critical points

As always, doing something new is difficult. Because when we try to do something that hasn’t been done before there is no clear path and we must proceed by trial and error.

But also because every new initiative is built on top of “old” iniquities and exclusions that tend to crop up and reproduce themselves.

It is in this clash between the ideal and the reality of the Pact that some critical points emerge, which we summarise under two themes below, as a way to start a conversation and think about the future of the Pact.

Who is there, who is not, who speaks, who doesn’t?

Notwithstanding the inclusive intentions, the process has not fulfilled the initial idea of a Pact written by the people who have direct experience of racism. Put bluntly, there are few people with direct experience of racism in the (virtual) room and those are often silent. It is important to reflect on why this is the case, even if the answer is complex and has to do with those “old” structures mentioned above. A sentence from one of the participants summarises well this “old” dynamic that has reappeared inside this new process: “we foreigners are students, we’re not teachers yet”. While
bringing different organisations and experiences around the same table is important, it is also (if not more) important also to think about how we build a shared space:

  • At the level of how we structure it, tight timelines and working practices that facilitate the (co)design of projects can reduce the space for listening. If the focus moves too quickly to which and how many projects can be launched as part of the Pact, those who are used by
    profession to think in terms of projects will feel in their element, but those who have direct experiences of racism that do not translate smoothly into a project will have little room to share them. This is a crucial point, because “talking about racism in theory and writing projects about it is one thing, experiencing it is another”. This does not mean that no projects can emerge from direct experience, but that there is a difference in sensibility and ownership that gets lost if we think of the project first and the experience later.
  • At the level of language, beyond possible linguistic barriers, the use of “progettese” (project-writing jargon) as the working language contributes to reinforcing a hierarchy between the project-writing experts (the “teachers”) and those who are not (the “students”), which determines who has the authority to speak and who remains silent. As noted by one of the participants, silence is not a good sign in a participatory process because “where there is silence it means that people either don’t understand or don’t agree”.

So what can be done?

First of all, we must think more about how we set the timeline of a participatory process. The (strict) times of local administration risk to limit those (longer) of participation, which needs more time to build trust and find new modes of collaboration. This is particularly true when we want to expand the circle of the participants. Establishing a strict timeline can help to keep momentum and obtain the result (signing the Pact) but it makes participation easier for those who are used to work on project-writing with strict deadlines, while reducing the space for new collaborative logics to emerge from the Pact that really put experiences of racism at the centre.

To flip the “old” dynamics between “teachers” and “students” we could rethink the process in two phases: one of listening, which engages those with direct experiences of racism in dictating the agenda (priorities, objectives, long-term vision for the Pact), and a second phase of project-writing, in
which the project-writing experts (both from the Municipality and the civil society) intervene to support the conversion of experiences into projects, as allies rather than the driving force of the Pact.

Thinking about the future, now that the Pact has been written but the listening phase has been modest, the reflection about who’s speaking and who’s not can be brought back into the sub-groups that will implement the Pact. Not least by spending some time to think about how to create inclusive modes of collaboration within the Pact, for example by adapting informal education practices to facilitate exchange and listening before project-writing and implementation.

And what’s the Municipality doing?

One of the thorniest questions that emerge from any horizontal collaboration between a government institution and civil society is about the role of the institution. There is of course a question of money: projects and activities have costs, the active participation of sections of civils society that are not professionalized (that is, that do not write projects as part of their job) needs to be supported financially, and in general a recurring question throughout the co-writing of the Pact was “but how does the Municipality invest in this?

Beyond the basic issue of who puts the money, this question has a broader relevance. It is also about the extent to which the whole local administration “machine” is interested and engaged in this process; whether there is a wider political vision on how to use this process to tackle institutional and systemic racism, or whether it is a great initiative of the Human Rights Office that can link together a series of good projects (by itself already a good result) but doesn’t change city policies in any deeper way.

In general, there is a basic difficulty for the institution to work with civil society as equals: the institution finds itself at the same time participating in the process, directing it (because, even if with flexibility and openness, it defines times, modalities and perimeter of action), and being the ultimate target of the process. Most crucially, not all the interventions on the institution (what we need to do to “fix” institutional racism) and on society (what we need to do to “fix” systemic racism) can be reduced to projects. They also need wider policies of institutional change, redistribution and equality.

The Pact can have an important role to play towards formulating and realising this wider political vision. If that’s the objective, though, thinking in terms of projects risks limiting both the scope of action of the Pact, and the role (by necessity central) of the institution in promoting a clear political vision and wider inclusive policies. Thinking about the future of the Pact and how it could come to serve this stronger role, the “systemic racism” subgroup, which highlighted some of the issues discussed above, or a different formation from inside the Pact could become an institutionalised interface between the Pact and the wider Municipality. This will allow the Pact to serve as partner, guide and monitor for the Municipality to reform itself and its policies in an
inclusive and antiracist direction.

Do you have any questions, doubts or reflections? The write me! Leave me a comment below or contact me on Twitter at tw / @ orpheo85