Third Act: Torino’s work for an Antiracist Plan moves online

Nuove Narrazioni
6 min readDec 7, 2020

Initially announced in March this year, the open call of the Municipality of Torino to draft a Pact of Urban Commons on Antiracism had to be delayed due to the Covid19 related emergency, and was published in June.

Once the applications were received and selected, the City organized a first meeting in July and a second in September, and was planning two more before the end of the year; instead, the renewed social distancing measures imposed for Piedmont forced the City staff to move the activity online.
In this article, I would like to illustrate the objectives and results of the third meeting, the challenges and opportunities of the new method, and share some reflections on the state of the arts of the process.

The third meeting

The challenges

During the second meeting of the Working Group, the participants outlined the definitions, values ​​and objectives of the Pact; the next step would be to define the single activities.

That poses a first challenge: a relatively recent instrument in the Italian legislation, Urban Commons are still widely unknown and not necessarily suitable for any type of action. Furthermore, different cities have different, specific regulations. To avoid having groups working for weeks on proposals that would not fit into the Torino Urban Commons Regulamentation, we decided to take a moment and review what Urban Commons are, how the legislation allows to achieve the expected outcomes, and what kind of actions does a Urban Commons Pact preclude and/or incentives.

A second challenge is purely organizational and arises from moving the meetings online: how to do it, and how to be sure no one is left behind in the process?

Logistics and participation

The third meeting of the Working Group to draft a Urban Commons Pact on Antiracism was held online (on Google Meet) on 28 October.

The participation was significant and in line with previous meetings, with about sixty people connected (some for the entire duration of the meeting, others more briefly).

The meeting was moderated by Deputy Mayor for Human Rights Marco Giusta with the logistical help of his staff and Human Rights officers, and with content briefing from Gianni Ferrero and Emanuela Casula of the City Urban Commons Office and from Professor Alessandra Quarta of the University of Torino.

1. Urban Commons

The main part of the meeting was dedicated to review the City of Torino Urban Commons Regulation [link in Italian]. As for many abstract and legal concepts, they are better defined in negative. This is what a Pact for Urban Commons is not:

  • a Pact is not a purchase of services by an institution. The City is not paying to buy a service it has defined and that the executor must simply provide;
  • for similar and symmetrical reasons, a Pact is not a request for a contribution. No direct transfer of resources to realize activities decided and implemented by a CSO;
  • a Pact is not an advocacy or lobbying campaign, in which a civil society coalition or movement demands the institution to change a policy.

All these relationships are tainted by hierarchical elements at odds with the general Urban Commons philosophy and with the specific guidelines of the Torino Regulation:

  • Urban Commons are material (such as parks, or buildings) or intangible (such as big data or a set of practices) goods. There is no a priori definition: a good becomes a Urban Common following the citizens’ decision;
  • in this specific case, the Urban Common the Municipality and the citizens want to jointly take care of is the set of practices, knowledge and ideas built over the years to contrast racism. This immaterial assett is currently fragmented, and the Pact should facilitate synergy and help common action to protect and enhance its use;
  • since the management of a Urban Common is not a list of obligations and duties, rather a selection of common objectives and activities to be carried out, the partners’ first step is to co-design these activities;
  • once objectives are outlined and activities defined, the parts sign a legally binding Pact to perform actions. For example, they could agree to open an information and support desk for victims of racist hate crimes. The Pact should balance precision and flexibility: while it is important to specify who does what (following the previous example, who provides the physical space for the desk, who will be the operators, who will cover the management costs, and so on), a certain degree of flexibility is needed to adapt actions to the context (during an unforeseen event such as a pandemic, partners may find it useful to move online the activities of the abovementioned desk);
  • co-management involves all tasks needed for the daily implementation of the activities, conflict management among parts, quick adaptation to external challenges, and so on.

2. The thematic areas

The second point on the agenda was reviewing the path forward in the light of the new security measures.

Starting from the objectives that emerged during the September meeting, four thematic working groups were created: access to services, narratives, empowerment of community associations and education.

The associations were given a few days to sign in into the groups with a maximum of two options (to keep numbers manageble through online group work); once the groups were formed, the Municipality Offices would draw a calendar of meetings for each of them (by mid-November) and provide preliminary materials and organize rooms on its online platform.

Three cross-cutting themes — which emerged during the September meeting — will be considered within all four thematic areas, from an intersectional perspective: sexual identity (gender identity, sexual orientation, gender role); youth; and labour.

Final remarks

The first online meeting mainly consisted of a frontal presentation of the Urban Commons Regulation and Q&A session, and was no more than a pilot episode; the next meeting of the groups will pose a completely new series of challenges. For once, online participation should be easier for working persons as it cuts out commuting time and allows easier conciliation with family duties like childcare (although it strongly depends on the child). Furthermore, smaller groups and much more writing than talking could help reduce language barriers. However, the real outcomes are difficult to predict.

The question is not so much whether online working will be more or less simple and effective in itself, rather for whom it will be — a question that is difficult to answer in advance, but that must be kept in mind during the process.

A second reflection concerns the role of the Municipality in the next phases. The number of groups and subgroups will make it impossible for public officers to be present in (let alone to govern) all of them. What impact will it have on participants?

One could be tempted to say that, left on their own, civil society actors will have it easier to frame their needs and demands. After all, Municipality is at the same time promoter and future signer of the Pact, but on many issues (for example, access to services) it is the counterpart, pressured to change its (external) policies and (internal) practices.

But things are not so simple. CSOs maintened over the last months a complex relationship with the Municipality role and advanced two requests partially at odds with each other: to leave ownership of the path to the community associations by stepping back in the meeting management; and to strongly commit to the process by keeping the reins of the logistics to make participation easier for activists (most of whom volunteers) by reducing their duties.

I do not think any political science manual has ever spent a single paragraph on it, but political practitioners know very well how much impact has the logistic management of meetings (preparing the mailing list, setting up invitations and meetings, moderating them, drafting minutes). Let a point out from the minutes, or water it down, and a one-hour discussion on a potentially uncomfortable topic disappears completely from the group memory and the process.

If the Municipality holds control of the logistics, it will only keep replicating the ambivalence of its participations and an imbalanced structure of power. But is the opposite also true? Could the practical, daily managing of the process open spaces for an actual ownership of the Pact by side of the community associations ?

Organizing the work of the four groups and the countless subgroups, encouraging self-management but guaranteeing backups in case of difficulty, building (without forcing or improvising) the condition for a power transition, peddling between actually governing some subgroup while stepping back in the groups (or viceversa): these are actions that could provide with a practical solution to the riddle of the position of the institutions in the Urban Commons Pacts by giving concrete ownership to civil society actors.

In the months of November and December, the different groups and subgroups will begin their journey, and I hope to be able to report some first impressions and results by the end of the year.

In the meantime, if you have any questions, concerns or reflections, write me! Leave me a comment below or contact me on Twitter at tw / @ orpheo85