Torino, Plural and United

Nuove Narrazioni
7 min readOct 5, 2020

The national lockdown imposed to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus responsible for the Covid19 disease)burdened the Italian institutions with heavy challenges. In response to that, the Municipality of Torino involved community associations in the management of the emergency and built a new social coalition: Torino Solidale Plurale. In the following, a brief analysis of what was done and some reflections about the future.

The intercultural policies of the City of Torino

For at least a decade, Torino has built its intercultural policies around the relationship with the so-called “community associations” — those associations whose membership is essentially based on ethnic, cultural or religious identity. In 2010 [link in Italian], the administration set the goal of empowering community associations to promote social inclusion; in 2018, the Guidelines for intercultural policies [link in Italian], among other provisions and goals, set up a dedicated Office for the Coordination of Intercultural Policies (more briefly: Intercultural Office).

Over the past two years, the Intercultural Office has worked closely with communities on two strands of action: strengthening the associations’ technical and organizational skills by c-organizing activities and events; and addressing specific needs by facilitating the relationship with other offices of the City (social services, education department, and so on). Thanks to this decade-long engagement, when the epidemic broke out the administration had two invaluable assets: a full address-book of communities’ stake- and need-holders, and consolidated personal relationships with most of them.

It is important to underline this aspect: you cannot improvise intercultural policies. The personal and professional relationships needed for inclusion and intercultural understanding to develop take years to blossom.

The first phase: emergence

As soon as the lockdown measures were enforced, the Intercultural Office began contacting the associations’ representatives to get a sense of their needs and actions. The interviews were conducted by phone in the second half of March and without a real script of questions, in order to leave the associations’ representatives space and freedom to report the most urgent problems.

Several leaders for each community were heard of, in order to make the process as plural and inclusive as possible. In fact, the City of Torino recognizes that communities are not monolithic and homogeneous entities. There are no “Chinese”, or “Pakistanis”, or “Muslims”: each person holds multiple identities and bears specific needs. For example, people with Chinese background may have different needs, plans and resources depending on their gender, age, social class, educational qualification, migration path and legal status, neighborhood of residence, the presence of children in their family, etc. This intersectional approach, which takes into account the different dimensions of identity in building social policies, is at the basis of the Administration’s intercultural policy.

The interviews allowed us to draw a coherent, detailed and updated mapping of the situation. Two priorities emerged: help the logistic organization of the communities and ensure accessibility to information.

1. Logistic support

As the pandemic started, many associations autonomously organized themselves to provide support to their quarantined members.

The Intercultural Office — in collaboration with the Civil Protection Department —issued special permits to allow associations’ members to move freely despite the lockdown measures. From March 26 to April 30, 25 associations requested and obtained these permits, and supported about 2,000 beneficiaries.

They worked hand in hand with the City’s social services. Sometimes, citizens contacted the institutions, which in turn involved the associations. For example, the Colombian community was asked to support a tourist who got stuck in Turin due to the lack of flights back. Some other times, the associations reported to the institutions the cases of persons who, for various reasons (linguistic, bureaucratic), had remained excluded from social benefits even though eligible. This was often the case with members of the Chinese and Filipino communities (most likely due to language barriers). This mutual collaboration represents a significant step in the direction of a new way of understanding social inclusion policies, implemented with, and no longer only for, communities with a foreign background.

2. Communication

A second urgency was providing full access to information. In those early days of the pandemic, the flow of news was continuous, chaotic, often contradictory. Not only about health provisions and quarantine rules: the jungle of subsidies and benefits allocated, each of them with a different bureaucratic process and granted by different entities (Municipalities, Regions, INPS, etc.), was excessively disorienting.

For people with a migrant background, finding their way around was more complicated. Linguistic, cultural, structural and institutional barriers in the access to services have always existed and represent a significant and well-known problem: during the pandemic, however, the risk of going from significant to catastrophic was concrete.

To address these difficulties, the Municipality of Torino collected all information about health and economic benefits on one single page [link in different languages], making use only of institutional sources and translating the bureaucratic jargon into a more accessible language. Since norms and measures changed constantly, we decided not to print paper materials and to avoid official translations, relying rather on the capacity of associations and community leaders to act as knots of a two-way communication network: towards the members of their community, translating and disseminating the contents of the institutional page (via Whatsapp or WeChat groups, Facebook pages, Instagram videos, etc.); and towards the institution, providing feedbacks on the accessibility of contents, highlighting unclear or incomplete explanations, asking for more details.

The second phase: the construction of the Network

After the first, chaotic phase of the emergency and once it became clear that the lockdown (and its economic consequences) was meant to last more than a few days, the main issue became the lack of resources.

First of all, it was necessary to improve the matching between request and availability of resources by promoting collaboration among the associations. Some of them had many volunteers but scarce means, others had more food (due to previous collaborations) but lack the language skills to interact with beneficiaries. Some others simply lacked a delivery van. A mechanism to share existing resources was needed.

Nonetheless, resources were all but sufficient. The system put in place by the social services covered the needs of the vast majority of the population, but many individual cases slipped through the institutional net. In cases like this, involving grassroots organizations is the ideal solution, thanks to their capability to detect those outside the system and their flexibly to act. This time, however, due to the economic situation, the associations and their members themselves laid in dire economic conditions.

Thus, the Intercultural Office came up with the proposal to set up a network for social inclusion, the Rete Torino Solidale Plurale [link in Italian], and to sign an agreement with three specific objectives:

  • enhancing the networking, facilitating mutual empowerment and long-term collaboration;
  • following up on the mapping of the communities’ needs;
  • supporting the community associations through reimbursements of their expenses.

The thirty members of the network were the associations which requested the permits in the first phase. They could be roughly divided into two kinds: either associations whose members belong to ethnic or religious minorities (Islamic, Chinese, Filipino, Peruvian, Moroccan, Romanian, Bengali, Tunisian, Senegalese, Colombian, Nigerian, Pan-African) or associations that work with those minorities.

The network was set up between May and June, worked online through the Summer and could only meet in person in September (I will talk about this soon in a future article).

Final thoughts and next steps

I close this short post with some brief reflections on the whole project, on its long-term objectives and on the risks I can see.

  • The main need of migrant/diverse communities is access to information and services, both in normal times and during emergencies. Thick linguistic, cultural, structural and institutional barriers prevent migrant/diverse communities to fully enjoy the same rights and opportunities of the majority.
  • The intercultural strategy of the City of Turin is essentially based on building and strengthening relationship with community associations, which are considered bridges between the institutions and the communities. Their involvement during the pandemic was fundamental to map the needs of the communities, to foster communication and to provide aid.
  • Three caveats to the previous point. The first: intercultural policies of this type, based on past collaborations and mutual trust, are not improvised and must be built over the years. The second: intercultural policies must be based on an intersectional and not monolithic vision of the communities themselves. The institution must be inclusive and listen to all possible actors, stake- and need-holders, avoiding the temptation to cherry-picking the easier topics — and the softest representatives. Third: working with community associations does not replace the citizen’s direct access to services. The two mechanisms are and must remain complementary to avoid the risk of enhancing clientelism.
  • Community leaders or spokespersons are often in a difficult position. Becoming a collection point for the needs of an entire community can be unpleasant, especially if these are not met, while the requests of the institutions can be unreasonable or unachievable. The risk is an overload of responsibilities and a loss of authority towards both sides: at this point, the bridge collapses. A regular check of the well-being of the involved leaders and representatives must be one of the main activities of an effective intercultural policy.
  • Finally: the long-term goal of the City of Torino is to make the communities partner (and no longer just beneficiaries) in the design, implementation and evaluation of public policies. The Torino Solidale Plurale network represents a first step and a good practice in this sense.