Community Engagement and Trust in the EU – Learning How to be Free

Following the Brexit referendum, Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at The Bank of England set about touring the UK in a series of forums and town halls in places where regular people often omitted from policy debates live. He realized that even a monetary institution mostly occupied with keeping prices stable and the banking system robust must now concentrate on outreach and listening to the needs of those who feel forgotten to avoid catastrophic consequences. The City of London also experienced a community backlash after an abysmal fire in Grenfell Tower, a public housing building that became an inferno when a fire consumed the structure killing more then 70 people. The fallout from the incident was just as heated when community groups emerged in protest and publicly expressed that their complaints about the building had been ignored for years.

Many citizens across Europe today feel frustrated and voiceless in the face of heightened global dynamics and rapid change. As technology transforms the way that many people work, traditional jobs are increasingly threatened. This enhances tensions between polarized citizens. SEAT Inc., an automotive manufacturer and one of the Catalonia region of Spain’s biggest employers, has automated approximately 80 percent of production. As people feel increasingly threatened by automation, many are adopting populist messages and are vulnerable to being manipulated by polarizing ideologies that blame immigrants and the most vulnerable for the problems of society. 

European cities should look to cultural institutions and foundations as important tools for bridging cultural divides and performing outreach to vulnerable populations like the Matonge community in Brussels. Matonge is a diverse community with a high concentration of residents of Congolese descent. The community is complex in light of the Belgium humanitarian massacre of the Congo at the turn of the last century, where the brutality brought about from the exploitation of the country’s rubber resources contributed to an estimated 10 million deaths. What’s more complex are the statues in the city that glorify King Leopold II, the perpetrator of many of the atrocities. The Bozar Fine Arts Center has developed programming with leadership from the Congolese community to try to gain trust and promote healing. They created a “Black Artlantic” festival called Afropolitan that celebrates African culture through the visual and performing arts inspired by Professor Paul Gilroy’s book, Black Atlantic. Using a third party like an arts center to bridge a cultural divide was effective but the state funded institution received some resistance and was asked to halt plans by the Bozar for a celebration of Patrice Lumumba, the fist Prime Minister of independent Congo.

Another example of effective community outreach is The Romanian-American Foundation which has been reaching out to hard-to-reach communities in Romania through investments in community foundations. They work with local partners and match funds raised by community groups for projects that promote civic participation. The need for outreach and cultivating all participants into the decision-making process is especially important in Romania where people still psychologically carry the durable communist legacy of punitive repression of free speech. Bucharest for example has only been free from communist dictatorship for approximately 30 years. Many citizens have recent memories of censorship, propaganda, and only being able to express their voices in praise to dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. This has fostered an environment of mistrust as citizens continue to feel they will be somehow punished for being a part of the democratic process. As someone at the Foundation put it, “we are living in a free country, and learning to be free”. So far, the Romanian-American Foundation has matched nearly half a million dollars to community foundations and have also assisted in early stage development for projects ranging from agricultural schools and eco-tourism to biodiversity and entrepreneurial training.

Gaining trust in communities is difficult. This is exacerbated in an environment where people have felt disenfranchised and excluded from the decision-making process for many years. Partners like cultural institutions and foundations can be effective in bridging cultural divides and helping communities build capacity. Continued partnerships like these will lead to more stable democratic outcomes and ensure that all people are a part of the decision-making process.

Published by Kelwin Harris

Kelwin Harris is a public speaker, city planner and public engagement professional who focuses on creating equitable communities, empowering people that have been historically excluded from connectivity, and dismantling inequity in Chicago.

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