Peace through Culture – a citizens’ dialogue

A Report by Bas Lafleur
Peace Palace, The Hague, 10 May 2017

Photo by Xander Remkes. 

Photo by Xander Remkes. 

When arguments are formed from emotions and fear, we cannot tackle them with rational arguments.
— Rabin Baldewsingh

We live in transformational times. The need to find ways of bringing communities together and creating more inclusive and just societies – where all are welcome, valued and listened to – is greater than ever. At the same time, there are countless interesting examples of citizens taking action and offering alternative solutions, providing inspiration for policy-makers and members of the business sector alike. The aim of the citizens’ dialogue is to catalyse these initiatives by providing a platform for co-working in order to gain new insights on how to build more cohesive communities.

This day is about bringing different stakeholders (some 200 people, including European policy makers, local change-makers, artists, collectives and NGO’s, business representatives, and especially a big group of students from The Hague University of Applied Sciences) together to create collaborative solutions and actions. The main challenge is divided into 3 questions that different groups spread over 18 tables will be working on. The participants were asked to think with an open mind about the whole picture and the broader context of the challenge/questions, develop pathways to response to them and in the final plenary reflect and share their feedback on the processes and outcomes.

Working together on a concrete case and being explicit about the problem, can create a shared sense of urgency and connects individual stories to broader systems and dynamics. At the end of the session, we want to get away with some concrete steps, ideas and solutions responding to the challenge and questions and make clear where the responsibility lies.

The Challenge:

Diversity in our communities is a fact. But how can we promote and nourish inclusiveness? What can we all do (more or differently than we do now) to promote a movement towards an inclusive society? 

Three questions:     

  1. Break the isolation – How to create spaces of encounters (online and offline) where people can speak freely and let go of positions?
  2. Inclusiveness – How to ensure that all citizens feel included and empowered to actively engage?
  3. Scaling-up – Can more inclusiveness on the local level foster more solidarity in Europe? How would that work?
Rabin Baldewsingh. Photo by Xander Remkes

Rabin Baldewsingh. Photo by Xander Remkes

Keynote speech by Deputy Mayor Rabin Baldewsingh, The Hague’s Alderman for Social affairs, Employment, Neighbourhood Approach, Integration Policy and Sport

Born in Surinam in 1962, Rabin Baldewsingh arrived in the Netherlands in 1975 and moved to The Hague in 1980. He studied English Language and Culture at Leiden University. Baldewsingh has been a member of the Dutch Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid) for 30 years and served as a member of The Hague Municipal Council. Before he was active in initiating and producing cultural and media programmes, he was the Director of the Broadcaster Mozaïek, the local migrant broadcaster of Rotterdam.

Diversity in our communities is a fact. But how can we promote and nourish inclusiveness?
— Rabin Baldewsingh

At the end of his speech, Rabin Baldewsingh urges the participants to think about the following things which he considers essential to this challenge:

  • Embrace acceptance.
  • Caring and sharing (citizenship): don’t put the full responsibility with the migrants; it is a national responsibility.
  • There has to be a space of solidarity: you have to be accepted, otherwise, you will not be able to improve your life.
Photo by Xander Remkes

Photo by Xander Remkes

First Reactions from the audience: The role of politics and politicians

Start an artistic movement among politicians!
— Julie Ward

According to MEP Julie Ward, we are all global citizens. She recognises all the challenges and concerns that were mentioned by Baldewsingh in his keynote speech, but she adds that she hears them especially at the local and the national level, but not so much in the European Parliament. She therefore suggests that it is perhaps time to start an artistic movement among politicians.

In his answer to the question of how local initiatives can be an example for better inclusion on the European level, Daniel Cangemi starts by saying that the issue does resonate. He then refers to the first round of the presidential elections in France, when some 45 % of the population actually voted against the EU. According to Cangemi, we need to bring them back to a higher national and EU level. He considers this to be the role of politicians but is concerned about the fact that grassroots initiatives, which have a greater impact and appear far more effective than any of the top-down EU initiatives, are not yet scaled-up. In order to make this happen, we therefore need to come up with new ways to re-connect.

Grassroots initiatives have a greater impact!
— Daniel Cangemi
Stop the stigmatisation of individuals on the basis of background!
— Tayfun Balcik

Before finding new ways to re-connect and to start initiating a broad movement towards an inclusive society, it is perhaps first important to recognise that many people feel hurt, especially by the way they are represented in both the mainstream and social media. This is suggested by one of the participants in the audience, Tayfun Balcik, a self-described Turkish-Dutch citizen who now for the first time truly understands what the stigmatised Moroccan community must already have felt for years. He urges the media to stop stigmatising individuals on the basis of their diverging backgrounds.

Photo by Xander Remkes

Photo by Xander Remkes

Questions, quotes and comments by the reporters

Insider-partials as connectors

In his report on the discussion on the question of how to break the isolation – How to create spaces of encounters (online and offline) where people can speak freely and let go of positions? –, Hassan Mahamdallie starts by saying that the discussion at the tables was energetic and excellent. Although there was a lot of disagreement among the participants about concrete steps and possible solutions, they all felt the urgency of the topic and the need to mobilise local communities towards a more inclusive society.

He adds that most participants also felt that some key topics were missing from the key challenge and the three questions, such as the issues of economy, poverty, money, and the gaps that exist between people from different social classes: How is it possible to enter a society without sufficient economics? Then there is also the question of identities: How much of your identity, or parts of your identity, before being allowed to enter a society? According to the participants, acts of negotiation and mediation are needed to start solving these problems.

The role of politicians was also discussed. Many were of the opinion that people working in the cultural field and other citizens are more and more taking over the role of politicians because they have the feeling that the problems are not being discussed or taken seriously at the political level (national and EU). At the very least, the political solutions are considered to be insufficient. In other words, citizens are nowadays trying to fill the gap that is left behind by their politicians. Some even suggest that they should get out of the way completely and that the citizens should take matters into their own hands, to come up with their own solutions and develop their own initiatives.

A concrete solution offered by the participants is the use of Insider-partial mediation. Insider-partial mediation is mediation that is done by a person who – rather than a completely neutral mediator – is already involved in a certain conflict (someone who is an ‘insider’), and, at least to some extent, is aligned with one side or the other (someone who is ‘partial’). The key to the success of insider-partial mediation is the stature of the person mediating. They must be someone who is known and respected by all parties to the ‘conflict’, and someone who is trusted to be fair, even though they are associated with one side or another. Thus a central role in trying to overcome this ‘political deficit’ could be played by a network of insider-partials, not self-appointed community representatives who can act as agents of change.

Caring and sharing

Vivian Paulissen’s brief report addresses the question of inclusiveness, or how we can ensure that all citizens feel included and empowered to actively engage in society. But what is inclusiveness and how do we actually include someone? Is this a mutual act? And if it is only one group that decides who is in and who is out, should we not fear for the power imbalance that comes up?

As Mr. Baldewsingh has said in his keynote speech, some people are invited to the party, but not to the dance. But even if they are invited to the dance, how can we dance together? What it all boils down to is feelings. Everyone wants to feel safe and at home. In order to create such safe spaces in which people can truly live together it is important that we do not only stay  at the intellectual level. Political and academic analyses and debates can only go so far. Culture is essential, but what we now also need is citizens who care and who share, who are willing to accept differences and discuss with an open mind.  

The local level is key!

In their reports, both Marjolein Cremer and Juan Freire emphasise the importance of the local level. In the words of Marjolein, “in creating a more inclusive society, the local level is key!” She also underscores the need for safe spaces if we want to ensure that all citizens feel included: To empower and enable people, we need to create spaces where they can interact themselves, rather than taking people by the hand and forcing them from the top down.

We should also be aware of how certain politicians and mainstream news outlets frame and discuss minorities and migrants, often stigmatising large groups of people. In addition to reframing our language it is especially important also to redefine our public space, and to bring it up for discussion. To turn these public spaces into sites where negotiation can take place.

We also need to find new ways of finding ‘common good’,  ideas and concrete solutions that are shared and beneficial for all members of society, which will help to bridge the gaps between ‘us’ and ‘them’. In order to scale-up local initiatives, we need to find the entry points at the national and European levels, and develop new strategies for them that will enable us to ‘reframe’ current perspectives on inclusiveness and solidarity. Finally, other themes that returned in the discussions among the participants, and which were considered essential elements in building up inclusiveness, were civic education and political culture.

From scaling-up to scaling-out

Juan Freire, who primarily focusses on the question of scaling up – Can more inclusiveness on the local level foster more solidarity in Europe and how would that work – adds the following points:

  1. Good practices. Many local good practices about inclusivity and integration were identified in the different roundtables. Debates focused in the analysis of the key factors common to those practices and the ways to share and spread this knowhow and experiences to other communities and contexts.
  2. Storytelling and hybrid identities. A new narrative is needed; one that helps to move the identity framework from the traditional one, binary, to one based in the concept of hybrid identities meaning that everybody (and not only the stated as migrants) are the combination of different experiences, origins and culture. Complimentarily we need good stories (as those identified in point 1) and not only the bad ones that are almost the only focus now of the media. This new storytelling is where the main responsibility of the media is.
  3. Education and public space are two key enabling factors. Real public spaces, where diverse people can meet and interact in a safe and free context, are an essential "infrastructure" to develop any project. It is a matter of spatial justice; with the present spatial segregation we live in our neighbourhoods and cities any other action will confront formidable barriers. In this sense, education has a double role. First, working together for inclusion and peace is a collective learning process. Second, educational spaces, such as schools, universities, libraries and many other formal and informal ones, are some of the main public spaces where specific actions could be developed.
  4. Active role of migrants. Projects should be designed as "symmetric" processes. Both locals and migrants need to have an active role and, especially, migrants have an strong knowledge and experience of value for the local communities. Following the metaphor of the dance that was used during the debate, everybody has to dance but also everybody should have the possibility to opine and participate in the decision about the music to dance. In this sense, inclusiveness is a two-sided process, coherent con the new hybrid identities (or in other terms, all we are migrants and locals at the same time).
  5. Role of politics and institutions. Change is not only a responsibility of citizens and communities; the challenge is huge and institutions need to assume responsibilities ... but a new responsibility. It is not a matter of traditional politics and policies. So we need more scaling out than scaling up. We have 4, not 3, levels of organisation, action and policy-making: local, municipal, national government and European institutions. The local, mostly informal and community-based, is the start and end of this process, so citizen empowerment is the key. Institutions have to act more as infrastructures and enablers of citizen-based processes.
  6. Acceleration and sustainability. We confront an acute challenge but at the same time we need to apply a long-term perspective to develop really sustainable policies. Complimentarily, we have to take into account that we are living in an accelerated and accelerating world where technology and globalisation are drivers and the fears caused by their growing impact are increasing at the same pace. So we need to accelerate the processes working for peace and inclusion to keep the pace of the change. How to design and implement policies that are sustainable and fast at the same time is another side of the challenge we are confronting.

Politics has failed, culture can respond

In her report, Lina Isa does not come up with a set of clearly defined strategies and recommendations but answered the questions with a series statements, including:

  • Politics has failed, culture can respond.
  • Who gets to belong or not is driven by politics – narratives are problematic, because they are usually fuelled by politicians.
  • Art should not be instrumentalised for political agendas.
  • Politicians should step into the grassroots level but not be allowed to claim grassroots activities. They [people, citizens, artists] should be given the support to do it alone.
  • People claim their roles outside of politics; it does not belong to politicians, they should not claim it, but rather become part of it as individuals and citizens that create/experience the challenge of creating bridges.
  • Artists should not do the work.
  • We need leadership.
  • It is important to: de-institutionalise; listen to each other; create a bigger platform by both taking leadership and creating/using common grand narratives; use culture as a meeting space.
  • Cultural activities should not be elitist. The elites are already on board. It is important to do activities where all people can participate.
  • It is important to create safe spaces for newcomers (geographically + internally)
  • People safe in borders who create things [people that feel safe within their new space have the freedom to create things and provide a positive contribution?
  • People who do not feel part of ‘white man society’ should claim their part within society – who they are!

Can we end the discussion with more questions?

In a true performance of Socratic questioning, Rabiaâ Benlahbib answers the questions that were posed with a series of counter-questions, including:

  • Can we end the discussion with more questions?
  • Who do we belong to?
  • Who are we?
  • Could there be a mutual space where we all belong?
  • How to think in multiple identities?
  • Are we taking the time to meet and really connect with each other?
  • Have you really ever met someone online?
  • How can I create empathy?
  • Will our children create the space that we are looking for?
  • Can we please have more spaces like the one ECF Princess Margriet Award for Culture laureate Marina Naprushkina has created in Berlin?
Photo by Xander Remkes

Photo by Xander Remkes

Reactions from Rabin Baldewsingh

  • We need a common narrative, but what should that narrative be?
  • The much needed agents of change should not consist of the usual suspects.
  • The grassroots level is indeed key! Politicians need to step into the grassroots.
  • We indeed need to create new spaces or to change the already existing spaces, but how do we do that? In order to find the right entry points, we need to open ourselves up to other people.
  • Inclusivity is also much needed at the market level. For example, today there are hardly any people of colour working at the municipality of The Hague.
  • We indeed need common goods and common grounds, but what are they? There are for example different ideas about identity, but rather than singular, they are multiple. But is a person with multiple identities, and with attachments to different countries, therefore a lesser Dutch? Does having several loyalties make me less Dutch? No! It makes me stronger.
  • Education of common history is essential. This should already start at home, but it is now also time to create a public platform where others than the usual suspects can come forward.
  • The problem with the digital age and the internet is that it makes people anonymous.
  • As Goethe said, “Willst du immer weiter schweifen? Sie, das Gute liegt so nah. Lerne nur das Glück ergreifen, den das Glück ist immer da”.
  • Let’s continue the dialogue, not here at the Peace Palace, but out there in the neighbourhoods. I am going back to the grassroots!

Final remarks by HRH Princess Laurentien

  • When you ask children what we need to make inclusivity happen, they answer: “Let go of your plan”.
  • Unpredictability is essential!
  • "Act" instead of "analyse"!
  • I hope that we will all leave here with a sense of discomfort to then make things happen.·      
  • It is important to think big but to act on a sense of urgency.