What does it mean to live in Europe today? While the answers are many and complex, our plurality and common experiences hint at a common purpose: creating a Union of equality by all and for all. But here’s the thing: only by embracing diversity and ensuring inclusion at all levels, can we bring Europe closer to a true Union of equality.
Yesterday, 28 April 2022, Helena Dalli announced the winners of the European Capitals of Inclusion & Diversity Award. The Award recognises the quality and commitment of local authorities fostering inclusion and diversity. In this blog post, I draw lessons from the experience of representing Equinet as a juror of this Award. The Jury included representatives from the European Roma Grassroots Organisations Network, European Youth Forum, ILGA-Europe and European Disability Forum, and was guided by the expertise of Niall Crowley and Carla Calado, with the support of the European Commission and the European Committee of the Regions.
However, this experience would be less meaningful without a context, a personal story, and some of the good examples that take us to the purpose.
Living in Europe is a different experience for each person. In my case, raised by a single mother in a small city in the south of Europe, it soon meant that my skin colour and afro hair would bring different challenges to my childhood. Hate speech and stereotypes made their mark, but no more than those encountered by ‘other Europeans’ such as LGBTIQ+ persons, people with disabilities, or immigrants and refugees, among others. I became aware early that while we all might like to join the thrill of being part of a greater community, some of the obstacles and barriers were of a different kind, and underlying root causes required a different approach.
In Europe, there isn’t only one story, but many to be told and accommodated. Such diversity requires increased representation, a space to voice the needs and experiences of ‘other Europeans’, and opportunities to participate across all areas of life to raise awareness and promote integration. To achieve this goal, we need to make sure that these aspirations are translated into policies and practices, and by finding people that are willing to make a change, we might as well encourage others and foster mutual learning.
Identifying good practices is paramount at this historical juncture, where a profound backlash against hard-won progress is occurring in all spheres. This gives the first-ever Capitals of Inclusion and Diversity Award a value beyond its symbolism. On March 29, the Jury of the Award met to determine the winners. It represented a good diversity of Europe, each one bringing their own subjectivity in addition to the perspective of those persons they represented. Nonetheless, we all had our similarities too. At the beginning of the meeting, I felt uneasy, aware that the people from whom I was sitting across the table (and the screen), not only represented millions of voices but also brought years of hard work and experience exposing their challenges, fights and achievements around Europe. The forthright sharing of our goals and vision quickly turned those fears into friendly respect. Yet, no matter how much admiration I devoted to them, stubborn as I can be sometimes, I had my winners set in stone.
The three winning entries, Cologne, Gothenburg and Barcelona presented a systematic approach, with a long-term commitment, as well as well-planned and resourced strategies for diversity and inclusion. Gold winner Cologne, the first German city to sign the Diversity Charter, has approx. 1.1 million inhabitants, of which 426,000 have a migration background. The city has 116,000 severely disabled residents, 130 religious communities, and 10.6% of inhabitants identifying as LGBTI. Cologne’s commitments to diversity and inclusion include the full range of grounds as well as the establishment of four city working groups enabling political participation for groups affected by discrimination. In addition, besides having an Office for Gender Equality, the city established the Office for Integration and Diversity to address integration, LGBTI, disability, religion, and anti-discrimination issues across the city. Cologne launched different actions to promote diversity awareness within the local authority, with 97% of public offices already implementing discrimination-sensitive administrative language and adopting city-wide action plans for almost all diversity-related topics.
Particular merit has to be accredited to small cities and towns considering their limited resources. Specially striking was the ambition and determination of cities such as Koprivnica, Ingelheim am Rhein and Antequera. The City of Koprivnica has 29,500 inhabitants in Croatia with 10% of persons with disabilities. Since 2005, Koprivnica committed to create the necessary preconditions for equalizing opportunities for persons with disabilities and preventing social exclusion through the Strategy of the Unified Policy for Persons with Disabilities. It encompasses a broad range of policy fields and actions in different areas such as education and entrepreneurship. The award jury was also struck by the City of Ingelheim am Rhein with its 36,255 inhabitants, including 110 different nationals, 23% of persons with a migration background and an increasing influx of refugees from Western Asia and East Africa. Ingelheim am Rhein has adopted a “we” culture and language, represented by the statement “We love diversity, not only when it is beautiful and useful: we face challenges and conflicts.” Emphasizing interaction, their large scope of initiatives is aimed at promoting integration and raising awareness by educating citizens through engagement with relevant associations and communities.
As public institutions concerned with promoting the fundamental value of equality and combating discrimination, equality bodies play an important role in the promotion of diversity and inclusion. When developing cooperation with local authorities, equality bodies provide them with additional support in ensuring learning opportunities, assistance, and resources are deployed and disseminated efficiently.
For instance, the Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson in Lithuania has been involved in the conceptualisation and implementation phases of the development of equality rulers. These are assessment tools for measuring the gender and diversity equal opportunities status of an organisation and identifying existing achievements and challenges concerning diversity management and mainstreaming equal opportunities. The goal is to encourage the change in institutional (organizational) practices (i. e. “behavioural change”), based on identified shortcomings and to raise awareness of the benefits of diversity management. The tool also makes it possible to compare the situation in different organisations. In addition, it can be used as a monitoring tool to track changes over time.
In 2021, Equinet’s Conference Building Equal Cities: Promoting Equality and Addressing Discrimination at the Local Level demonstrated that there is a clear value for equality bodies in engaging with local authorities to increase contact with citizens. However, while equality bodies find local level offices useful, this can often be seen as extremely difficult due to the absence of necessary resources and the need for better coordination and support. Therefore, any extension of the mandate of equality bodies should be complemented by resources and guaranteed through increased standards. European cities are becoming ever more diverse and as key actors, local authorities have to permanently adapt to the needs of population groups and capitalise on the diversity of their population.
Equality bodies, if given appropriate means, can bring forward successful local initiatives. This has been clearly emphasised by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, which recently published a Guide to support local authorities in making human rights part of people’s daily life draws on the promising practices and experiences of cities and providing City commitments, mechanisms and procedures, and tools to become a human rights city and help make fairer societies for all.
Today, we celebrate the launch of the European Diversity Month, providing a new opportunity to showcase our commitment to diversity, promote it, but also to face its challenges, and raise awareness of its benefits across Europe. At a moment when European society feels divided, it is important to put an emphasis on these cities and towns that build bridges and break down some of these silos and categories that we carry around in our heads. This not only captures the unifying element in Europe, represented in its pursuit of a more equal and inclusive society, but also points us in the right direction. Only then, when we fully embrace the diversity and inclusion of our society, will we find a more equal and inclusive answer to what it means to live in Europe tomorrow.
The views on this blog are always the authors’ and they do not necessarily reflect Equinet’s position.