Social Inclusion

By Ratna Omidvar, C.M., O.Ont., Senator for Ontario, The Senate of Canada

Ratna Omidvar
C.M., O.Ont., Senator for Ontario, The Senate of Canada

Living Together: Place-Based Social Inclusion

Jane Jacobs has famously said in The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

This in its essence is a living definition of place-based social inclusion. Inclusion is a powerful word, technically it includes all of us, old and young, new or not, rich and poor. But if there is one force over others that is driving the discussion around inclusion, then that force is migration and the resulting diversity explosion.

Ask any aspiring immigrant – where do you want to go? And nine times out of ten the answer will likely be New York, Vancouver, London, Berlin, and Singapore. Big cities, bright lights, opportunity, anonymity – these are the pull factors that combine with other trends in urbanization like density and clustering that make cities where the real noise and music of diversity is heard loudest. It is in cities that the new middle class is created, lifting people out of poverty into prosperity

Migration, and the resultant diversity is one of the most contested forces in the world. It is shaping our national and global policies in different ways, it bears the brunt of populism and has given rise to a particularly noxious kind of xenophobia. Yet, it is also the source of needed talent and workers, the only way to prop up aging populations in many parts of the western world, a rich source for innovation and cultural evolution, indeed some say for the progress of human kind. And whilst these discussions take place at global and national levels, their lived and most visceral expression is found in cities. Therefore the capacity of cities to experiment and find, test and amplify solutions to inclusion are all the more important. At the same time, it also worth noting that cities also bear the brunt in the first line when exclusion prevails.

So let me make a few central observations about migration and diversity. The first is that whilst migration is a uniquely national and regional experience – people migrating from China to the USA or from India to Australia – their experience of inclusion or exclusion will be a uniquely local one. They will move in reality from Beijing to Chicago or from Bangalore to Adelaide. Their first and sometimes lasting experience of inclusion will be in your city schools, city buses and city libraries.

My second observation is that diversity and inclusion are not the same. One is a demographic reality, the other is a process that leads to equity and equality of opportunity, regardless of when and where you came from. Diversity is a demographic accident, inclusion is what you do with it.

My third observation is that inclusion does not happen accidentally, it takes intention, it takes resolution, and it takes leadership. Leadership to realize that a city that works for everyone must include everyone.

An inclusive city is much more than a prosperous city, because prosperity is not necessarily inclusive. An inclusive city is a peaceful city, a city of law and order. An inclusive city is a place where people feel safe, feel included, and know that their voice is heard, that their needs are reflected back to them in the shape of city policies and practices. So whilst these benefits may be more intangible to express, it can be argued that these are the most important reasons for city leaders to pay attention to deliberate targeted and preventative strategies and approaches to inclusion.

Let me start with a story from my beloved Toronto. One of the most if not the most diverse cities in the world. Also a city with fairly strict zoning by laws, which sometimes get in the way of place-making that is inclusive. But Toronto has overcome its fear of the unknown so to say, has adjusted bylaws at the behest of residents and as just one example, allowed for the building of open air ovens in the parks. Now in the summer, along with playgrounds and wading pools for children in Thorncliffe Park, there is an oven, which draws women, many of whom are isolated, who come out and bake naan and pizza, exchange tips and build community, because we all know that regardless of where we come from, the baking of bread is a communal event.

Let’s fly next to London, one of the most expensive cities in the world, with a very high cost of living. Both Mayor Boris Johnson and Mayor Sadiq Khan are champions of a local living wage, the LLW, which is pitched to the real cost of living in London and is higher than the national minimum wage. They exercise their leadership muscle not only in terms of their own as employers of a large work force in London, but also in encouraging employers to opt in.

Next to Copenhagen where more than 80% of the residents bike to work, the local government in partnership with the Red Cross, teaches migrant women not only to bike so that they can get to work or to shop or to classes, but also to understand traffic signals, to repair their bikes, and to decode written and unwritten rules of the cycling culture so that they become part and parcel of the fabric of the city.

The former Mayor of New Haven Connecticut, John DeStefano Jr., deserves special credit for his courageous yet very practical launch of a municipal identity card for all residents of the city, whether they are legal or undocumented. The care was designed as a protection for undocumented immigrants in New Haven. It was not only an identity card, but a library card, and a debit card to carry up to $150. Today, sensible cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and many others are in the process of doing the same.

Several cities have tackled misinformation and stereotypes: In Erlangen, Germany an engineering multinational has piloted a training program for asylum seekers as part of a city-led campaign to counter misconceptions about refugees. Barcelona has launched an anti-rumour campaign about immigrants overusing the social systems in the city. Dublin has launched an anti-racism campaign on public transport.

An idea from a city filling traditionally national space comes from Hamburg: The mayor of Hamburg sends personal letters of welcome to those immigrants who are ready to be citizens. Mayor Olaf Scholz saw the local benefits when Hamburg residents belong and have a stake in society. This tells us that all cities have a stake in citizenship uptake.

I want to end this tour of good ideas with the city of Montreal with an idea that is somewhat out of the box with these others that I have noted. It is so because it is courageous. The Mayor of Montreal, our host Mayor Dennis Coderre was once Minister of Immigration. He knows that inclusion also means bringing back people into the fold who have chosen the path of exclusion, who for some reason or other have not only no share in our society, but are determined to harm it. In 2015, he launched the country’s first de-radicalization center. The centre helps families who are worried their children or relatives may be turning towards extremism. A 24-hour hotline is available for anyone with questions and concerns. It also refers calls to the police if they are deemed alarming enough. This intervention is immediate, it is local, it is accessible.

My first good idea is about thinking of public space and allowing yourself to reimagine it through the lens of inclusion. Public space matters. We often ignore the spatial dimensions of inclusion, the power of zoning as a means to bring people together, whether it is to celebrate, dance or protest. Think or repositioning space for new uses – such as deploying containers as startups for culinary entrepreneurship or the use of local swimming pools as places where inner city kids can fish.

My second good idea is about municipal policies. When these policies are deliberately inclusive, their impact is different and preventative. So think about your procurement policies, think about the hiring approaches. It’s not just who you are, but who you hire and who you do business with. And perhaps think about a local living wage.

My third good idea is to encourage you to think about local initiatives to address and ease national pain, whether it is climate change or disease, but then ramp it up on the national stage. Vancouver is the first city that has taken a deliberate approach to closing the emotion, spatial, cultural and economic gap between the only two segments of our population that are growing – Canada’s immigrants and Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. If we are to be a reconciling nation, that reconciliation between these two communities is best started in our cities.

My fourth good idea is that a rising tide will lift all boats. Inclusion done well results in shared prosperity. This is true in economic terms, and in social terms as we know that cohesion and trust bloom in diverse, inclusive neighbourhoods. It is also true that inclusion for one group for newcomers strengthens your muscles for all others. This is a lesson from the gender equity movement.

My fifth good idea, and possibly my most important one is about mayoral leadership. When Mayor Emanuel of Chicago stands up for Sanctuary Cities, it matters. When Mayor Mueller of Berlin says that welcoming 70,000 migrants is no burden for the city, it matters. When Mayor John Tory of Toronto says that he will assess his presence at tech events against a diversity criteria, this matters too.

When mayors make social inclusion their business, then the magic of social inclusion gets a lift.


The Author

The Honourable Ratna Omidvar, C.M., O.Ont., is Senator for Ontario, The Senate of Canada. Senator Omidvar is the founding Executive Director and currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Global Diversity Exchange (GDX), Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University. GDX is a think-and-do tank on diversity, migration and inclusion that connects local experience and ideas with global networks. It is dedicated to building a community of international leaders who see prosperity in migration. Previously, Senator Omidvar was the President of Maytree, where she played a lead role in local, national and international efforts to promote the integration of immigrants.

Senator Omidvar is the current Co-Chair of the Global Future Council on Migration hosted by the World Economic Forum and serves as a Councillor on the World Refugee Council. She is also a director at the Environics Institute, and Samara Canada and is the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council’s Chair Emerita and was formerly the Chair of Lifeline Syria.

For Ratna Omidvar’s full biography, click here.




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