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Antwerp, Belgium

Minding Minority Interests at City Hall

Minderhedenforum

February 7, 2012

A city council invites a federation of minority groups to improve community relations

When the City of Antwerp was looking to improve its relations with minority communities, it decided to approach the Brussels-based Minderhedenforum (Forum of Ethnic Cultural Communities) for help. The city council wanted a new way to reach out to community organizations and the Forum’s ten years of work appeared to be a successful model to adapt.

A number of issues were of concern to the city and minority groups. In 2009, controversy erupted after a headscarf ban in schools became world-wide news , just two years after the city banned the wearing of all religious symbols by city employees.

Meanwhile, the previous local elections in 2006 resulted in a far-right Flemish nationalist party gaining 30 per cent of the vote; the opposition of minority voters prevented it from becoming the largest party at council. In spite of such political engagement, research by the Open Society Foundations showed that Muslims (particularly those from the Moroccan and Turkish communities) felt little trust in city institutions.

Minority relations in the city were stalled and with an election called for 2012, important decisions for the city’s future were on the horizon.

Needing change

As a port city of almost 500,000 located in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium (Flanders), almost 30 per cent of its citizens are foreign-born, coming from over 170 countries. Approximately 120 ethno-cultural organizations exist in the city as do a number of umbrella ethno-cultural organizations. Although Antwerp already had an ‘Ethnic Minorities Council’ (allochtone overleg en adviesraad) in place with representatives from minority organizations, it was seen as ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘polarizing’, and not as a source of policy advice. The city recognized that it needed a new start.

“There wasn’t that much trust,” says Rafike Yilmaz, policy advisor to Leen Verbist, Alderman for Social Policy, Diversity and Windows. “The organizations weren’t working together, they were working in their own little islands,”

“There had been frustrations at both sides,” says Naima Charkaoui, Director of Minderhedenforum. “The federations said that they were not involved enough, they were not listened to, they did not have real opportunities to participate. And the city realized they needed a new start.”

The Forum was seen as the right fit because it was an established non-profit umbrella organization. It already represented 17 ethno-cultural federations which, in total, included over 1,500 organizations and had an established history as an official ‘participation organization’ in Brussels. Its structure allows it to “engage as one voice” with various levels of government.

In 2010, the Forum accepted the council’s invitation to open a new branch in the city. The aims of the Forum were specific:

  • to strengthen cooperation between the existing federations of ethno-cultural minorities through consultations and discussions;
  • expand and diversify networks as well as link the federations with non-migrant organizations; and
  • encourage participation in local government policy by developing policy advice, focusing on the 2012 elections and organizing training sessions regarding engaging with local government.

Whereas its earlier work focused on coordinating discussions between member federations in Flanders and Brussels, the Forum tailored its work in Antwerp to local circumstances by opening participation to individuals not formally connected to a member federation. Anyone can participate in training or discussion sessions.

“We have lots of different ethnicities here in Antwerp,” says Yilmaz. “It is a strength of Minderhadenforum that they can focus on the big communities but also the small and even the individuals.”

Local elections and beyond

The central theme to the Forum’s work, however, is helping to prepare minority communities for the upcoming local elections in October 2012. The Forum is providing a list of recommendations and facilitating contact between voters, local ethno-cultural organizations and politicians. It is also developing tools that can be used by member organizations (and the Forum itself) to provide training sessions for local voters on a number of topics, such as what it means to vote, what the different political parties stand for and how to register to participate.

The elections are important for another reason. The official relationship between the city and the Forum runs until October 2012. Then the new city council will decide whether the Forum continues for another six years until the next election. The Forum was not interested in a mere short-term contract designed to sway voter impact. It needed to ensure that the interests of minority groups be represented fairly in the business of local government for the long term. As such, the Forum required an independent relationship with the council and could not worry about the city shutting it down if the Forum’s community-based message was unpopular with some councilors.

“Because of these local elections we think this is a real opportunity even in the short term to work on this civic participation,” says Charkaoui. “This gives us some time to really build up something and in the worst case scenario even if we have to stop we can leave something behind so this hopefully reinforces participation of minorities in the local elections.”

Success

In November 2011, Minderhedenforum Antwerp had its official launch with a day devoted to talks, workshops, and debate on topics ranging from improving the diversity of city staff to reviewing a recent report on “Muslims in Antwerp” .Upcoming projects include media workshops for young people with local journalists to learn how to get the voice of youth to the decision table.

Critical to their success is Antwerp City Council’s recognition of the Forum’s status as an independent organization and third party voice for minority interests in the city. The Forum has already issued a public statement on their opposition to the headscarf ban by Antwerp City Council, in the belief that a public discussion of such matters lessens public frustration and results in better decisions. For example, public discussion over a partial ban in the city of Ghent by the Forum resulted in less frustration and anger from minority communities with the city.

“I think the importance of this initiative is that in a situation of really difficult relationships, the city chooses to work with an independent partner and a critical partner,” says Charkaoui.

“You have to have faith in an independent partner knowing that in the long run this will lead to a better relationship even if in the short run it can give more friction and more discussion and difficult issues coming on the table.”

This Good Idea was identified by the Open Society Foundations’ At Home in Europe project as a good practice promoting inclusion, social cohesion and nondiscrimination. For more on this practice and the At Home in Europe project, read Living Together: Projects Promoting Inclusion in 11 EU Cities (OSF, 2011)

Making it Work for You:

  • When developing new structures for engaging under-represented communities in local decision-making, look around you for successful participatory models that can be adapted to your work
  • As per the Antwerp City Council , don’t be afraid to look across sectors or to other jurisdictions for the best model available that can answer your needs;
  • Be prepared for new ideas and opposition to the current norm, that’s how democracy works.
  • Public discussion mitigates the risk of unpopular decision-making and paves the way for achieving more consensus across diverse groups or points of view.
  • Community consultation is a long-term commitment to solutions tailored to community interests and need.

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