The Belgian city of Mechelen is showing the way forward in efforts to live well together in diversity. While visiting the city, Liz Mohn was introduced to its diversity strategies that have been identified as outstanding examples of good practices as part of the international research conducted for the Reinhard Mohn Prize 2018.
Up until just 20 years ago, Mechelen was known as “little Chicago” – a city of 90,000 known for its crime, littered streets and middle-class flight. At the time, right-wing populists were on the rise in the city. Today, however, Mechelen is a safe, vibrant city that has flourished as diverse cultures live together in peace and harmony. Mechelen’s success story serves as a model for Germany. In the spirit of the Reinhard Mohn Prize motto “Learning from the World,” Liz Mohn traveled to Mechelen with the mayor of Gütersloh, Henning Schulz, to learn more about the city and the factors behind its success.
Sharing ideas with Mechelen Mayor Bart Somers
In many ways, Mechelen’s turnaround can be attributed to the energetic and persistent efforts of its mayor, Bart Somers, who ensured clean and safe streets, defeated right-wing populism and has successfully combated Islamist radicalization through IS by removing the conditions that serve as its breeding ground. Since becoming mayor, approval rates for the right-wing extremist party Vlaams Belang have fallen from 32% to 7%-8%. And in contrast to other Belgian cities, Mechelen has no radicalized youth that have left for Syria as IS fighters. In recognition of his success in fostering the peaceful coexistence of diverse cultures, Somers was awarded the World Mayor Prize in 2016.
While in Mechelen, Liz Mohn and Henning Schulz asked Bart Somers about his strategy. Emphasizing the need to ensure both security and freedom, Somers said: “People need to feel comfortable and safe in public spaces. This is basic to developing trust and openness to diversity.” At the same time, he stressed, we must be resolute in battling all forms of discrimination and exclusion, as these things destroy both people’s opportunities in life and social cohesion.
Liz Mohn highlighted the important role played by businesses in this regard, particularly in terms of providing opportunities for young people: “Having the opportunity to participate in education, training and work is essential to being able to lead a self-determined and meaningful life.”
How do we cultivate an atmosphere of mutual respect? Committed professionals offered their insight
In order to gain an overview of specific diversity-oriented measures, Liz Mohn and Henning Schulz then met with people whose daily work involves targeting various aspects of creating mutual respect – from those in the administration tasked with developing strategies to those who are part of implementation in schools to those who are involved with youth work.
Highlighted key factors include efforts to foster person-to-person interactions and strengthen networks and communication between the relevant institutions and stakeholders. Noting the importance of such networks, Liz Mohn pointed to the positive developments seen at the Bialik-Rogozin school in Tel Aviv, where parent involvement is exceptionally high. Creating trust is crucial, she emphasized.
A visit to the ROJM youth center: Diversity is the new normal
The visit to Mechelen ended with a meeting with boys and girls at the ROJM youth center, which has been providing young people of various backgrounds a second home for 40 years. In addition to offering different kinds of recreational activities, the center helps youth find and apply for jobs, and provides them support in handling problems at school or at home. Speaking Dutch, English and German, the young people at the meeting discussed their interests, career goals and experiences with Liz Mohn and Henning Schulz. This brought forth a fact of everyday life for the youth: cultural and linguistic diversity is commonplace in their lives and a normal feature of their friendships.