Breaking Down the Walls
“As the local government, we can try to break through the walls of segregation.” It has invested in the poorer neighbourhoods to attract a mix of residents to these and, similarly, it has worked to reduce segregation in schools and youth services so that they have mixed intakes.
Employment is still a work in progress, Mr Somers admits, so too housing and the police. The city’s administration now has around 20 per cent of its workforce from an ethnic background so isn’t yet “a mirror of our society” but is getting there. Police recruitment is a national responsibility but also needs to move into parity with the society that it serves.
With private companies, Mr Somers would like to find new tools to identify discrimination. A lot of companies are fine and it is illegal to discriminate but how do you prove this, he asks. Sometimes a form of ‘mystery shopper’ is used if there is a suspicion, typically using identical or similar job applications from people with different backgrounds to test the evenhandedness but Mr Somers would like to find a way to make this more rigorous.
There have also been some creative steps over which the local authority has complete control. “Symbols are important in public life,” says Mr Somers. For Mechelen, as for many Belgian cities, its family of giants that are wheeled out for processions are part of its heritage. There are now two additions, Amir and Moa, North African and black African giants. There was an aim to bring in symbols that bind people together and the giants “are a beautiful example”.
Similarly, in 2014 the city decided to celebrate immigration on the 50th anniversary of a Belgian government agreement to take in workers from Morocco and Turkey to work in its industry. “We celebrated it, we are proud of it, those people made us what we are.”
And along the same lines, the city now has a monument to remember the Armenian genocide (there is a sizeable population of Armenian descent in the city) and it is considering a monument to the Syrian people as well, says Mr Somers. It is also planning a remembrance plaque on the building that was the city’s first mosque. “These are small stepping stones to make diversity a part of our DNA, of our identity.”
“As the local government, we can try to break through the walls of segregation”
When Mr Somers was growing up in Mechelen (he is 53) it was a “classical white city” but within one or two generations “there has been a very drastic change in the way our city feels and looks. We must not only accept this, we must embrace it.”
His family can be traced back to 1520 in the city so he is at least the 17th generation to reside here but he is the first generation of a multi-cultural Mechelen, he says. “So I and all of us have to integrate, it is here, it is reality and it isn’t a one-way street.” He has no more right to live and thrive in the city because his parents and grandparents were born there than anyone else, he says.
It seems clear that day-to-day actions, long-term strategies, cultural statements and systemic change are all part of the mix. It adds up to a positive narrative in which everyone has hope of improvement. The World Mayor award was a surprise, says Mr Somers, and has typically gone to “much bigger and more important cities than Mechelen”. But what this Belgian city lacks in size, it more than makes up for in many other ways.