The first OURStories workshop was participated by a group of Kurdish women in Meri-Rastila on 28th April 2012. Here Dina Fuad-Luke shares her thoughts about Community Engagement and on running the workshop with Mariana Salgado and Michail Galanakis.
OUTReach would not be ‘outreaching’ if it hadn’t attempted to engage with all sections of the population of Meri-Rastila. From the onset, the project has been keen to spread its far-reaching arms to particularly try and touch the lives of a section of the residents who, for a whole host of reasons, are less able or inclined to partake in mainstream activities and decision-making processes in the neighbourhood. In other words, ever since OURCity began, we have been seeking to reach out to those diverse individuals and groups belonging to minority communities, long thought of as ‘unreachable’.
With this in mind, OUTReach team members have been making several enquiries and incursions into separate communities via both formal and informal networks throughout the year. It was, as we expected a long drawn process. Whoever said community engagement was merely about distributing flyers, sticking posters and knocking on doors would be gravely mistaken.
Well at least in our case, it was also about taking endless cups of coffee with our newfound hosts and allowing ourselves to be swept away with the torrents of political, historical, personal and economic narratives, which diverse groups of people, particularly immigrants, carry with them and bring to their respective neigbourhoods. In addition, it was also undeniably about joining in and enjoying the cultural observances of the diverse ethnic groups existing in Meri Rastila. Indeed it was a long while since our first dance with a group of Kurdish children at the Kurdish Association, before we managed to establish the OURStories workshop!
Well, community engagement in so far as our work in Meri Rastila is concerned, has been, to say the least, about ‘giving’ before ‘receiving’; about ‘acknowledging’ before ‘being acknowledged’ and most of all about ‘listening’ before ‘being heard’. Indeed, we were mindful from the start that we were encroaching on people’s lives and spaces and were particularly keen to demonstrate an acute sense of cultural awareness.
One group which we succeeded in making fruitful connections with was the Kurdish Association. Engagement was by no means instantaneous. The Association has been based in Meri-Rastila for some years and yet seemed to be viewed as operating purely within their respective cultural and political codes and agenda, failing to engage with their immediate environment or with the wider population of the neighbourhood.
Fortunately for us, through the group’s key person Fatma Yasa, we succeeded in ‘bridging the gap’, so to speak, crossing over the emotional and cultural barriers that have been brandied about in the neighbourhood as a stumbling block to integration, as people’s perceptions of sections of migrant communities tend to cast them as ‘disinterested in engaging’ or ‘hard to reach’. Luckily, we did not find this to be the case. Once we were taken in, the Kurdish men and women who meet regularly at the Kurdish Association, proved to be most welcoming and hospitable, generously showering us with gifts and Kurdish delicacies.
It cannot be denied that the Alternative Master Plan has been aimed to be as inclusive as possible in its community engagement goals. However, that very idea of ‘inclusiveness’ itself is dependent on many factors, not least of all the ability to acknowledge that we cannot first and foremost overlook or deny people’s attachment to their individual and shared narratives and values, if were to engage them in all sorts of community activities, including such things as neighbourhood enhancement and design planning processes. The reality is unless we show an interest in people as individuals and are able to tune in to their diverse stories in the first place, we cannot expect them to be interested in our vision and ideas of engagement and empowerment overnight.
With this in mind, and through prior consultation with the group, OUTReach conducted its first ‘OURStories’ workshop at the association’s community meeting place. The workshop conducted a ‘Tree Of Life’ session in the first part. This is based on ideas around Narrative Therapy developed by Ncazelo Ncube, a child psychologist in Zimbabwe and David Denborough from the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide. It has been used extensively in community work to enable people to talk about their lives as well celebrate and share the rich diversity of their experiences, cultures and history.
A total of ten Kurdish women living in and around Meri Rastila participated. Through an informal but semi-structured process, OUTReach engaged with the group to enable them to chart their personal journeys and histories and explore their relationships and visions for the future in respect of Meri-Rastila.
The ‘Tree of Life’ exercise proved invaluable in informing OUTReach about the individual and group perspectives held by Kurdish migrants in the area in relation to their lives in Finland as a whole. It was obvious from the narratives collected that lives are being held in abeyance while the Kurdish men and women living here as refugees and immigrants continue to harness their energies in addressing their political struggles. This is an inevitable part of their histories that cannot be overlooked, if we were to understand their position on neighbourhood matters and if were to successfully engage them accordingly.
As a group of migrants, the Kurdish women were most willing to share their personal histories, which were dogged by stories of imprisonment, personal losses, displacement and the curtailment of freedom. Throughout the workshop they proved most willing to open up themselves to experimenting with new processes of engagement and communication, including overcoming language barriers with the support of interpreters.
It would appear that any emotional links that the Kurdish women were able to make with their current environment were tightly bound to the idea of the neighbourhood being a safe transitional place for them, as they struggle to come to terms with the loss of their homeland and continue to take on their political challenges from afar, from Finland.
In acknowledging these realities, we hope that we can try to at least create a platform for the Kurdish residents of Meri-Rastila to feel free to voice their sadness and visions and share their stories with the wider audience. This could perhaps provide their much needed link into the wider community and establish a new sense of belonging to Meri-Rastila.
The proposed OURCity exhibition in November could be one way of achieving this. What we have learned is that in order to include people in community processes, it is important to start first with understanding how we unwittingly ‘exclude’ them in the first place. Not caring to uncover people’s journeys and narratives, not understanding their struggles, and rushing to judge them for appearing to have their doors shut most of the time, would be some of the ways in which we can undermine people’s confidence to embrace inclusion and integration with ease.
We hope that the group would be happy to continue to work with us to create this cultural, historical and political awareness in Meri-Rastila. Besides, we wouldn’t mind being treated to another round of sumptuous Kurdish food.
The project looks at how different teams of designers, may they be city planners, architects, landscape architects or artists can gather information about what people need, want and desire. The project will work with the talents that can be found in the marginalised communities to highlight how this information can be gathered and made work.
The programme will initially gather a group of professionals and enthusiasts from the immigrant community to establish a detailed programme of events for the Helsinki World Design Capital year 2012.
The events that are envisaged are seminars, workshops, exhibitions, informal discussions and public living rooms all in Meri-Rastila and/or in Eastern Helsinki. To these events we intend to invite a broad range of local residents as well as city officials and regional experts, and to encourage them to discuss in an informal way the issues and aspirations of the community. Most of the events have the common goal to listen to residents’ opinions on the urban changes coming in the area.
The Outreach project, like other components of OURCITY programme, will be documented in various ways and then made publically available in such ways as; an open web platform, media publications, written reports and one exhibition showing the conclusions of the whole process and some recommendations on how they can be carried further.
The OUTReach project has now been running for some time and has started to focus on the different needs of the community. One of these needs which has been high-lighted by the Pro Meri-Rastila is that an Alternative Master Plan to the one that has been designed by the city planning department (kaupunkisuunnitteluvirasto) is needed. The idea is to produce a master-plan that represents the hope and aspirations of the local residents and meets requirements for urban expansion required by the City of Helsinki as a whole.