Interview - Gabriella de Francesco, City of Mechelen

“We might not share the past but we share the future of this city!” 

In the first in the series of interviews presenting the people behind IncluCities, we go to Mechelen, a city in the Flemish Region of Belgium.  The city’s 86,000 inhabitants are astonishingly diverse with than 130 nationalities represented speaking 69 different languages. Indeed, every second newborn in Mechelen has a migration background. Recognised for its successful migrant integration practices, Mechelen is partnering with the Sicilian city of Partinico to share its insights. We spoke with Gabriella de Francesco, a Belgian alderwoman with an Italian heart, responsible for diversity and equality in Mechelen City Council.

We are nearing the end of 2020 and we are all looking back and thinking of how these times of COVID have changed us. What’s your take?

Never waste a good crisis, that’s what I always say! It might sound a bit rough, there is nothing good about COVID, it changed the world for the worse. However, it’s also a wonderful opportunity to leave our comfort zones and rethink the way we live, give up some redundant habits and focus on things that really matter in life.  

As authorities responsible for citizens’ wellbeing, how did you and your community adjust and respond to the crisis?

The biggest change was switching the priorities. We’ve done a lot of communication campaigns in the past months on how we feel, how we cope with social distancing and isolation. We focused on the human side, promoting solidarity and cooperation. Social topics are at the top of the agenda for the city level and local community. For me as an alderwoman it is essential that we discuss how we can better connect and make sure that everyone in Mechelen will be ok.

‘Where diversity is a strength and solidarity a must.’ This is your city’s motto, but the picture wasn’t always so rosy. What led to positive change in Mechelen in the past two decades?

There are three important things: safety, a clean environment and a feeling that you belong, that you are equal to others. Like many, I am not originally from Mechelen. Fifteen years ago, when I first arrived, going out in the evening wasn’t safe. People were afraid and the city was dirty. You could see garbage everywhere, people didn’t care.

Transforming Mechelen into a clean and green city made people feel welcome, proud of who they are, responsible and happy to be part of the city. And this is the mantra we still have – we might not share the past, but we share the future of this city!

You became alderwoman for the 'Groen' (the Flemish Green Party)  two years ago because you felt you really can make a change in Mechelen. Would you say that change comes from the bottom up or the other way around?

Both. The change starts from the bottom up. You meet with people and discuss issues in order to design better solutions for them. You have to include many, from public administration and experts to civil society and NGOs, not to mention the people themselves.

The idea is to ask directly: ‘What do you need?’ And that gives you valuable insights into what the problem really is. That’s my way of making a difference but you need a safe climate to do this. If there is a gap between policy and real life and people don’t feel safe, they won’t open up.

What would you pick as one of the best practices of inclusion and active migrant participation in Mechelen?

I think that our buddy programme, the citizenship and integration project “Integrate Together” (Samen Inburgeren), is one of the most successful initiatives for the active engagement of migrants with the host community. It’s very simple, you put together in a speed date a newcomer and someone who has lived in Mechelen for a long time. These buddies meet on regular basis, do various activities, go to museums, parks, cycle together or cook and learn Dutch for a period of six months.

We’ve been doing this for eight years now and we’ve never had difficulties to find new participants! Good practice also comes from the city administration in the way we present the people of Mechelen. We always make sure communication materials include people of different colours, nationalities and ages, people that actually live in Mechelen.

Integration is in general the responsibility of national governments. But the role of local governments is increasingly coming to the forefront, why is this important?

Well the advantage is that you really can make a change at local level. Of course, you need national authorities to change a law, for instance. But you can move things forward if you are stubborn and have backing in the local community. Bart Somers, the former Mayor of Mechelen and the current Flemish Minister for Integration, was like that. This was a calling for him, he wanted to make a change for his city!

Before I became a city council member, I worked for the refugee centre and I was coordinating activities with the city. For me, working with civil society organisations is the key partnership. Even we lack financial support for projects, with passion for change, good collaboration and active participation we can do big things!  

The new EU action plan on integration and inclusion of migrants talks about fostering partnerships between local communities and migrants. What do you think about these guidelines – what does it take to make these things happen?

I believe that a lot of discussions around migration happen a bit over the heads of the people. I really think that you have to include the people you talk about. In this case, you have to talk to refugees. And there is one more important thing no one talks about. We ignore the group that hates migrants. We never ask them why? It’s painful, I know, but we all know and feel this group is growing fast and we can’t ignore them anymore. I want to understand: what they are afraid of?

You grew up in Belgium but you have Italian roots, where and what is home for you?

I am really happy you ask me that. Before I came to Mechelen, I wasn’t comfortable with my migrant roots. Mechelen gave me the possibility to be both. My mother is Belgian and my father Italian. It’s a piece of me. I’m Belgian, but whenever the plane lands in Italy, I start speaking and dreaming in Italian. I even drive like an Italian. I got the best of both worlds.

So, you are lucky the plane will land in Sicily as part of IncluCities collaboration. What does this mentoring partnership mean to you? Can Partinico become new Mechelen?

I am interested in how the community in Sicily is dealing with the refugees. I am looking forward to this and hope my bipolar identity will help (laughs). I’ve never been to Partinico, so I don’t know how they breathe, how they think. It worked for Mechelen, but it doesn’t mean we’ve found a silver bullet. Sometimes you only need one single person for change, sometimes the whole village. Maybe Partinico has its own identity and will need a different way, I don’t know. But I am curious to learn. There are going to be ups and downs on this way, this I can tell you, but it’s worth it!