Guest blog by Dr. Irena Hergottova
In March 2019, a small group of community representatives from Walsall visited two towns in Southern Italy – Catania and Palermo. Catania, similar in size to Walsall and Palermo, double the size, both pride themselves as vibrant tourist destinations. Seemingly, an unlikely pair to compare with a post-industrial Black Country borough. However, it would be wrong to think that residents of these towns do not have similar challenges when it comes to social integration. If you are interested to read about our experiences and learning from this visit you can access it here: https://www.walsallforall.co.uk/post/postcards-from-the-walsall-for-all-sicily-visit.
I am pleased to say that at the end of January 2020, we finally had a chance to return the hospitality to our southern European colleagues. Representatives from the Italian Labour Ministry, Moltivolti social enterprise, local authorities in Catania and Palermo as well as from the UK Embassy in Rome made it to Walsall on a cold afternoon. Accompanied by a spectacular winter sunset, they drove from the Birmingham Airport to our more rural side of the borough accommodation in Aldridge.
It was a challenge for us to fit in everything we wanted to show them into a short 48-hour period. We wanted them to experience first-hand the geographical diversity of the borough from the villages in the East of the borough to our inner-city areas.
After a warm reception with the current Mayor Councillor Bott and Walsall for All team, we drove to the Ryecroft Community Hub that hosts a plethora of innovation projects, from sport to food and beauty start-ups, engaging with existing and new communities. Where else could you get English, Polish and Caribbean mums to start pop up restaurants or train in reflexology, alongside budgeting, child play and family events!
On the second day, we put a spotlight on the town centre. We visited the Places of Welcome scheme, stopping at Green Lane Baptist Church, then walking to Walsall College Hub taking lunch with women on the empowerment programme. A brief visit to the newly opened Refugee and Migrant Centre saw many queries about potential differences between how Sicilian authorities and ours receive asylum-seekers and refugees.
An afternoon session at St Paul’s Church with Richard Willacy (Executive Director of Birmingham Opera Society) showed us how members of the public from all different walks of life and cultures get involved with the creative process, making the opera art form more accessible and relevant. This was followed by Salma Zulfiqar from SBZ Creative Media, focusing on the power of art to counter negative media in support of mutual understanding between residents and communities.
We finished the learning visit over a tasty curry meal in our most vibrant and diverse Caldmore village, debating the areas of work that are more tricky and difficult, such as hate crime or diversity at leadership levels.
Both Sicily and Walsall concluded that whilst we differ geographically, both our regions have a desire to elevate integration to the forefront of local and national decision-making, far beyond the initial reception or emergency planning. We welcome government efforts to support the development of local strategies both financially and in terms of professional rigour and research.
Walsall for All is but a drop in a sea (albeit a very good one) compare to how much more we need to do to make this work appreciated and sustainable around Europe.
We all agreed that we want to carry on and pursue this challenge going forward – sharing our experiences even further!