Overcoming racism: Fostering social cohesion at the grassroots in Sweden

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Can a society truly progress when its citizens live side by side yet worlds apart, their daily lives marked more by parallel existence than meaningful interaction? Amid rising concern over racial injustice across Europe, a recent seminar in Stockholm addressed this question, exploring the importance of fostering social harmony at the grassroots.

The seminar was co-organized by the Brussels Office of the Bahá’í International Community (BIC), the Deputy and Vice Mayors of Stockholm, and Sweden’s Bahá’í Office of External Affairs.

The gathering was part of ongoing efforts by the Brussels Office and the Bahá’ís of Sweden to contribute to the discourse on social cohesion and brought together government officials, diverse social actors, and members of civil organizations.

The seminar was co-organized by the Brussels Office of the Bahá’í International Community (BIC), the Deputy and Vice Mayors of Stockholm, and Sweden’s Bahá’í Office of External Affairs. It brought together government officials, diverse social actors, and members of civil organizations to explore how to foster a more harmonious society. Slideshow
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The seminar was co-organized by the Brussels Office of the Bahá’í International Community (BIC), the Deputy and Vice Mayors of Stockholm, and Sweden’s Bahá’í Office of External Affairs. It brought together government officials, diverse social actors, and members of civil organizations to explore how to foster a more harmonious society.

Legislation alone is not enough

Discussions in the Swedish capital not only looked at the role of policymaking in addressing racism but also explored emerging insights from Bahá’í community-building efforts that apply spiritual principles, such as the oneness of humanity, to issues and challenges in society.

Rachel Bayani of the Brussels Office stated: “Racism and prejudice are among the greatest challenges facing humanity today.

“Legislative measures, such as the European Union Anti-Racism Action Plan 2022–2025 and the adoption of national action plans by EU member states are important steps forward but as the Plan itself points out, legislation alone is not enough.”

Echoing these sentiments on the limitations of policy-driven approaches, Åsa Lindhagen, Vice Mayor for Environment and Climate and former Swedish Minister for Gender Equality, stated: “We cannot do it alone in politics, of course, we need to cooperate with all good forces in society.”

Mrs. Bayani delved deeper into the intricacies of social interactions that perpetuate racism. “Racism thrives in settings where people of different backgrounds lack opportunities for meaningful interaction—living merely side by side. Where can such meaningful interactions take place?”

Rachel Bayani of the Brussels Office (left), and Kishan Manocha, Head of Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (right). Slideshow
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Rachel Bayani of the Brussels Office (left), and Kishan Manocha, Head of Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (right).

Potential of grassroots interactions

Mrs. Bayani explained that although such interactions can take place everywhere and at every level of society, it is neighborhoods and villages that provide daily opportunities for conversations among people of different backgrounds and ages, where close bonds of friendship can be forged, a shared vision of social transformation can emerge, and collective action can be taken.

Kishan Manocha of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe added, “A key component of the work that we need to focus on, I would say, is trust building, because the trust among and between individuals, communities, and institutions of governance at this time of polarization is badly broken, and needs to be restored and needs to be built along new lines.”

Mrs. Bayani emphasized that fleeting interactions, such as quick greetings in a supermarket or even annual meetings between religious leaders, do not sufficiently tackle ingrained racial prejudice.

However, she explained, through meaningful grassroots interactions, communities can find a path forward. “What is needed is joint thinking, reflection, and action towards something greater, such as transforming a neighborhood into an inclusive space,” she said.

“This approach,” continued Mrs. Bayani, “puts communities on a path to becoming protagonists of their own development”, which is a fundamental principle of Bahá’í community-building endeavors.

Expanding on the idea of collective progress, Deputy Mayor Anders Österberg said that despite existing societal divisions, there are growing aspirations in Sweden for racial harmony. He emphasized the need for collective efforts to build communities where unity can flourish.

Anders Österberg, Deputy Mayor of Stockholm. Slideshow
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Anders Österberg, Deputy Mayor of Stockholm.

Evin Incir, Member of European Parliament, further reinforced this point: “There’s a lot of work ahead of us. In the European Union, there’s no room for a ‘we’ and ‘them’ mentality; there’s only ‘we.’”

Examining this further, Mrs. Bayani elaborated on the principle of unity in diversity: “We are one family. The walls that divide us are artificial and need to be dismantled, acknowledging our inherent oneness.”

Community initiatives a source of hope

Reflecting on the discussion, Nogol Rahbin of the Bahá’í Office of External Affairs in Sweden said that Bahá’í community-building initiatives in Stockholm are contributing to removing social divisions. “Local residents from diverse backgrounds are coming together to organize various activities, such as ‘family festivals.’”

Top: Bahá’í community-building activities have given rise to different initiatives that enable people of diverse backgrounds to form bonds of friendship, as seen here in one of many neighborhood ‘family festivals.’; Bottom: A neighborhood gathering in which young people explored insights from their experience in serving their society. The gathering was visited by Anders Österberg (left) and Anders Ygeman (second from left), who at the time were respectively, a member of Sweden's Parliament and the Minister for Integration and Migration. Slideshow
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Top: Bahá’í community-building activities have given rise to different initiatives that enable people of diverse backgrounds to form bonds of friendship, as seen here in one of many neighborhood ‘family festivals.’; Bottom: A neighborhood gathering in which young people explored insights from their experience in serving their society. The gathering was visited by Anders Österberg (left) and Anders Ygeman (second from left), who at the time were respectively, a member of Sweden’s Parliament and the Minister for Integration and Migration.

Dr. Rahbin added: “These gatherings are more than just social events. They stimulate a process of collective ownership among residents.”

She added that in this context, people who might never have otherwise interacted come together, forming bonds of friendship and a shared vision for their neighborhood.

Policymakers have expressed their appreciation for these activities, said Dr. Rahbin. “Last year, the Swedish Minister for Integration and Migration visited one such neighborhood to learn from its residents. These grassroots efforts offer insights that inspire hope, especially at a time when we are facing challenges like racism and rising gang violence.”

The Stockholm gathering was part of a broader initiative by the Brussels Office, in which similar discussions are held in collaboration with national Bahá’í communities and municipalities across Europe.

These forums seek to further explore ideas presented in the Office’s statement titled “Reflections on the implementation of action plans against racism: Fostering social cohesion at the grassroots.”


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