Connecting local responses around the world
Molenbeek, a Brussels municipality that has gained international attention for being of the most prolific breeding grounds for jihadists. There are many reasons and possible explanations for the genesis of this fact. I will however, not go into the root causes for this situation. Instead, what I’d like to focus on here is what citizens are doing to make their neighborhood a better place.
For years, the Maritime community of Molenbeek, together with a local marketing organization and the police had been discussing a Local Prevention Partnership (PLP) to create a safer community. For years, they were trying to find consensus on how to move forward, to implement a plan that made sense for this community. You see where this is going: Instead of constructive dialogues, the talks were marred by talking in circles, blame games and complaining. Finally, in late 2015, Geertrui Oris , a local police officer involved in these deliberations, was at wit’s end, and she contacted Jean-Louis Lamboray. They agreed on a SALT visit with members of the community on May 23, 2016.
It was a great success: About 40 citizens, an eclectic mix of young and old, Muslim and non-Muslim attended. We met at a greenhouse, built by citizens together with a non-profit organization in the “Maritime” section of Molenbeek. The Belcompetence team, consisting of Anne, Anita, Bénédicte, Célicia, Jan, Jean-Louis, Laurie, and Liza, set the stage for a different kind of conversation. The first thing that must have been strange to them was that we all sat in a circle, symbolizing the equality of each participant and creating an energy that could flow more easily among the participants. Laurie invited everyone to present him or herself in a few words. This opened the flood gates and participants poured their hearts out about their lives here and about their challenges (and also joys). It was touching to see how people needed this space to talk and express themselves. We learned a lot about their concerns and their wishes for the future of the neighborhood. Two main themes emerged: security /cleanliness and youth/culture. We invited participants to sit in groups around these themes and reflect on the strengths that are already present in each one of them and collectively.
After giving the group a taste of SALT, Jean-Louis proceeded to outline our way of working to the participants, and raised the decisive question: Would you like to continue working with us? The response was an overwhelming “yes,” and we set the dates for the next sessions where we would begin the journey in earnest.
June 14: Dreaming
People arriving, slowly but surely. In their eyes we are reading curiosity, hope, uncertainty, but also joy of being part of a process that promises to be more life-giving than what they had experienced in the past. Not everyone who was present at the May 23 session is here this time, instead, we are also welcoming a few new faces. After having arranged the benches in a “circle” we invited the participants again to just say their names and addresses (to be able to get through the process). Jean-Louis framed the evening by explaining the process, linking it to the Protection Plan that has been carefully devised in separate meetings and managing expectations by pointing out that any change process will take time . . .
Next, Célicia, our creative fairy, handed out leaf-shaped papers, inviting everyone to write down one joy and one concern that has come up for them in recent weeks and asks everyone to share. Then, with the help of our youngest members (3 and 8 years old) these leaves are attached to the “tree of why” Célicia- helped out by Touria and Mohamed- had fabricated quickly out of branches and set up in the middle of the room. Energy is rising and the fact that everyone’s hopes are being heard and their pains acknowledged is creating a certain intimacy among participants. It is in this atmosphere that Liza gave space to everyone’s expression of their dreams—first everyone for themselves and finally in groups, comparing notes and coming up with common elements. One participant’s individual dream struck me as particularly symbolic and powerful: He captured the bridge spanning the park area right in front of us and used it as a metaphor for our process—building bridges between the diverse groups of citizens living in this neighborhood. He called it the “bridge of wisdom”.
We also had the incredible fortune to have with us a professional visual harvester, Mara, who also happened to live in the neighborhood. She brilliantly captured the elements of each group’s dreams and translated them into one large visual image, in word and picture (the little ones helped). Wow, we said when we saw the output, and were impressed with what emerged.
After letting the image sink in for a while it was time to identify the practices that lead the community to actually live that dream. It took a little while for the participants to wrap their head around the phrasing, which had to be conveying the practice as if they were naturally doing it in 20 years’ time. But they did get there and we listed them all.
An evening well spent, they thought, and off they were to breaking their fast (it was Ramadan) or sinking happily into their beds.
June 20: From dreaming to sensing where our energy for action lies
New and old faces again, and again a trickling in of excited, hesitant, expectant participants. Opening round, inviting participants to express in 7 words what they have appreciated at or since the last meeting. Almost everyone complied J.
And then for the exciting part. Our dream is propped up in the front and Delphine offers to “interpret” what is behind the image. She does so in a most eloquent and moving way. After pointing out the heart in the middle, symbolizing that everything starts from the inside and the heart, she poetically listed the themes, which include: A focus on a healthy environment and life style, with vegetable gardens and an edible forest in the neighborhood; living in mutual respect; creating happy, colorful living spaces; spaces for activities fostering multigenerational and multicultural encounters, and many more. Jean-Louis captured part of this moment on video, click on the following link to watch it (in French): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ToAF8ES27Mk.
The challenging bit was now to re-center on the practices that had been identified the previous time and to add to/ fine tune them. That is when we were happy to have Célicia, who was able to both give space to individual concerns about certain interpretations, honoring these concerns and navigate the boat competently toward a consensus, which allowed us to come up with solidly worded practices that everyone in the end agreed to. With Laurie’s skillful guidance, our friends were able to identify concrete actions, with concrete deadlines that they were excited to implement in the months to come.
All in all, these were different conversations people were having with each other, conversations that kept engaging them in creating a new future for them, which inspired hope and created goodwill among this diverse group of citizens. Geertrui, the police inspector who had called upon us left us with these words: “For two years, we have been meeting, discussing, fighting, complaining, blaming, and we have very little to show for. You have helped us, in just three short sessions, to find common ground, a vision, and the energy to put into action a plan that we have created together. Thank you!”