Reflections from Visits to a Set of European Cities

Advancing Just, Multiracial, Multicultural Democracy

44 min read
Photo credit: Horst-Koenemund /

For the past forty years I have worked in local government and on efforts to end systemic racism. I have come to see that it is the nexus between these two areas that holds the key to a future where we all can thrive. Where we all can thrive. All. By all, I’m talking about a “bigger we,” so that “We, the people” includes all groups, not in spite of differences or begrudgingly, but proactively and enthusiastically, recognizing that we truly are stronger together.

In late 2021, I was planning a three-month sabbatical from my job as senior vice-president of programs at Race Forward, a United States non-profit that catalyzes movement building for racial justice. In partnership with communities, organizations, and sectors, we build strategies to advance racial justice in our policies, institutions, and culture. While I loved my work, I was looking forward to a sabbatical that would inspire, motivate, and allow me to explore pressing topics for which there never seemed to be enough time.

As I worked on defining my “sabbatical project,” I kept returning to the topic of democracy. The reality is that cities across the United States and Europe are grappling with growing authoritarianism and attacks on democracy, along with rising racism and othering based on ethnicity, color, religion, immigration status, and class.

In casting my net, I reconnected with Steven Bosacker, director of GMF Cities with the German Marshall Fund. Steven and I had worked together on a project when he was at Living Cities and I was launching the Government Alliance on Race and Equity. Steven shared GMF’s Cities Fortifying Democracy project and confided that he thought there was a gap between European and US approaches when it came to issues of equity and inclusion in cities. Was it a language or definitions gap? Was it a strategy gap? Did differing roles, structure, and history make the work in US and European cities fundamentally different?

Thus began my sabbatical project. I became a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund to explore the opportunities and challenges of inclusive, multiracial democracy in six European cities and to offer reflections for cities across the Atlantic.

About Me

I’ll start with a bit of background about me and a confession. In grad school I got an internship with the City of Seattle. At the time, my intention was to get access to data for my thesis. I had no aspiration to work for local government, and, in fact, my confession – I had been deeply influenced by many of the common anti-government narratives that have become so pervasive. Narratives relating to government waste, government inefficiency and government bureaucracy. I did not imagine governments as places of creativity and sources of solutions to our most pressing societal problems. However, as an internship turned into a temporary job, and a temporary job turned into a series of permanent jobs and as I rose through the ranks and gained experience in departments ranging from what was then called the Water Department to the electrical utility to the Human Services Department and the Office of Housing, I saw innovative people working to solve societal problems, igniting my passion for and commitment to the public sector. My recognition that local government touches on every single indicator for success within communities grew. From housing and education to jobs and criminal justice, across every single indicator for success, one’s race predicts how well one will do. Deep and pervasive racial inequities were baked into the fabric of cities in the United States. 

At the same time I was gaining experience with local government, I had become active in local organizing to address systemic racism. As a young adult, my route to racial justice organizing was through the anti-violence against women movement. As a young child, I had been socialized into thinking about racism from a perspective of individual acts of bigotry, bad acts by bad people. In my household growing up, we were taught not to repeat racial epithets that we might have heard other children use, and we were taught “not to see race,” that it was better to see everyone as the same. This approach did not help me understand the deep and pervasive racial inequities that I could so easily see around me, even as a child. 

My first week as a freshman in college, I was raped. Like so many others, I chose not to report and vowed to myself that the experience would not “bring me down.” Over the next years, I suppressed the hurt and anger that was bubbling just under the surface. While an effective short-term coping mechanism, I eventually wanted to give back, to work to prevent violence against women. Ironically enough, my sojourn into helping others was ultimately about my own survival and humanity. I fortuitously had gone to volunteer at an organization where to be on the crisis line, you needed to attend two weeks of training, two days of which were focused on racism. For the first time in my life, I learned about racism as a system and structure. In a room with dozens of others, the vast majority of whom shared my same demographic and socialization, young white women vigorously enthusiastic about preventing violence against women, and yet, when it came to talking about racism, we were utter failures. We had intense emotions, ranging from guilt to shame, but we had very few skills to actually address systemic racism. It was at that point in my life that I knew a pivot was necessary. That we would never be able to prevent violence against women if we could not also work to dismantle systemic racism. And for white people to claim our full humanity, it would be necessary to reconcile our history with the future to which I aspired; advancing racial equity grounded in the mission of wholeness and humanization for all people; to eliminate racial barriers to seeing our shared interests.

My work in local government and mission to dismantle systemic racism merged in the early 2000s. As director of the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, I played a role in the 2004 launch of the Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative. It was the first effort of its kind in the country, working within local government to dismantle systemic racism and advance racial justice.

When I left the City of Seattle, it was to lead the development of the Governmental Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), a national network of local and regional governments working to advance racial equity and improve outcomes for all groups. Comprising jurisdictions or agencies within jurisdictions, GARE had grown from 42 members in November 2017 to more than 450 in November 2022 with representation in 40 states. Through learning, toolkits and guides, training and educational support, and hands-on engagement, GARE helps jurisdictions advance racial equity in policies, procedures, and programs.

The Context

The disproportionate and ongoing impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on the health and economic livelihoods of communities of color; police violence and disproportionate incarceration rates; and revived white nationalism that has led to attacks on people of color, Muslims and Jewish people and undermined democracy -- all of these, and many more, demonstrate how far the ideal of the “American Experiment” has diverged from the reality that people of color experience every day. Insidious legacies of intentional policies, implicit biases, and institutional and structural racism define our society.

Confronting these issues and restoring our progress toward a “more perfect union” requires the direct involvement of local and regional governments, the concerted action of grassroots communities of color and the organizations that serve them, and authentic engagement between the two that centers the lives, intrinsic value and aspirations of people of color. Such engagement encourages innovative policies and practices that advance racial equity, while also developing larger narratives about race and the potential for a just, multiracial democracy.

When evaluating democracy in the context of governing, we often look to national measurements to gauge the health of a democracy, such as voter turnout. However, voting is not the only indicator of a healthy democracy. Given the racial reckoning in the United States and in Europe, particularly with the political crisis relating to migration in 2015, municipal officials must recognize the need to fortify local democratic practice that advances equity.

Parallels to racism internationally include colorism, caste, anti-immigrant sentiment, and other areas of marginalization, broadly referred to as othering. In addition, attacks on democracy and the rise of nationalism and authoritarianism are playing out globally. Despite increases in racism and othering, along with attacks on democracy, people across the globe are organizing for racial equity, belonging, and multiracial democracy. 

Methodology and Questions

The initial set of questions I set out to explore was expansive and included:

  • What forms of democratic practice, including representative democracy, inclusive (or participatory) democracy, and radical democracy, are important to understand? Are there other forms of democratic practice that might be useful or more effective for advancing inclusive, multicultural, diverse, and equitable cities? 
  • How can government and community organizers think of and promote democracy and advance equity?
  • What are strategies to fight attacks on democracy and the rise of authoritarianism?
  • What is the role of an explicit equity agenda (inclusive of race, color, religion, class, and immigration status) in furthering democracy? What ideas, concepts, and language can the United States and Europe share to bridge strategies and cooperation in building dynamic, multiracial, multicultural cities across the two continents?

While I was hoping that the project would bring international lessons to GARE, I also expected that GARE’s experiences in the United States would be useful to share with European cities. As a visiting fellow with the German Marshall Fund, I was provided with connections and support via their Cities Fortifying Democracy1  project, a transatlantic multi-city cohort to explore and advance city practice in strengthening democracy.

While I initially anticipated conducting preliminary research into ideals and types of democracy, along with a review of authoritarian attacks on democracy, it was evident that even with an excellent research assistant from the Othering and Belonging Institute, Gaby Sanchez, and an extreme crash course, it was simply not possible for me to gain a significant level of expertise in the details of democracy and authoritarianism. The expertise I bring to the table is not as an expert on democracy or authoritarianism, but as a practitioner, having spent decades working in local government and on racial equity. My focus needed to be on identifying the opportunities and challenges of expanding democracy, fighting xenophobia and othering, and advancing equity in local government. I hoped to identify key concepts and language about equity and inclusion and othering and belonging, as well as the differences and similarities between US and European cities.

Between April and June 2022, I interviewed municipal government and civil society leaders in six European cities (Turin, Italy; Frankfurt, Germany; Dublin, Ireland; Barcelona, Spain; Warsaw, Poland; and Athens, Greece). The primary questions I sought to explore were:

  • What is the role of an explicit equity agenda (inclusive of race, color, class, religion, disability, and immigration status) in furthering democracy?
  • What ideas, concepts, and language can the United States and Europe share to bridge strategies and cooperation in building dynamic, multiracial, multicultural cities?

I interviewed 62 people, roughly half of them from within local governments and half from civil society. I was fortunate that GMF made many connections in each of the cities, as well as provided additional background briefing materials. In addition, I used “snowball sampling,” asking early interviewees for recommendations for additional people to interview. 

I reviewed dozens of reports, articles, and editorials. The topic of democracy and racial equity has been a constant in the media and in the academy, especially since the January 6, 2020 attack on the United States Capitol. Keeping up with new and emerging analysis, even while on sabbatical, was a challenge.

Definitions and Assumptions

GMF describes the Cities Fortifying Democracy project as a transatlantic multi-city cohort to explore and advance city practice in strengthening democracy. According to GMF:

The collective trust that is essential to the functioning of democracy is built at the local level. Even if most city officials are unlikely to frame their work in terms of “democracy,” they play a key role in supporting the principles and practice of liberal democracy. From potholes to policing, city residents are constantly aware of whether their elected officials are effectively responding to their needs and when they are not. During the coronavirus pandemic, cities have been under increased scrutiny as they strive to meet the moment in a transparent, equitable way that demonstrates compassion for individual struggles while promoting the general welfare of the public. Experiences with local government and the level of community engagement that exists can profoundly shape individual attitudes about whether democracy works, and this impacts countries’ overall democratic strength. When cities actively engage residents to develop effective solutions to problems, the trust this generates not only inoculates people against populist appeals but also creates an ongoing dialogue that fosters innovation and a strong sense of community infused with democratic values.  

Further, GMF notes:

In the face of growing concerns over the strength of democracy worldwide, GMF has been working to identify how cities can further and fortify underlying institutions and principles. Cities have a unique freedom to experiment with innovative approaches that can be replicated as well as scaled up to the state or national level. This has earned them a well-deserved reputation as “laboratories of democracy.”

The Cities Fortifying Democracy project came with a set of definitions:

  • Liberal Democracy: Democracy based on the holding of regular elections that are fair, free, and ordered around principles such as the rule of law, separation of powers, an independent judiciary, the protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties, and political freedoms for all people.
  • Pillars of Democracy: Voting and elections, governing, public safety and justice, and local journalism. Cutting across each of these pillars is equity and inclusion, good engagement, technology, and transparency.
  • Values of Liberal Democracy: Equity and inclusion, civic participation and the full agency of residents, respect for human rights, voting equality, media independence, government accountability, transparency, and protection of freedom of speech, assembly, press, and religion.
  • Democratic engagement: The knowledge, skills, behaviors, and values that individuals use to collectively solve public challenges. Local government effectively engages a broad spectrum of the community, especially harder-to-engage and underrepresented populations (youth, low-income residents, people of color, and new immigrants) in making policy, improving service delivery, and solving complex problems.

While I will not be examining different types of democracy, it is nevertheless important to note that the goal in working to further or fortify democracy is not to defend imperfect democracies that have perpetuated inequities, but to expand democracy so that it serves all groups, including groups that have historically been excluded. Getting to a multiracial democracy will require us to address inequities. To be successful, we need to focus on making systemic changes that result in improvements in material conditions in communities. While this paper explores the importance of a shared language, that in itself is insufficient. We must also operationalize equity and inclusion within the very foundation of local municipalities via a shared field of practice, with aligned strategies, tools, practices, and evaluative mechanisms across the field.

Observations, Reflections, and Recommendations

1. The Importance of Naming Race and Racism

Race is a social construct that categorizes people based on physical characteristics and ancestry to justify the inequitable distribution of resources and power. Racism is a system of power based on white supremacy that is deeply rooted historically, structurally, institutionally, and culturally. Racism encompasses the system and symptoms of inequitable power that provides some benefits to white people and harms communities of color. In the United States, examples of racism include the enslavement of people from Africa, the attempted genocide of indigenous populations, the establishment of laws limiting or banning immigration alongside the divisive impact of importing immigrant labor and the associated impacts on racial formation, and the continued deep and pervasive racial inequities across every indicator for success. In Europe, racism was a core tenet of fascism under Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Francisco Franco.

Due to the nature of race as a political and social construct and the horrors of fascism, there was a strong aversion to acknowledging the current reality of race and racism among some people I interviewed. At the same time, however, there was a very clumsy dance around language that the same people who were trying to avoid talking about race were using to describe race, e.g., “non-ethnically Italian Italians” and “Afro-peans” and proxies for race, e.g., migrant status or religion. This tendency to be uncomfortable talking about race was much more prevalent among institutional representatives, including municipal leaders, staff, and academics.

People from community-based organizations and, to a lesser extent, civil society more quickly and easily expressed the ways in which race and racism impact the experiences of Black people specifically, and people of color broadly. In addition, I experienced cultural discourse on racism in all six cities, including watching An Octoroonby Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, attending PAGINE PER I DIRITTI - Voci e idee di scrittrici per una città inclusiva in Turin, and visiting a photography exhibit by Black Polish artists in Warsaw that explored the use of the term “murzyn” (for background about the campaign – #DontCallMeMurzyn: Black Women in Poland Are Powering the Campaign Against a Racial Slur).

Regardless of whether municipal leaders feel ready to talk about race and racism, community members, artists, and cultural workers are demonstrating the importance of our collective exploration of race and racism.

The “othering and belonging” framework from the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley is a useful framework. “Othering” entails processes that marginalize people on the basis of perceived group differences. “Belonging” describes more than a feeling of inclusion or welcome. It means having a meaningful voice and the opportunity to participate in the design of political, social, and cultural structures that shape one’s life, the right to both contribute and make demands upon society and political institutions. At its core, structural belonging holds a radically inclusive vision because it requires mutual power, access, and opportunity among all groups and individuals.

To get to belonging, we must clearly understand and be able to talk about which groups of people are othered and how it occurs. European cities, like their American counterparts, won’t be able to solve something if we can’t talk about just what that problem is.

Interviewees shared that migrant status is sometimes used as a proxy for race and noted that as particularly troublesome because of the hierarchy within migrant groups (for example, Ukrainian refugees received streamlined processing and support, in contrast to Syrian refugees) and the difficulty of citizenship processes. In addition, most countries do not automatically provide citizenship to children born in the country if their parents are not citizens, and interviewees across the board noted the administratively burdensome nature of the citizenship process. Without citizenship, voting, which was noted as vital to feel part of the community, was not possible. The right to citizenship is seen as “the right to have rights.”

In Warsaw, in particular, the contrast between the treatment of Ukrainian versus Syrian migrants was vast. The question that arose repeatedly was, “If we can have a ‘one-stop shop’ for Ukrainians, why can’t we do the same for other refugees?” While it is not surprising that there are political sympathies with the Ukrainians, it is important to question whether refugees are treated differently due to prejudice or bias on the basis of color, race, ethnicity, or religion. Democratic practice requires us to move beyond embracing those who are perceived to be most “like us” and to redefine similarity according to shared interests and material conditions. The innovations tested and lessons learned from embracing Ukrainians can and should be applied more broadly.

Interviewees shared numerous observations that highlighted the importance of talking about race. These included:

  • In the wake of the George Floyd murder in 2020, national and local leaders across Europe, many of whom had never taken racism seriously in their own cities and institutions, stood up against racism in the United States.
  • The European Commission launched a European Anti-Racism Action Plan, and EU member states need to adopt national action plans against racism by the end of 2022. Turin has developed a municipal Action Plan Against Racism.
  • In its 2014–2018 report, the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), found that race-motivated crime and institutional racism are rising in many EU member states. In 2018, the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency published “Being Black in the EU,” informed by a survey of over 6,000 people of African descent in 12 member states. The work found that one in five respondents of African descent experienced racist harassment in the past year, and eight out of ten respondents believed skin color or physical appearance was the main reason they experienced discrimination when seeking work. Three percent were victims of a racist physical assault (including by police officers), of which 63 percent did not report the incident because they felt fearful or distrustful or that it would have no effect.
  • One German interviewee noted that he typically does not use “race” since it is a political and social construct. He believed that talking about race reifies the problem and that it is better to talk about immigration. However, just a few minutes later in the conversation, he noted that “the more important debate is about racism.”
  • There are ways in which language describes or creates reality, for example the circumlocutions used in Italian to refer to Black citizens as “second generation migrants,” “non-ethnically Italian Italians,” and “Italian-born foreigners.” These are all ways to actually deny their full status as Italian.
  • Within communities of color, especially among organizers, new terminology is being explored, such as “Afropean,” to give a word to the Black experience in Europe.
  • In every city I visited, I had two or more interviewees who said “Italian / German / Irish / Spanish / Polish / Greek people are very racist.” 

For people of color, the assumption of being the perpetual foreigner was noted across countries, even when the person was actually born in the country. Societal conceptions of what an Italian, German, Irish, Polish, Spanish, or Greek “looks like” are commonplace. The profoundly alienating and common question, “But where are you really from?” illustrates the fundamental rejection of diversity in European identities. The failure to recognize and discuss the legacy and present reality of racism in Europe is a major obstacle to combating it.

Finally, underlying some of the discomfort about talking about race, or using the proxy of migration status or religion, are tensions relating to assimilation, or the lack thereof. One German interviewee noted, “People would like to see migrants joining German society with an effort to integrate, to learn the language, to accept the rules. If they do that, it is fine for them to practice their religion. Integration will help them be successful, too. When they don’t do it, Germans experience a deep mistrust of why the migrants are here.”

While I remained open to the possibility of race being less of an issue in European cities, given the acknowledgement of its importance by many, and the unproductive effort in avoiding talking about race, it is clearly necessary to be able to talk about race and racism, and to use racial categories that are responsive to communities most impacted by racism.

Recommendation: Municipal leaders should provide opportunities for their employees to increase understanding of the ways that race, ethnicity, migrant status, religion, and other areas of marginalization can impact municipal policies and programs and to create cities where all groups truly experience belonging. In addition, municipalities should strengthen relationships with civil society and community-based organizations to be responsive to community direction on identity terminology. Given the rapidly developing and evolving nature of language about racial and ethnic identity in Europe, municipal governments should be flexible and responsive as language continues to evolve.

2. The Importance of Data

In the United States, data about racial and gender disparities allows us to understand gaps and assess progress toward closing gaps and raising outcomes for all groups over time. In the European cities, interviewees consistently noted the challenge of inadequate data. This is not new. The European Coalition of Cities Against Racism 10 Points Action Plan, adopted in 2004, includes this: “Assessing Racism and Discrimination and Monitoring Municipal Policies – To initiate, or develop further, the collection of data on racism and discrimination, establish achievable objectives and set common indicators in order to assess the impact of municipal policies.”

In addition, a 2014 report from the Open Society Foundation, Ethnic Origin and Disability Data Collection in Europe: Measuring Inequality—Combating Discrimination, made a compelling case for better data collection. The report noted that the collection of data broken down by sex, for example, has been used to foster equality between men and women across Europe. In 2012, when data revealed that far fewer women than men held management positions, the European Commission took steps to correct gender imbalance in high-level positions of publicly traded companies. But to measure the extent of inequities based on race, accurate data is lacking. The report noted that many European countries collect some data through proxies for race, such as native language, family names, and country of origin of (grand) parents, but such proxies may be inaccurate. In an article about the report, Constanza Hermanin and Angelina Atanasove wrote,

The EU and international human rights institutions have limited powers to force governments to collect data that shows the position of minority groups in, for example, the education system or employment market. Change must come from the local and national levels. It is crucial to revive the debate on equality data collection and foster a shift in attitudes among authorities and the public on this issue.

The data we need is not only about discrimination and hate crimes. We also need data disaggregated by race for community indicators, such as those relating to housing and homelessness, employment, education, criminal justice, and health. Without such data, it is impossible to know whether gaps exist, if they are increasing or decreasing, and the true extent of racial problems in European cities. Municipal leaders lack comprehensive data about their own populations and the full extent to which sub-populations face different health, social, or economic outcomes.

While a few interviewees expressed concerns about the legacy of World War II and the perception that tracking of data itself could be used for racist purposes, other interviewees offered an understanding of safeguards to prevent the misuse of data.

Two additional nuances about data were shared that are important to note.

  • In the United States, municipal administrators sometimes believe that data can be used to motivate action by, for example, identifying disparities. The actions and public will to address them will then follow. However, the unfortunate reality is that people presented with data frequently interpret it in a manner that reinforces existing beliefs. Therefore, rather than trying to use data to change minds, it should be used to assess conditions, target strategies, and monitor progress. In doing so, it is also important to insert narratives and stories to counter existing harmful narratives.
  • The importance of data for institutional accountability purposes should not be underestimated. In one interview, a municipal official noted that readily available data about racial disparities may create the expectation of responsibility. As the official was candidly thinking out loud, she was initially coming from a perspective of “the case against racial data.” But as the words flowed, she sheepishly recognized that municipal accountability for taking action to address racial disparities should be a positive role.

Broad social indicator data disaggregated by race can be used by municipal governments to target resources to communities and locations with the greatest needs. More specific data directly related to municipal planning processes and the delivery of municipal services can help to focus improvement efforts.

Recommendation: Municipal staff should conduct an inventory of available data and develop priorities for improving data collection at the local level, while also advocating for better comprehensive data at national and European levels. 

3. The Importance of Centering Communities and Systemic Change

Developing momentum toward a more truly representative democracy requires the direct involvement of local municipalities, the concerted action of grassroots civil society, and authentic engagement between the two that centers the lives, values, and aspirations of groups marginalized on the basis of race, ethnicity, color, religion, migration status, and gender. Such engagement encourages innovative policies and practices that lead to systemic change that advances equity.

To build an accountable, authentic, inclusive multiracial democracy for all, a strong public sector is essential. Communities and municipalities working together to deepen democratic practice will move us toward multiracial democracy. 

While many interviewees in municipalities and from community-based organizations shared interests in community engagement, their insights reflected different experiences.

  • A number of civil society representatives reflected on what was characterized as a typical municipal response to a community concern: “When in doubt, form a commission.” However, once established, such commissions are there largely for window dressing, and little real change is likely due to a lack of power or influence.
  • An interviewee who had previously worked inside one municipality on a sustainability and resiliency plan noted his embarrassment when it was only toward the end of an extensive three-year engagement process that he realized that, despite engaging 500 people, they had limited representation from communities of color.

Local municipalities have the opportunity to support democratic practices that focus on solutions. I was inspired by examples of transformative and equitable solutions that build residents’ decision-making power. The success of such examples is dependent on realigning relationships between institutions and the people whom they are intended to serve through accountability, transparency, and collaboration. Interviewees across cities talked about examples of getting people involved and shifting decision-making power to those most directly impacted. Two such examples include:

  • In Barcelona, Arnau Monterde Mateo is with the Directorate for Democratic Innovation Services. It was inspiring to see programming at a community center that is a part of the directorate that ranges from technology classes to discussions on feminist anti-fascist organizing with the goal of preventing fascism. The center is run democratically, with a community board responsible for decision making. The Directorate has also organized representative Young People Assemblies across racial, gender, and ethnic categories. The municipality has focused on representation of voices and has paid young people for their participation. Young people of color have determined the agendas, and the city council has accepted about 95 percent of their recommendations.
  • In Dublin, Joy Eniola is the city council intercultural development coordinator. Her position was created as a result of a study of the barriers to accessing services in the North East Inner City. The North East Inner City Programme is designed to support community partnerships and make improvements in the neighborhood. Eniola’s role was initially situated at the Department of Justice and focused on the North East Inner City neighborhood, but the city council decided they wanted her position to be city-wide. It is now located in the department that works with youth and neighborhood services. The council plans to replicate her role in other neighborhoods and communities. In addition, Eniola developed a democratic practice with communities, including the Roma and migrant communities, to launch an Intercultural Ambassadors Programme. She reflected on the narrative that race in Ireland is about immigration since, for many, Irish is assumed to be white. People of minority backgrounds are referred to as migrants, regardless of their citizenship status and length of time in Ireland. Although noting that progress can sometimes feel slow, Eniola is inspired by the racial justice training being led by the National Youth Council of Ireland and the organizing of the Irish Network Against Racism. This type of “inside-outside organizing” is aligned with the practice that GARE has found to be effective in the United States. Finally, Eniola noted that people like to complain about the government and politicians. Yet, people are disconnected from the democratic process. She noted that many democratic processes depend on professional or technical language that make it harder for many people to get involved. She sees it as her and her colleagues’ responsibility to develop more democratic practices that are designed by and for communities most impacted by problems.

A key challenge in the current political moment is expanding and scaling local democratic practices to bring institutionalized forms of governance (i.e., local elected officials and agencies tasked with managing public goods) into greater alignment with community-defined priorities. One way to do this is through co-governance, a mode of participation and decision-making in which government and communities work together through formal structures to make collective policy decisions, co-create programs to meet community needs, and ensure those policies and programs are implemented effectively.  A prerequisite to co-governance is the existence of vibrant and representative community-based organizations, a hallmark of a healthy democracy.

Effective co-governance requires a focus on systems change. Otherwise, changes that are dependent on individuals are too easily rolled back. GARE focuses on addressing racism at the systemic (institutional and structural) levels. Understanding and focusing on systems is important for two reasons: 1) Most individuals do not identify as “racists” and, in fact, most people hold values relating to equality and justice. Nevertheless, because of systemic racism, entire organizations can be full of well-intentioned individuals, but the organization can still play a role in perpetuating inequities. 2) Approaching inequities from a systemic perspective allows the development of solutions with greater leverage and potential for impact.

Cities and communities across Europe need to engage with civil society to assess the problem of racism and other areas of marginalization. By focusing on long-term systemic change, changes are less likely to be superficial and leadership changes at the municipal level are less able to dismantle progress. Interviews with community advocates revealed the extent of the challenges:

  • One municipality has a hard time enacting real structural changes and uses tokenism, such as putting Muslim people in pictures but not in positions of power.
  • The criminal justice system and policing were consistently named a systemic issue. Problems ranged from police violence toward migrants and people of color to police being more likely to check bus tickets for people of color. After the murder of George Floyd and the worldwide protests against racism, many Europeans indicated that “it is much easier to condemn a problem on another continent than to admit to flaws at home.”
  • Many interviewees also cited the impact of segregation and the importance of integration, including in neighborhoods, housing, jobs, and schools. Although there are gaps in data, it is important to address segregation from a systemic perspective as segregation in neighborhoods, schools, and jobs is linked. In Spain and Germany, it was noted that schools are segregated, and migrant children are more likely to be dropouts. In Spain, there is a pattern of parents moving their children out of schools with many immigrant children.

Community engagement and systems change must be designed around equitable processes and outcomes that correct disparities among and between racial, ethnic, and other groups. To do this effectively, local municipalities must have an organizing strategy that harnesses collaboration and external pressure from civil society. It is possible to build power and give community members a real say over the decisions in their lives when organizations can engage with government entities to change policy and establish a culture of justice and community participation.

Recommendation: Municipal staff should expand efforts to center communities and to co-create solutions to pressing social problems in collaboration with civil society. Local government should deepen democratic practices and build systemic opportunities for co-governance with communities.

4. The Importance of History

To understand current conditions in cities, it is critical to understand local and national history. The inequities that we see today are neither random nor natural but intentional and maintained over the course of history. In the United States, we can’t understand today’s racial wealth gap if we don’t understand the history of redlining and race-based housing covenants. Understanding the longstanding tactic of separating families during slavery and children from parents in Native American boarding schools provides greater context for family separation at the Southern border during the Trump administration.

In the United States, there is a necessary, ongoing reckoning with history. At the local level, municipalities have begun to demonstrate the importance of acknowledging local culpability. For instance,

  • Evanston, Illinois is making reparations available to eligible Black residents for what it describes as harm caused by “discriminatory housing policies and practices and inaction on the city's part.” The Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program will grant qualifying households up to $25,000 for down payments or home repairs, the first initiative of its kind in the United States.
  • The Asheville, North Carolina, city council passed a resolution supporting community reparations for Black Asheville. The resolution calls for the city manager to “establish a process within the next year to develop short-, medium-, and long-term recommendations to specifically address the creation of generational wealth and to boost economic mobility and opportunity in the [B]lack community.”

While it is easy to critique these efforts for being inadequate or lacking depth, it is important to note that they demonstrate the possibility of local municipalities being accountable for historical transgressions. Reparations, commonly discussed as national action relating to the enslavement of Africans, can entail an honest reckoning with and acknowledgement of local history, an apology, and steps to make matters whole. Taking action at the municipal level can demonstrate the possibilities at the national level. A collective reconciliation of our history will be mutually beneficial.

There are similar reckonings related to the history of racism and colonialism in Europe.  In a recent New York Times article, “The Long Road Ahead for Colonial Reparations,” Max Fisher opens with the question, “What do former colonial powers owe the descendants of those they colonized?” and goes on to note, “as reparations groups have expanded their claims from individual atrocities to colonialism itself, both proponents and governments have converged on a realization: If colonialism built Europe’s wealth, then total repayment could mean giving it up.” Indeed, many of the major European cities were built with the wealth and exploits of empire and colonization, as seen in museums, palaces, and statues that make up the urban landscape of many historic cities.

Visiting six European cities posed a personal challenge. Although I recognize the importance of history, I was also deeply cognizant of my own lack of understanding of the unique histories of the cities. My attempted “crash course” entailed visiting the local history museum in each of the cities and reading various books and articles, but this only deepened my frustration over what I didn’t know.

Listening to local voices affirmed the importance of historical understanding, including perceptions of national identity, whether a country has a history as a colonizer or as being occupied, whether a country has a history of fascism or of fighting fascism, and so on. Examples include the following:

  • Interviewees in Turin noted that because the history of colonialism in Italy wasn’t as “extreme,” people tended to downplay it, noting that the Italian empire was small in comparison to others. The story of colonialism that gets told is that “we helped.” In addition, colonialism doesn't get taught in schools, so it is an unknown part of Italian history.
  • Spain has a deep history of xenophobia, machismo, and far-right movements, such as the Francisco Franco dictatorship. At the same time, the new far right seems to have a short memory. Even though many Spanish citizens experienced state violence during the dictatorships, new far-right voices say the dictatorship was “okay.” There has not been any reconciliation or discussion of that era. The fact that the fascist dictator Francisco Franco repressed Catalan (and Basque) language, culture, identity, and desire for political autonomy has consequences today.
  • Roma people continue to face hardship after centuries of government oppression, going back as far as oppressive laws on the Roma during the 15th century onward. Due to these laws, Roma people were unable to work in positions other than low-wage jobs. There are places in Europe, such as Hungary, where Roma have some self-governing mechanisms, but these bodies are mostly about culture, so they don’t have a say in national governments. Roma people must choose where to vote, so they usually vote in the national elections, rather than the Roma-specific elections. Although there is a Roma council in Barcelona, it does not have power, and the Roma continue to be segregated into ghettos

Local municipalities are positioned to play a leadership role in the reconciliation of history that is necessary to achieve aspirations for expanded and racially equitable democracy.

Recommendation: Local municipalities should work with civil society and grassroots, community-based organizations to provide resources for the documentation of and forums for historical reconciliation to lay the foundation for a future that supports equity, inclusion, and belonging. 

5. The Importance of Local Municipalities and Governance

The actions of local municipalities can be a driver of democracy, equity, and inclusion, not merely as values or ideals, but as achievements that are implemented via structures, policies, and practices. Operationalizing democracy and embedding equity and inclusion in local municipalities’ daily operations is critical to our shared success.

The European Coalition of Cities Against Racism (ECCAR) is a UNESCO initiative launched in 2004 to establish a network of cities interested in sharing experiences to improve their policies against racism, discrimination, and xenophobia. ECCAR has developed a toolkit for municipal governments to leverage their role as democratic institutions, rule makers, employers, service providers, and contractors who can implement or adjust local policies, practices, and programs to counteract racism.

One challenge to furthering democratic practice, equity, and inclusion at the municipal level is the difference in purview in European and American cities. US cities have considerably more responsibility for functions relating to land use and zoning, policing, and comprehensive planning than their counterparts in Europe, where national governments hold many of these responsibilities. In addition, the EU recognizes the state as the lowest form of government, so cities have little sway internationally. Cooperation among cities through entities such as ECCAR in Europe and GARE in the United States is important for building power. 

Mayors, council members, municipal officials, managers, and administrators are at the forefront of supporting democratic practices. Cities, therefore, offer the most direct way for residents to exercise their democratic rights. In some places, cities are safe havens in nations battling democratic backsliding.

We must link cities, towns, and rural areas to address attacks on democracy. According to Claudio Tocchi and his work with Luciano Scagliotti and Licia Cianetti, one in three Europeans lives in a small city. In a London School of Economics article, they note that inclusion initiatives are fundamentally a local matter, as cities must reach all their residents, particularly ones who have been historically marginalized or require special protections.

Local municipalities can set an example for national governments. For example, although the EU has urged countries to develop National Action Plans Against Racism, there are no consequences for not completing one. The Italian government has not done so, but there is a national working group, though it has little community involvement. Turin, however, launched a process with robust, broad engagement during which the need to work with smaller villages on racial inclusion was identified.

A few insights from interviewees include:

  • Racial and gender representation in municipal government is important, but some centralized laws have created barriers to hiring. Access to civil servant positions has been limited, and office holders are perceived to be disproportionately white and wealthy. This is particularly disconcerting in relation to positions overseeing diversity and inclusion initiatives.
  • As in the United States, reporting workplace discrimination in Europe is hard for victims. Migrants, Roma, and people of color hesitate to report such discrimination because victims are frequently presumed to be at fault.
  • European urban areas, like those in the United States, are frequently more progressive than state or national governments. One interviewee shared that Barcelona prides itself on welcoming refugees, but its progressive policies can create a distance between the city/region and the capital. A similar dynamic exists in Warsaw.
  • The idea of an “urban-rural divide,” which is prevalent in the United States, is also at play in Europe. In Turin, organizers are addressing this narrative by launching initiatives focused on inclusion in cities, towns, and rural areas.

Interviewees were also eager to grapple with new opportunities:

  • A Barcelona official reflected that neighborhood councils typically meet three or four times annually to deal with issues such as transportation, parks and squares, and housing. Participation typically does not reflect youth, migrants, or people with disabilities, meaning that neighborhood priorities don’t reflect those of the broader population. This official was animated by the possibility of redesigning efforts to increase inclusion.
  • A Dublin official reflected that training for municipal workers on systemic racism is important but must be focused on building skills and capacity to dismantle structural discrimination and create change.
  • Multiple interviewees spoke about a new measure, “For an Anti-Racist Barcelona.” Through specific actions over a four-year time horizon, this effort will tackle racism from different angles, deconstruct and prevent systemic racism, and advance racial justice. The measure is important as it builds beyond training and focuses on operationalizing racial equity.

Each of these are topics that local municipalities can prioritize and take action to address.

Recommendation: Municipalities can use an equity lens within their own operations to examine employee statistics and increase the participation of underrepresented groups, strengthen engagement processes and structures, and analyze and solidify policies and practices to advance equity and inclusion. Municipalities can also organize regionally, including with larger cities and smaller towns, to build bridges that advance multiracial, multicultural, and democratic practices.

6. The Importance of Tackling Authoritarianism and Toxic Polarization

Toxic polarization and the rise of authoritarianism and white nationalism are increasing worldwide. According to V-Dem, a democracy monitoring group, more democracies are in decline today than at any other point in the last century. Blake Hounshell and Max Fisher write:

The United States fits pretty cleanly into what is now a well-established global pattern of democratic backsliding. First, society polarizes, often over a backlash to social change, to demographic change, to strengthening political power by racial, ethnic or religious minorities, and generally amid rising social distrust. This leads to a bottom-up desire for populist outsiders who will promise to confront the supposed threat within, which means suppressing the other side of that social or partisan or racial divide, asserting a vision of democracy that grants special status for “my” side, and smashing the democratic institutions or norms that prevent that side from asserting what is perceived to be its rightful dominance.

This analysis of polarization fails to delineate between types of polarization. As the Horizon’s Project notes in Good versus Toxic Polarization:

Polarization is generally considered a necessary and healthy aspect of democratic societies. Toxic polarization is categorically different and can often lead to destructive and violent engagement. A component of toxic polarization is affective polarization, which refers to when groups aren’t simply in disagreement with each other, but actively dislike and even dehumanize each other. Here, political outgroup members are seen to pose a threat not only to ideas and values, but to identities and social groups. Another component is perceptual polarization, which measures the degree to which we view the other side as extreme in comparison to our own. Thus, toxic polarization exists as a state of intense, chronic polarization—marked by high levels of loyalty to a person’s ingroup and contempt or even hate for outgroups.

Toxic polarization limits our ability to humanize and engage with political opponents. It influences where we live, the information we consume, who we hire, and even the health care decisions we make. While toxic polarization has caused increasing numbers of people to view the other side as an existential threat, it has also created chronic exhaustion among Americans. In toxically polarized societies, people tend to exaggerate the extent to which they disagree on policy issues. A recent project from Beyond Conflict found that Americans incorrectly believe that members of the other party dehumanize, dislike, and disagree with them about twice as much as they actually do. Citizens along the ideological spectrum believe we are more polarized than we are, which can exacerbate polarization and make us less willing to work together to solve problems. It also makes it more difficult to agree on the nature of the problems we face.

For us to address democratic backsliding, we must understand how demographic changes are being driven, how they are perceived and interpreted, particularly by opposition leaders, and who the changes benefit. Polarization isn't the problem. Toxic polarization is the problem, and the toxicity is driven by manipulation such that many white people feel threatened by shifting demographics, rather than understanding the deep and meaningful benefits of achieving a multiracial democracy in which we all can thrive.

In “When It Comes to Eating Away at Democracy, Trump Is a Winner,” Thomas Edsall writes:

The pessimistic outlook for the prospect of a return to less divisive politics revealed in many of the papers cited here, and the key role of racial conflict in driving polarization, suggest that the ability of the United States to come to terms with its increasingly multiracial, multiethnic population remains in question. This country has been a full-fledged democracy for less than 60 years—since passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the changes wrought by three additional revolutions: in civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights. These developments—or upheavals—and especially the reaction to them have tested the viability of our democracy and suggest, at the very least, an uphill climb ahead.

Our responses to the civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights movements didn’t have to polarize and, indeed, could have been unifying. That these movements faced opposition, and ideas were deployed to delegitimize each side, drove toxic polarization. During this same period, global economic changes enabled these movements, as did the move on the part of the former core industrial nations away from industrial economies to information-based economies. This gutted US industrial communities, which correspond almost exactly to the Southern Poverty Law Center hate map, though with some hybrid exceptions. It also drove people online where hate, isolation, and social alienation are monetized, creating an opening for racial entrepreneurs, while also kindling nostalgia for folkways and lifestyles that became unsustainable. The merging of that nostalgia with themes of invasion and replacement on the part of right-wing oligarchs is behind today’s extreme toxic polarization.

Authoritarians will use any wedge issue to gain and maintain power. Responding to Victor Orban’s August 2022 speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee, Kim Lane Scheppele, a Princeton University professor of sociology and international affairs, remarked, “At one level, Orban simply played the culture wars cards he has always played, leaning into his anti-immigration campaign, his ‘family values’ campaign against gender fluidity and gay rights, and his law-and-order campaign. He expected cheers for those positions, and he got them.”

From the rise of the Brothers of Italy, Spain’s Vox party, and France’s National Rally, the themes of secure borders, immigration limits, and defense of the “traditional family” are consistent.

Stephen Menendian from the Othering and Belonging Institute explains:

The key to understanding many of our current political dysfunctions—and not just in the United States—is that the fight for inclusion and equity is generally accompanied by the ontological anxiety of identity threat, the fear of falling and cultural displacement among groups that were traditionally dominant. This is fertile ground for conspiracies like replacement theory and political backlash to equity and inclusion. This is why members of materially well-off social groups can, paradoxically, behave like aggrieved victims. This also explains the frustrating reality that both members of marginalized groups and traditionally dominant groups can simultaneously feel a lack of belonging in society.

The vast majority of people I interviewed expressed grave concerns about the increased popularity of authoritarians and the level of toxic polarization. Their points included:

  • Much of the right-wing radicalization of young people is taking place online. Social media has increased as a major, if inaccurate, source of news. “Fake content” is driving the racist, alt-right movement in Europe. People believe fake news because they have lost trust in institutions, and, at the same time, big tech is not held accountable for facilitating fake news.
  • Unemployment, the wealth divide between generations, and globalization have given rise to far-right movements.
  • A general narrative of scarcity has created tension between those perceived to be “makers” and those perceived to be “takers.” There is a level of frustration that some groups get access to financial resources and support from the government.

One policy recommendation in “Freedom in the World 2022: The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule” is:

Work at the local level to strengthen democracy. State and local government bodies are often the most direct connection people have to democratic governance. These institutions’ ability or inability to serve public needs will impact people’s views on the merits of democracy as a form of governance. As backsliding continues in once-established democracies, greater attention should be given to strengthening democracy at the state, provincial, territorial, and local levels. State and local governments have an especially important role to play in ensuring strong transparency, ethics, and anticorruption controls and the protection of fundamental freedoms, and they are often best placed to address barriers to democratic participation such as social exclusion and poverty. Domestically focused civil society organizations and groups focused on international democracy should work together to develop ideas for strengthening local governance in democracies, in part by exchanging best practices and applying lessons learned from their respective areas of work. Democratic governments should take up these ideas and consult with domestically focused civil society groups to identify and address institutional deficiencies with honesty and clarity.

Recommendation: The best way to fight authoritarianism is with large numbers of people and organizations working to advance democracy. Local municipalities are uniquely situated to lead this effort. Recognizing a public sector for the public good requires us to expand opportunities for communities that have historically been marginalized. We must invest in and contribute to multiracial democracy.   


In the months following my sabbatical in the six European cities, attacks on democracy and toxic polarization have continued. The election of Giorgia Meloni and the Brothers of Italy is an example of the trend. At the same time, transatlantic efforts to further, fortify, and expand democracy have strengthened through the inclusion of an explicit equity agenda. Although the ideas, concepts, and language that the United States and Europe use may not be identical, shared analysis of power and the ways in which othering takes place to maintain or increase power for the elite to the detriment of others is critical and will help to bridge strategies and cooperation in building dynamic, multiracial, multicultural cities across the two continents.

In the context of governing, we must focus on the practice of democracy, expanding the mechanisms for people to engage in the decisions impacting their lives. In closing, I would like to highlight a few additional European initiatives that may be useful in the United States:

  • Frankfurt will celebrate in 2023 the 175th anniversary of the 1848 German revolution at the Paulskirche and the historic events that shaped democracy. The celebration will focus on institutionalizing democracy, recognizing that people need to feel and practice democracy.
  • Citizen assemblies in Ireland and Poland have helped to shape policies in a democratic manner. Ireland’s first assembly in 2012 focused on the country’s constitution, and the second, in 2016, on abortion. Each demonstrated the power of bringing people together to process important social and political issues, and shape public policy. Supporting citizen engagement to explore the complexities of a topic and make policy recommendations holds significant structural promise, especially when responding to real problems and focusing on implementation. The process of citizens assemblies demonstrates that dialogue and developing solutions to controversial topics is possible.
  • The power of community organizing and culture is clear in the Kypseli neighborhood of Athens, home to a large number of migrants. DØCUMATISM filmmaker and organizer Menelaos Karamaghiolis has been documenting the stories of the neighborhood. The films’ protagonists are immigrants from Africa, living in Greece and standing up for their right to be Greeks of African origin, or Afro-Greeks. DØCUMATISM has 200 videos that feature 250 protagonists, most of whom are Africans who were born in Greece or came to the country at a young age. Many are exploring their identity as Afro-Greeks. This archive of the African diaspora in Greece details their efforts to democratically solve community problems.

I would like to close by expressing my deep appreciation to the German Marshall Fund of the United States for their support of this project, to all those who shared their time and thinking with me in the six European cities I visited, to Race Forward for the provision of sabbaticals for employees, to Gaby Sanchez and the Othering and Belonging Institute for research support, and to all those in the public sector and in community organizations working to advance just, multiracial, multicultural democracy. While my career has been in the United States, the issues we face across continents are common. We are more likely to solve challenges when working together. Our future depends on that.

  • 1Cities Fortifying Democracy was launched in the face of growing concerns over the strength of democracy worldwide and with the understanding that cities are increasingly on the frontlines of fortifying democracy. Even if most city officials are unlikely to frame their work in terms of “democracy,” they play a key role in supporting democracy. When cities actively engage residents to develop effective solutions to problems, the trust this generates not only inoculates people against populist appeals but also fosters innovation and a strong sense of community infused with democratic values