As a member of a privileged group of professionals selected by the American Council on Germany for the Social Cohesion program1 on either side of the Atlantic, I have experienced an enlightening and fruitful week. I would like to share some of the main key takeaways from the first step of the program, which took place in September 2023 in Cologne and Stuttgart. The second part of the program will take place in Washington D.C. at the end of the year.
The cohort met with several individuals and organizations2 that are actively engaged in addressing social issues in the states of Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia. These states have a combined population of approximately 30 million residents, including foreign nationals. Notably, we learned from the mayor of Cologne that in the city alone, there are people from 184 different nations.
Here are my takeaways from the first phase of the program:
- Social cohesion is centered around active listening and engaging with people in a way that fosters genuine communication. It also involves taking action, being prepared to change the status quo, and striving for better communities where everyone feels included and has a sense of belonging.
- Multi-level governance is crucial. Society functions like a living organism, and issues in practice cannot be rectified solely through executive orders from the federal government. Every level of governance plays a significant role, including municipalities, organizations, universities, and civil society. They must collaborate to create cities where the guiding principle is ‘a city for everyone.’
- The media, as an influential factor, must incorporate the principle of inclusivity into its operations, messaging, and business conduct.
- In Europe, particularly in Germany, there has been a growing sense of threat, especially following the rise of Alternative for Germany (AfD). Even some Germans with diverse cultural backgrounds are contemplating the idea of moving abroad if the AfD becomes a major political force.
- Universities bear a significant responsibility for raising awareness of structural discrimination and working to reduce it.
- Although there are many examples of good practices in enhancing social cohesion and promoting ESG practices worldwide, there are also setbacks, as observed in Texas. The state has decided to ban diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) offices at public colleges and universities.
- There is a significant discussion surrounding the topic of data. In many European jurisdictions, especially in Germany, a major data gap exists concerning race. Consequently, an important question is central to many discussions: How can you advocate for more inclusive strategies when you lack information about your constituency? On the other hand, many argue that, despite the presence of questionnaires identifying race and other components of diversity in many organizations in the US, they still fall short in addressing racism.
- Building a network is vital. Everyone we talked to, whether a university professor, a city mayor, or a young social worker, emphasized that network building is crucial for creating more efficient ways of dealing with challenges in striving for inclusive societies.
- Funding is the most important topic. I was pleased to observe that many social workers emphasized that local authorities are supporting them on a project-by-project basis. However, to ensure the continuity of their good work independently of project financing, social organizations must find ways to secure ongoing funding.
- The US and people of colour are still suffering from redlining3.
In conclusion, we need inclusive, diverse, and harmonious societies for a better future. Therefore, discussing social cohesion is vital. It is crucial that we ask questions about it, analyze it, and challenge the status quo to create more inclusive societies.
One final remark concerns what I have learned from social workers who are striving for more inclusive, integrated societies. Social cohesion is about building a system, not a project that has a definite start and end.
- In the fall of 2022, the American Council on Germany launched the Study Tour on Social Cohesion. Funded through the Transatlantic Program of the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany through funds of the European Recovery Program (ERP) of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK). This project explores how communities address diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA). ↩︎
- Ministry for Social Affairs, Health, and Integration (state of Baden-Wuerttemberg), University of Cologne, AmerikaHaus, Robert Bosch Stiftung, Freundeskreis Koeln-Indianapolis, rubicon e.V., NS-Documentation Center of the City of Cologne, InterKultur e.V., , German-American Center, Büro für diskriminierungskritische Arbeit Stuttgart (Office for Anti-Discrimination at Work), Black Community Foundation Stuttgart e.V., Forum der Kulturen Stuttgart e.V., Integrationshaus e.V. ↩︎
- Redlining in the United States refers to the historical practice of discriminating against certain neighborhoods, often based on racial or ethnic factors, by denying them access to financial services like loans and insurance. ↩︎