Conflicts in Disqualified Urban Peripheries and the Lack of a Complex Vision

by Laura Cipollini

I’d like to share my thoughts on some issues that I consider to be fundamental to effectively intervene on topics that can no longer be postponed.

About 10 years ago, following my research in Sarajevo, the “Jerusalem of the Balkans”, I decided to use the reflections that emerged from that experience in Italy. Of course, the cultural contexts of departure between the two countries are very different in many ways. However, I believe that no society can feel excluded from the  conflicts that feed off frustration; a sense of exclusion; injustice; concrete difficulties; political indifference, and incitement to conflict. (Sarajevo, Le città degli abitanti, in Città e memoria, Bruno Mondadori editore). Sarajevo’s citizens, founded as intercultural and multi-religious, were convinced that the war would have never involved them. When some inhabitants climbed the hills to besiege their own city, the news itself was learned with disbelief and dismay. Those inhabitants on the hills especially were new citizens, fruit of the massive migrations due to Tito’s economic planning. Some sociological studies from the 80’s pointed to significant social tensions in the suburbs, yet nothing had been done to understand the nature of those tensions and how to eliminate their imminent danger.

In Italy, since the only permanent laboratories of active citizenship are classrooms, my action research to date has been held in such places; representative microcosms of our urban communities. In a nutshell, the issues at the heart of the activities that I have developed over the years are the interactions among living environments; relational dynamics in complex systems; active listening; processes of identity construction (both individual and collective), and quality of life.

We have talked about an intercultural society for years now, and therefore about the pedagogy of complexity, and the pedagogy of diversity; however, the interventions of daily practice often amount to isolated and superficial projects. These days, the fact is this has affected some Italian suburbs. Tor Sapienza testified to shortsighted urban planning and policy choices where consequences are discounted, and it is only a matter of time. In a country like Italy, we talk a lot and do almost nothing, where problems exist only when they take striking tones. We live in a society that we cannot ignore. We exalt meritocracy, and we discuss about the need to change the conscience of the country, and about the importance of the school to form aware and creative citizens that are able to revive our fortunes. Yet, those who have crucial roles on all levels and could make a difference, remain unperturbed testimonies of the sinking Titanic.

I think we need in the spotlight, and therefore at the centre of educational strategies that cross activities, the meaning of dwelling and identity. It is necessary to reason together on inhabitants’ quality of life. The experience of dwelling in itself contains a reciprocity of enlightened meanings:  on the one hand the sense of possession, on the other that of belonging to the community of which, for better or worse, we are a part.

If human life is a form of profound communication, and living is a dialogic experience in itself, then we participate in what we question, in what we listen to, how we answer, ho we agree, and we disagree. The context that reveals the space and time in which this occurs, cannot be considered a pure silent scenery, but rather a speaking subject capable of significant influences on relational dynamics, individual growth, perception of self and others, and the construction of identity processes. The environment where we live is to be considered an exceptional hypertext that we constantly interact with in our daily lives. It is a great source of reminders, if we are enabled to decipher the semantic chains, if we can act as protagonists, especially when the meta-communication is castrating and oppressive.

All educators agree now that the creation of the group, and then the sense of belonging to it, is a sine qua non condition to be able to play any educational project. This reasoning, transferred outside the classroom, is the basis of any laboratory of active citizenship, even more so if we want to improve the quality of life in disqualified districts.

In our globalized society, where communication pervades almost everything, it seems that we have lost the ability to listen to others. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that we do not know how to listen and relate in the right way. In this regard, the school has great responsibilities. I do not think there is a magic wand to solve the serious problems we deal with nowadays, but I do think there are some tools that are strategic to appropriately act, and thus to contribute in order to strengthen our prospects.

From this, I would like to give another example of international proportions. In recent months, the jihadist menace has become more and more scary. ISIS is at the center of the news and the information is not consoling. Some scholars all over the world are studying the social dynamics that induce normal people, very often second generation immigrants to leave their countries following the jihadist’s recruiting system. Religious fanaticism is not the key if some of them, before leaving their houses, bought on Amazon the book:  Islam for Dummies. Even if the psychological research on terrorists is not so rich, the reflections of J. Horgan, an American political psychologist, are in-line with these thoughts. After describing the 4 major components which characterize the terrorist profile, he specifies that social dynamics are the causal factor for their life choice. The will to belong to the terrorists’ community can be considered specular to the sense of exclusion that has grown up in our Western societies. The sense of belonging, that crucial feeling and act of dwelling contributes to daily life. That feeling which can be distorted or destroyed by a multitude of factors, starting from the context where we live, and the meta-communication we are subjected and the tools that we have.

My concrete experience has been in developing schools (primary and secondary) in districts and villages with a high percentage of inhabitants of foreign origin. I did such development in university where I collaborated in some courses, and in a ghetto of my city, whose citizens are all of foreign origin. In the last case my work was finalized to qualify the district with participation of its citizens.

Although the issues mentioned above are so incisive to our quality of life, my feeling is that teachers, left in utter neglect, are the only people delegated by our societies to face the field without proper tools. Such situations, on the contrary, with regard to their complexity and delicacy, should have everyone’s attention focused upon them.

In 2012, I published a book (La scuola delle opportunità, Morlacchi editore) with the aim to give teachers useful tools. The text was adopted in courses where I was a co-worker and received very favorable comments, including one that speaks volumes:  “after 4-years of university, finally the first book which talks about current issues in an appropriate way.” Encouraged by feedback from the field, and prompted by the teachers with whom I worked, I proposed my projects to school directors, the directors of regional school boards, and members of municipal and provincial councils. Did I get any answer?

It’s true, there is no money; but that is not all. I think those who should identify the strategies are missing the ability to think in terms of complexity. Isn’t it true that in periods of crisis that educational strategies are even more important to maximize limited available resources? So, what does an architect have to do with intercultural projects? How can some activities, relating to the issues mentioned at the beginning of this article, improve the relational dynamics of the group? How can they increase the self-esteem of students and motivate them to do their best? How is it possible to improve the quality of life for both students and teachers on these issues through workshops? Maybe the news of today has enlightened someone who knows.