Five things we learned from the Agora di Messina project

The Agora Di Messina Project took a group of citizens through a unique exploration of democratic engagement in Sicily, culminating in a festival of democracy that they organised themselves. We spoke to Francesca Attolino and Ivan Tornesi – the Demsoc team who led the work – about what they learned in this landmark programme. We’ve condensed some of the learning points from our longer case study – available on the Public Square website.

Listen: Annie Cook interviews Francesca and Ivan – available as a podcast.

1. People care deeply about the areas they live – but participation in democracy isn’t necessarily a natural next step.

Ivan Tornesi said that Messina is full of people who love their city and region and have very strong opinions about it but that doesn’t necessarily extend to an immediate desire to get involved in making decisions or community work: “People are very passionate about what they love but probably participation was not one of the key things for them”

We know that this isn’t that surprising – but it’s always worth reflecting that, in our world of eulogising for participation, we can too easily lose sight of the fact that there’s no definitive reason why people who care would ever think to participate.

2. Working together is culture change – because it’s new.

Just sticking people in a room and saying, ‘you know what, let’s do something’ might seem straightforward, but it’s harder than it looks. As Francesca told us: “We decided to start the project ‘Le Agora di Messina’ to build a legacy and also to give them infrastructure for other localisation that are working in Messina at the local level but they face everyday problems for example people don’t know about the work, people have difficulties in knowing each other and also not to feel association as enemies.”

3. Building a network takes time, but it’s worth it

The Messina project started with stakeholder mapping to understand the local area – and a partnership with a university to ensure a proper understanding of the local area. Francesca and Ivan said: “Le Agora di Messina’ … is like an underground programme of interconnective activities to really assist in participation at the heart of the Messina community and to do this we spent the first three to four months building our network”.

4. A citizen steering group ensures a better relationship with the public

The programme recruited a steering group of citizens – and worked with them throughout. They worked together to explore participation, the city and to develop a festival of participation. “We really believe it’s really important to have citizens by your side and to ask citizens what they want to do with their city because if we continue imposing our vision [on] citizens we will never really be successful in delivering the project. We need to hear citizens and also to help citizens build their capacity on what to do, for example how to use public spaces for participation.”

5. Think about time – because it is a precious resource

Francesca and Ivan told us that for the project, one of the key issues was time – both because the project was relatively short, but more importantly because people’s involvement is always made harder by other commitments. They said: “It’s like the most important resource nowadays. It’s hard to balance participation with people’s lives. If they don’t work, they are mothers, and have children and can’t leave them [for example].”

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