Julia Mårtensson is the Operations Director of Alingsås municipality’s Integration Department, and works both strategically and operationally with refugee reception and integration issues.
She is also the Project Manager of Alingsås’ municipal partnership with Chililabombwe in Zambia.
“We’re working together on identifying new methods of enhancing people’s knowledge of democracy in our municipalities. Ultimately, what we both want is a more inclusive municipality, says Julia.
The aim of the work in Alingsås is to ensure a good reception system for the refugees through sustainable democratic processes.
Information is obviously important – but dialogue is even more important. And in Chililabombwe, they’re good at dialogue.
“In Sweden, we’re good at forms and documents, while in Chililabombwe, they’re good at going out into the field and meeting people face to face to talk with them. We need to be better at communicating with people using methods other than the written word,” says Julia.
But information provision is a one-way street, and Julia Mårtensson believes that bi-directional communication is needed if real change is to occur.
“We’re trying to establish an effective dialogue and have started offering our refugees training on how study circles work. In Chililabombwe, they have a forum where people meet every week to discuss things that affect the village, and we’re looking into potential ways of combining this format with our study circles.”
Both Alingsås and Chililabombwe are keen to create an environment that improves people’s ability to participate in the public debate in their municipalities. But if discussions are to yield results, mutual trust is vital, and this is an area where Alingsås can help Chililabombwe.
“They don’t really trust their public officials, who are perceived as corrupt. We need to build up an understanding of why they can trust officials, and to teach them the value to them, as individuals, of the democratic process,” says Julia.
Preparatory work was carried out in 2014 and 2015, when representatives from both municipalities got to know each other, building mutual understanding and trust. The full partnership was launched in January this year.
“I think we’ve achieved quite a lot since then. We’ve had two visits from our Zambian partners – both the steering group of politicians and the project group – and we’ve visited them as part of an exchange programme.”
What tools have you given Chililabombwe?
“We’ve used a social information course for our new arrivals, showing them how society is structured in Sweden, as a model for how we can work with information in Zambia. And I’m looking into ways of incorporating digital platforms into the dialogue.”
Alingsås was one of the towns affected by the influx of refugees who arrived in Sweden in 2015 and Julia Mårtensson is working with those refugees who have now been granted residence permits and are being assigned housing in the municipality.
Alingsås has accepted 103 refugees and has a statutory obligation to find homes for 123 people, so the biggest challenge facing the municipality is housing, housing, housing.
“The housing issue always gets in the way of other issues we’d like to address. It’s difficult to talk about civic dialogue with someone who doesn’t have a place to live. It’s difficult to explain how our school system works to someone who’s waiting for their family to arrive and who’s sharing an apartment with five other people.
“It’s hard to get our message across to a person who’s homeless. We’re working extensively with something we call “an extra living room”, which can be anything from a leisure centre, to how schools can help, to information available from the library. Alingsås is incredibly short of available housing right now, and this is a massive problem.”
The challenges are substantial, but Julia enjoys her work.
“I’m really enjoying it – I love this job! All the people I get to meet, their fates… I’ve been working with this for seven years now and every single day has been different throughout every one of those years,” says Julia. “That’s probably the biggest challenge of all.”
Looking ahead five years, how do you see things then?
“I hope that we’ll have made real progress with this study circle methodology and that we aren’t just sitting there with reams of documents and checklists. Documentation is necessary to some extent, but I do hope we’ve replaced a lot of it with more dialogue.”
What sort of support are you getting from ICLD and what sort of support would you like to receive?
“I’ve received amazing support from ICLD. They’ve responded rapidly to my questions, and I got loads of support when I was drafting the municipal partnership application. I’ve attended workshops in Härnösand… the support’s been great.”
So, the support’s been good – but there is one thing on Julia’s wish list:
“I know that our partner municipality finds it a little difficult to understand what ICLD can actually do. ICLD could, perhaps, have prepared Chililabombwe slightly better in this respect. I do believe in the municipal partnership model, though. It’s required an awful lot of work, but it’s yielded so much. My skills have improved and my network has grown, and it’s all thanks to ICLD.”