City of Sun – Friends of the Trotter Park (CSFTP) is a volunteering association founded in 1994 by parents and teachers of the school ‘City of Sun’, located within the Trotter Park in the area of Via Padova. The school in the park was created in 1922 (on the site of a former trotter) to allow disadvantaged children to be taught in a healthy environment. By the time the association was created, many facilities in the park were run down and abandoned, so the association was born to lobby for the preservation and renewal of this historical heritage and school (ISC Casa del Sole, 2011).
For this reason, events and initiatives organised by CSFTP mainly target the park itself, the close neighbouring area, and the children: adults are a target group mainly in relation to their children – as parents and grandparents.
Since 1994, the strategy of the association has changed, according to the changes in the managing board, and in the area itself. At first, the focus was on education, cultural heritage and environmental activities; later, also the political engagement added up, connected with the mobilization for public education in early 2000s. Finally, the focus shifted more towards community commitment and social cohesion, also to reverse the stigmatization of Via Padova made by anti-immigration politicians.
In-migrant diversity was first coped with in 2003, through ‘Words in play’, as a way to provide educational support to foreign children and parents, that public educational institutions did not help enough. Later, the goal shifted: from activities targeting immigrants, to activities involving all children and parents from different social and cultural background and origin, with the aim to create spaces of encounter and tools for social cohesion.
The last stage in this transformation has been the strong support CSFTP gave to neighbourhood pride and acknowledgement against the negative politicization of the area of Via Padova, where immigration rate is among the highest in Milan. The most meaningful event in this respect is a street party called ‘Via Padova is better than Milan’, whose aim is to show the rich social fabric of the area, where diversity is a value. The starting point was the killing of a 19 years old Egyptian youngster, Abdel Aziz El Saied: this fact grounded a law and order and stigmatizing reaction by the local administration. Local associations counteracted it by showing the problem in Via Padova was not the foreigners, but the lack of public action in social integration.
All the above-mentioned foci layered in CSFTP’s actions in the last decades, and today all are part of its mission., The above mentioned priorities have a common ground in volunteering, free access to grant larger participation, activism and lobbying toward the perceived inaction of public institutions in order to revitalize a unique place of the city (in a way, some activities may be considered as a way to draw public attention on the condition of the park and the school). Most important initiatives criss-crossing the different goals of the association, including social cohesion and promotion of diversity, are:
– the teaching farm;
– the above-mentioned ‘Words in play’ [Paroleingioco], a project of intercultural after-school support, cultural encounter and language learning for parents and children;
– Orchestrilla, a project of intercultural musical education;
– Trotterbook [Librotrotter], a self-managed children’s library that collects donated books, whose aim is also to provide a cultural space of encounter for different families, including migrant ones;
– Party in the park [Parcoinfesta], a series of events aimed at making the park a meeting point for different social groups, with activities like games for the children, food events, exchange of used stuff, community gardening.
– TNT and Multicomics, two theatre festivals
– Stage in the park [Parcoscenico], an amateur acting company
Besides these projects, CSFTP contributed – with lobbying activities, but also with volunteers’ work – to refurbish some buildings and facilities in the park, used for educational and cultural events. The resources to manage such a number of activities come from the collaboration with the school, fees that the members of CSFTP (270 in 2013) pay yearly, pre-tax donations, and competitive calls (issued by Cariplo Foundation, Municipality and District).
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
At the beginning, CSFTP was not meant to focus on intercultural or other diversity-related issues. Though, in-migration has been a traditional issue in the surroundings of Via Padova (first from the towns and countryside around Milan; then from Southern Italy; more recently from around the World). Both focussing on past heritage and contemporary situation, differences in social class and cultural background have been apprised in the association’s activities, since the park is at the crossroads between middle class, working class and migrants’ blocks.
All in all, CSFTP’s point of view on diversity is based on the acknowledgement of diversity as a constitutive part of the neighbourhood and the park, that has been long a meeting place of people from different social classes, origins, backgrounds – including gender (since some activities target socialization among women from different backgrounds). As the President of the Association claims:
“Beside integration, I would consider social cohesion as a goal of this association: the school, the association, other institutions – here [in the park] there’s a world, like a fish tank. That is: a microcosm where different species and plants live together – and that has a reason in its diversity, since diversities together made up its beauty”.
The park is the core element of CSFTP identity, seen as a meeting place of different populations, whose mix is variable in time. In this respect, this interpretation may hint to a discourse aware of intersectionality and hyper-diversity, since different dimensions of diversity are considered as building blocks of local identity, and its specific lifestyle that has to be nurtured through a personal and collective engagement that support social cohesion (Associazione “La città del sole – Amici del Parco Trotter”, 2000).
Main factors influencing success or failure
According to the interviewees, one risk factor is the statute of the association: volunteering has been a fundamental resource, granting good-natured motivation. At the same time, it caused discontinuities in the action of CSFTP. Nowadays, the association is undergoing an inflamed debate on the hypothesis to change its statute and in the balance between different goals and roles (e.g. volunteerism vs. professionalism).
The smaller group of active members set the tone of priorities and goals – also in conflicting way: the balance between top-down control and bottom-up participation is quite frail. For example, notwithstanding a great attention on cultural diversity, the involvement of minority members in managing the association and programming the activities is still limited.
Also, fund-raising may be an issue in maintaining some activities. Usually most of the projects require limited funding (and a lot of volunteering), but the reduction of transfers and calls may affect continuity and extent of some measures.
As for the factors that may positively influence CSFTP success, the capacity to consider diversity as a constitutive part of Trotter identity (hence flexible and accommodating different groups) is quite remarkable. Spaces of interaction created seem effective, since coping with needs common to different target groups (e.g. after school activities) without ‘segregating’ specific categories of users.
CSFTP is an interesting case of an NGO evolving its scope and goals in time, adapting its perception of diversity with the transformation of the area where the association is located. Diversity is seen mostly as a positive feature: not by itself – since CSFTP is also producing action to enhance cohesion and encounter, which is not taken for granted – but as a factual element of the place that makes up CSFTP identity, and hence shall be accommodated in the pride of belonging to such a unique place.
Within the landscape of neighbourhood associations in Milan – new ideas can come from CSFTP, especially in the ability to frame local history and tradition in more recent outcomes – including migration, and diversification in general – thus building an open identity. Potentially, this can bridge welcoming and participation of diverse social groups in a neighbourhood, even though the effectiveness of such an effort can be limited by the lack of specific resources and skills in dealing with social change.