As an immigrant I do not get to exercise my civic duty in voting in the German electoral system, at least not federally. As a town citizen I do get to vote in municipal elections. A few weeks ago I received a letter from the Burgermeister’s office asking me to participate in some of the town planning. On my invitation I could choose to be in a small group, but that I would need to pick my top three interests from a list of several themes. I ended up placed in Gemienshaft, Integration, Seicherheit (Society, Integration, and Security). Truth be told, my invitation letter sat a long time on my desk, and even made its way to the recycling bin before I pulled it out and filled in the forms and then posted the return letter. I had huge doubts about attending as I believe my German skills are lacking, and I felt particularity vulnerable to any sort of criticism that might occur because I am an immigrant – why should I get a say in the future of this town? I eventually sent in my invitation as I then began to thinking that part of my own integration means participation (at any level) with the community. My observations of the day once it finally arrived were punctuated with urges to run from the room feeling incompetent and inadequate.
The event took place in the Kur Park, a scenic park which is usually full of flowers, strutting Peacocks, and long chains of Nordic Walkers. This morning was damp and cool and no sooner had I entered the doors of the building that I found I was standing under the one area where the roof leaked – cue my desire to leave. Sitting alone and comfortably anonymous amongst the 60 or so people I sat through the initial explanation of the purpose of the day, the welcome by town officials, and 5 minute presentations by the local town staff on the several areas of focus. After the first hour I was about ready to leave again as I felt like the only migrant in the room who struggled to make sense of the talking, reading of the slides and making sense of the various graphs of statistical information being beamed onto a large screen, all in 5 minute bursts.
I stuck around for the entire day, and I am glad I did. I got to ask questions to officials such as – why is society, integration and security all lumped together? It made me feel that, as a foreigner I was somehow a security threat to the German populous. The day gave me some insight on how society functions and how people think. Of the several pin boards anyone could write on different colour coded note paper and then pin up the papers onto the boards for all to see. The colours were Red – for Bad, Yellow – for Idea, and Blue – for Good. Within about 15 minutes the vast majority of the boards were covered with red cards. If I was at a Fussball match there would have been plenty of whistling!
Once separated into our smaller subject groups of about 10 people each, we began to look at some ideas, and some positive remarks. Slowly there became more of a balance of Red, Yellow and Blue cards plastered on the boards. For most the day we remained in our small groups and narrowed down some practical aims and appropriate tasks despite all of us having to struggle with what constituted and aim and a task. The moderator of each group was able to help us formulate a vision statement, and our top 5 priorities. There was argument over the grammar of our vision to which I jokingly said that I wholeheartedly agreed with a incomprehensible compound word – hey, at least some people chuckled. Our information was then presented to the wider group, and then the citizens had the power to place our 7 kleine rote Klebepunkte ( 7 small red stickers) on items we felt were a main priority.
I have to say I was a bit shocked at the end of the day as the small red dots were tallied up and the last point on my groups chart rocketed to the top of the popularity contest. To give you an idea of the range of the list, the top priority in our group was Die Tafel which is the local food bank for lack of a better comparison. I thought this was great as it is a place were all sorts of people gather and a wide range of society meets. A place were strangers may become friends. It is a place I have thought about volunteering at for a couple hours a week so that I can meet new people and aid my own integration into society. In short, Die Tafel was a place that covered our topics of Society, Integration and Security. The last item on our list had to do with security in the form of a Police presence in the town centre – taking on a form of a 24/7 police office.
When the red stickers were counted from the plenary group it came as a surprise that the clear forerunner was 24/7 Police presence in some kind of office in the centre of town. Somehow people seem to think that this is going to make the place a lot safer – not that I was ever concerned with the level of crime in Bad Krozingen to begin with.
At the end of the day we were all applauded for our participation. Out of the 1000 people invited, we represented the 60 -70 people who had found some interest to participate. I realized that there were no visible minorities present. I realized that for all our brainstorming, visions, aims and tasks, a huge amount of trust is given to a bureaucratic process that is already well established. For instance, a civic department would be the place to act out our task. It makes me wonder if we, in fact, thought hard enough on things as it seemed that everything fit nicely into some department or other of the town hall. I was a bit worried to see that for some there was a big sigh of relief that because the tasks had been named and at times a department head was named alongside the task, that somehow we had done our duty. It was a bit like being an armchair athlete as no real grassroots movement seemed necessary. No civic responsibility seemed present to understand that it is the people that make society, the people that help with integration, and the people which leads to a safer and more secure future. It is not just some state department task, we are all responsible.
At the end of the day I feel exhausted having learned a lot about local government processes. I also am glad to have met some very talented and dedicated people. I found the people to be overwhelmingly friendly in my small group so much so that I did not have to eat alone, or stand in a corner wondering what I should say. I am glad I did not leave the event despite the few times I thought I had nothing to contribute as I hope to have a coffee with a few of these people in the future. I hope also to continue practicing my German language skills, meet people at Die Tafel and perhaps show others how I try to adapt to life in Germany. Certainly it is through participation that I find strangers are now neighbours, immigrants are part of the grass-roots of society, and that German society feels a little bit more like home.