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My EUROCITIES journey: collaboration and community

EUROCITIES is a network which represents 130 cities across Europe. It aims to improve quality of life by sharing knowledge and good practice between cities across Europe. When Leeds City Council rejoined the network in 2016, in partnership with the University of Leeds and Leeds Beckett University, it sparked the start of renewed collaboration, shared learning and partnership with cities across Europe.

Councillor Judith Blake, Leader of the Council stated: “EUROCITIES membership is particularly important for us as a UK city.  Brexit has created an unprecedented situation both for the UK and for the EU as a whole.  Cities are at the centre of this debate, and of securing the future in a post-Brexit landscape.

Whilst member states have failed to identify progressive solutions to shared European issues such as equality, climate change and migration, I believe that Europe’s cities can rise to the challenge. EUROCITIES gives Leeds the opportunity to work with other cities to address these issues and to identify joint solutions, whilst sharing ideas around innovation and best practice”.

As the Commissioning Officer for the Migrant Access Project, I  was nominated in a cross Europe competition to work with EUROCITIES and I was so excited when I was selected to go on a two day seminar, and two day secondment in the heart of the European Union city of Brussels. The whole trip was funded by the EUROCITIES programme, bringing together a total of 16 delegates representing cities from all over.

It was great to meet everyone, there was a running joke that I and the colleague from Cardiff were the most difficult to understand as native English speakers. In my case an added difficulty having a strong Yorkshire accent!

Migration and integration was a key theme and concern, and the group was keen to know how other cities were dealing with this. I was the only one able to share many examples of our work, primarily of the Migrant Access Project. I was asked to share the profile many times by the Policy Advisor throughout the week as I met different Directorate Generals. This certainly helped to build Leeds’ profile with EUROCITIES.

The last day in Brussels was a little sombre. I awoke on the morning of the referendum results and read texts from friends about Brexit and the mood back in the United Kingdom. I headed to the office feeling disappointed and this was the topic of discussion everywhere. I wasn’t sure at the time where we stood with regards to working together and funding even though officers at EUROCITIES stated they were keen to work with Leeds and looked forward to future partnership work.

This trip gave me great understanding of the aims and priorities of European cities on migration and integration – a theme that is the focus of my role at Leeds City Council as well as a personal passion.

On my return to Leeds, I entered a competition which led to our city being shortlisted for a EUROCITIES award. This was an opportunity to present the Migrant Access Project and represent Leeds in Milan later in the year.

In the meantime I was invited to attend the Social Affairs Forum in Athens in Greece (October 2016) where I presented a workshop on the Migrant Access Project model as well as attending the working group on migration and integration.

I was then invited to attend the Roma Inclusion Task Force meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden (November 2016). The focus was to share the Roma experience in Leeds and give good practice examples.

One week later, I accompanied the Leader of the Council and Mick Ward, Interim Deputy Director, Adult Social Care to Milan. This invitation was largely for being shortlisted for an award. The trip was very memorable as Leeds won the EUROCITIES award in the category of ‘Participation’ for outstanding activities or practices of a local authority which are successful in actively promoting citizens’ participation.

In January 2017 I was invited by The Municipality of Norrkoping in Sweden to attend and present at their Welcoming Refugees – Local European Experiences conference. Although Norrkoping is currently not a member of EUROCITIES, they had heard that Leeds won the EUROCITIES award and asked me to present this on the theme of sharing economy jointly with the Head of Secretariat in Delmi. I also led a workshop on the Migrant Access Project model.

In April 2017 I was invited to attend the Social Affairs Forum and Roma Inclusion Task Force meeting in Lisbon, Portugal. The theme was Deep Seated Urban Poverty, – Preventing and responding to poverty and inequalities. The role at this conference was to present the Migrant Access Project model during a speed networking session of three rounds. In addition, the following two days were focused on the Roma Inclusion working group. A Roma networker was invited to attend the Roma Inclusion Task Force meeting in Lisbon. Michaela Sarkozyova from the Migrant Access Project attended and with me.

Michaela said: “I didn’t really know what to expect but was asked to prepare a presentation about my journey as an EU migrant in Leeds. I was very surprised but very happy to know that cities in Europe have created this group to improve the life of Roma. I really didn’t know anything like this existed and that so many cities care about us.

I was texting my family and friends back home to tell them what we were discussing and that we are recognised as a community who needs a lot of support to build trust and participate. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming and I think I impressed everyone! I was interviewed too and met lots of new people I will keep in touch with. Thank you to Leeds City Council and EUROCITIES for the best opportunity I have ever had”.

The work has only just begun as I am currently in discussions with five European cities to partner up and focus on improving the lives of Roma. There is potential to bring in funding for our third sector and for us jointly to use our expertise and skills in bridging the gap that we currently struggle with, due to resources.

I have also been invited to attend the next Roma Inclusion Task Force meeting in Cluj-Napoca, Romania in September 2017, and EUROCITIES have asked for a volunteer to accompany me. This is great news and I am waiting to confirm that EUROCITIES will cover my costs as they hope to make me a ‘critical friend’.

I have realised how important it is for Leeds to be involved in working with European cities and we are really fortunate to be in a position to share our city’s work. All the trips have been funded by EUROCITIES.

I promote the work of our council with EUROCITIES at many meetings that I attend and raise awareness. An Important point I raise is that winning the award is a big deal, as it has taken our city to another platform, and the work we all do should demonstrate a European dimension.

There are many European colleagues I now have dialogue with, this is great in understanding trends and myths, as well as asking about questions around legislation, impact, solutions and sharing good practice models of work.