Equity and Culture in Malmö
In this episode of Solidarity Is This, host Deepa Iyer is in conversation with Jude Dibia and Rena Baledi, who are both based in Malmö, Sweden, on their advocacy efforts to preserve free expression and bring about a more equitable society.
"Working with culture... you can strengthen some norms in the society, you can get to people's hearts, not only minds, and you can plant a seed that will grow by itself later."
- Rena Baledi
Hello, everyone. This is Deepa Iyer, and you're listening to the Solidarity Is This podcast. Here, we bring you ideas and practices and narratives from people who are engaging in a complex and messy practice of transformative solidarity. While most of the episodes in our podcast focus on the United States, there are times when we're lucky enough to speak with people in other parts of the world. That is the case with this month's podcast, in which you'll hear from Jude Dibia and Rena Baledi, who live and work in the city of Malmö in Sweden. I had the good fortune of meeting Jude and Rena during a trip I took to Sweden this summer to speak about the social change ecosystem framework.
Before we get into the conversation with them, let me give you a little bit of context. So Malmö is the third-largest city in Sweden. It's a harbor town and a cultural hub. In fact, more than half of Malmö's population is foreign-born, with people coming from Iraq, Denmark, Poland, Syria, and the former Yugoslavia, to name a few. In fact, Malmö includes people from 179 different nationalities, who speak more than 150 different languages. You can really sense this feeling palpably, the diversity in the city, as you're walking through the streets there. This is a place where people prefer to settle because of the city's commitment to inclusion and free expression, and that's what we'll be talking about in this month's podcast.
So let me introduce you to Jude and Rena. Jude Dibia is an author and equal rights activist from Nigeria, and in our conversation, you'll hear how he ended up at the Dawit Isaak Library in Malmö. This library is really special. It's a collaboration between the Malmö City Archives, the Malmö City Library, Swedish PEN, and the International Cities of Refuge Network, or ICORN. At this library, you can find books that have been banned, burned, or censored, books written by authors who've been silenced, threatened, or forced into exile because of their words. As we record this podcast, we're only a few weeks from the attack on author Salman Rushdie, which Jude will refer to in our interview.
Joining Jude is Rena Baledi. Rena works in the Department of Culture for the city of Malmö and has a background in community organizing. She works on efforts to increase inclusion and equity in the city through the lens of culture. Welcome to the podcast, Jude and Rena. Thanks for being here.
Thanks a lot for having us.
Thank you for having us.
So I'm going to go ahead and get started by asking you both a question that I often ask. Tell us about your point of entry.
Hey, thanks very much. I'm sure a lot of your audience or your guests would've said they fell into what it is that they're doing, and I can also say that. I'm originally from Nigeria, and while I lived in Nigeria, I am a published writer, and a lot of my work centered on the rights of the LGBTQ community. In 2014, I believe, a law was passed, criminalizing the whole LGBTQ community in Nigeria, and at the time, I kept thinking, I'm a known face, a known voice, my books are widely used as a reference material. I was getting death threats about, now that this law has passed, you'd better be careful, all those subtle hints.
So at the time, I left the country. I just couldn't handle that anymore. I was in the US for a year, and then I moved to Sweden. And so, I came into Sweden on a residency program for persecuted writers and artists. It was a two-year scholarship where you get to be the artist for the city itself and get engaged with the culture and all of that. In the last couple of years, I've been, more or less, helping a lot of writers, filmmakers, musicians pass through Malmö and experience the same two-year residency program, and hopefully, launching them into a new life where they can actually practice their art.
Thank you so much, Jude, for sharing that, and I think it is so powerful, right, how your trajectory led you from Nigeria to Malmö. So Rena, let me turn to you. How did you get to where you are now? What was your point of entry?
My parents, they came from Iran to Malmö in the '80s, so my background is from Iran. And now, they came to Sweden in the '80s, and we grew up in a, should we call it, segregated area, mostly economic segregation. As a teenager, I had to move in the city, and that was when I realized the differences, socially, economically, so then, I noticed that something was off in the city. People were treated differently in the city.
And then, I started to study sociology and racial studies, or I entered through that point of view and started to organize myself in the civil society, mostly, in different organizations, [inaudible 00:05:54], also, in Sweden's own anti-racist newspaper in Malmö. So that's how I entered this position, where I am now, in the city of Malmö, in the culture department, where I work with anti-racist initiatives.
Thank you so much, Rena. I can't help but reflect, as both of you shared your experiences, how you came from somewhere else and you found a home in Malmö, Sweden, of all places. Let's dive in a little bit more deeply into both of the pieces of work that you both do for the city of Malmö. We have seen here in the United States, the banning of books. We have seen in other parts of the world, from India, to parts of Africa, to Europe, the repression of cultural expression, even the imprisonment of writers and artists. So I'm wondering if you can place the work that you're doing at the Dawit Isaak Library in that bigger context. Why is it so important in this moment that you all are doing the work that you're doing?
I do appreciate the question, and I can also relate to the issues being raised. A few weeks ago, I think, it was Salman Rushdie that was attacked on stage, and Salman Rushdie in Sweden is also a very big figure because he was one of the first refuge writers to actually move here. Having said that though, the Dawit Isaak Library, when we started, we were looking at all the displaced authors and journalists and media personnels all over the world that were looking for safe havens in different countries. We realized, also, that a lot of texts had been lost, and the fact that not every writer is as fortunate as the rest. So we talk about banning of books that are maybe books that can be recognized globally, i.e. Toni Morrison's novels or Salman Rushdie's novels. What about books by people that are in different parts of the world, that don't write primarily in English?
And so, the initiative started to create a library that specialized in just banned books, and this could be books that were banned before, but no longer banned. And when we started, that was, more or less, the backbone for it, and then we branched out to look at, how do we also preserve things like music and film? So when you come to the library, you get to see the different sections and it's well-divided. You can [inaudible 00:08:46] through language, or choose a genre, and things like that. And we think it is quite important to preserve those voices, and I think it makes it so much more easier for the community and the society here to feel like they're part of the library.
And that's one of the things that I think I was so, to be honest, inspired by and surprised by, which is, and I wanted to turn to you, Rena, which is really how the city is sponsoring and partnering and funding, right, a lot of this work, both in terms of the library that we just heard about, but also, in terms of the anti-racism initiatives that Rena, you and your colleagues are working on. Why do you think it's so important for the city of Malmö to be hosting these efforts? What kind of message does that send to the rest of Sweden?
Just for some context, Malmö is a pretty small city, I would say. It's the third-largest city in Sweden, with a population of approximately 350,000 inhabitants. Important to say that we have 184 different countries represented and astonishing diversity of 170 languages spoken. Some say that almost half of Malmö's population is either foreign-born or have at least one parent that is foreign-born.
But at the same time, Malmö has the poorest population among Swedish cities and is, in fact, the only Swedish city with a population that is getting poorer by the year. And in Sweden, we have policies and are working to prevent this and to work against racism. But when it comes to Islamophobia and Afrophobia, the city did a survey and did some research and understood that there's very little being done against this Islamophobia and Afrophobia, even though it's some of the biggest racisms facing Malmö's inhabitants.
So the initiative comes from the politicians, of course, but even before that, we have had civil society organizations claiming this for several years, which I have to mention also. So even though it's a political decision, it's influenced by activists and civil society organizations that are pushing for this. But what's very special with the assignment that I have is that we also work with culture, so we combine anti-racism and culture, so that is to specify my work here at the culture department in Malmö.
I think it's so important that you drew that link about how oftentimes, it's social movements and NGOs that are pushing government to do anything in the first place, and I think that's so important to mention that as part of the origin story for what's happening in Malmö. Can you share a little bit about the programming that you all undertake through the culture department?
I can tell you a bit about one of the... if you ask me, the most important and interesting programs that we are working with currently. I'm working with the initiative that is, from the beginning, raised by a civil society that claimed that the city has to acknowledge the fact that we had a serial killer loose for 10 years in Malmö who killed and shot and terrorized people of color. And when this happened, between 2003 and 2010, the story from the city and the police was that it's probably gang-related. It took five or six years until they realized that, no, this is racially motivated.
What this did was to create the crack in the city, and this group, they wanted the city to do something. They asked for anti-racist monument, something that can acknowledge what happened, something that can acknowledge the people of Malmö as people that are grievable, people that deserve actions of solidarity, if we can borrow the title of this podcast. In one way or another, this initiative ended up at the culture department where I work, so we started to initiate conversation with this group. We're now working together to create this monument, not only that, but also, create the program, lectures, talks, public exhibitions, to start the conversation in the city that we've culminated in the monument, so that is one of the things that we work with at the moment, that I'm really proud of.
Thank you for sharing what you explained to us about the racial terror that people in Malmö faced as a result of the serial killer you mentioned, and also, the importance of the acknowledgement, bearing witness, memory, and preservation, that you all are working on. I spent very little time in Sweden, but I will say that the time I spent in Malmö was the first time in my time in Sweden where I felt like I was part of something, that I could connect to people who look like me or who had some similar backgrounds and experiences. And that's clearly, as you already mentioned, Rena, because of the demographics of the city, in terms of it being a cultural hub, in terms of it being a safe haven for refugees, immigrants, migrants. I'm curious if you could share what you think of the racial dynamics, both in terms of the possibilities for connection and solidarity, but also, some of the drivers and challenges that tear people apart.
Speaking of possibilities, Malmö is a great city because Malmö is the city in Sweden where a lot of change happens historically, when it comes to the labor movement, the LGBTQ movement, when it comes to the anti-racist movement. Malmö is a city known for its anti-racist initiatives and organizing and organizations, and even the city of Malmö is known for its anti-racist initiatives that are, in many ways, unique. I would say that even though there's a history and a present of racism in Malmö, in Sweden, I would say that if there's any city in Sweden that would be the brightest in this question, it would be Malmö.
At the moment, I'm working a lot against Islamophobia. I'm in the middle of putting together a full-day seminar on the topic, actually. We have these monthly meetings with the civil society organizations, with mosques, with people working for the municipality, with academia, discussing these questions, and together, formulating answers, not only questions, which I think is important. I think we have taken this first step, and that is, I think, what is needed to be done, at least when it comes to the issue of Islamophobia. What I would recommend all the cities to do is actually sit down and recognize and discuss the matter from the beginning.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that's one of the things that I hope that listeners are getting out of this conversation, is that when cities and municipalities and governments actually take stock of what is happening and, as you say, acknowledge the problems, and then work with civil society and other partners to identify solutions, that's, really, the way we get past some of these barriers and these dynamics.
A lot of times, though, I find that cities, this is a US perspective, there's a lot of lip service, there's a lot of use of words, like diversity and equity, especially here. But when you look at the statistics, when you look at the data, when you look at how the city's programs and services are allocated, they don't actually, necessarily, serve or get to the people who need them the most. One of the things that I'm inspired by what you all are doing is that you are not just saying the words, you're actually doing the programs, whether it's the program you mentioned, or the monument, whether it's the library, an actual edifice, a structure, a building. You all are actually making it happen, and I find that to be extremely inspiring.
So to close, let me go to you first, Jude, and then we'll end with Rena. This is a podcast on solidarity, as you both know, and so, I'm curious how each of you thinks your work is furthering and advancing solidarity. So Jude, in terms of the uplifting of free expression, being a safe haven, being a city of refuge, how is that actually furthering solidarity and connection?
So what we do is to also raise awareness that not all is bad and things are not always all equal. We have series of what we call visits, so we start young, and I think it's important to tap into the younger generation because they are the future. It's so important to start at that age and get them to question society, get them to confront difficult decisions and questions so that they can also see that they play a role in society.
And so, when you have these kind of challenging situations and you post that to the kids, you'd be amazed at the kind of solutions that they come up with themselves when we discuss with them and give them exercises to do, so I think we build the solidarity in that form. We also touch on other sensitive issues, the LGBTQ questions, equity in society. How do we uplift ourselves when things are going bad? I think it's, slowly, but surely, we're getting there.
Definitely. And yes, I think that's so true, to give children an understanding of these issues early. I think sometimes we don't want to bring up these topics with young minds, but they know so much more than we give them credit for, and they can actually tackle a lot of this, so it's wonderful to hear that you all start so young.
Rena, what about you? How do you see solidarity being built between white people and minority communities in Malmö or Sweden?
I work with culture, right, combining culture, and anti-racism. And I would say a lot of white folks in Malmö, in Sweden, are acting in solidarity with people of color many times, not always. That's why we have some deep issues, but many times, because working with culture, you can compensate, you can strengthen some norms in the society, you can get to people's hearts, not only minds, and you can plant a seed that will grow by itself later.
I love what you also said, Rena, that culture is the entry point, right, where it might be more possible to take some of the hard truths for people and to then find a way to be in solidarity, find a way to, as Jude mentioned, reclaim that shared humanity, so really appreciate both of you talking about culture, art, free expression, as ways of building solidarity. And I feel like I could talk to you for hours, but is there anything else that you want to share, that we haven't discussed?
I think we've covered quite a bit, but I would encourage your listeners to link up to the ICORN website, it's icorn.org, and read up about what we do as well, because it's the big organization that feeds into the sanctuary cities. And also, maybe they can visit the Malmö stad website as well, and see the work that I do, the work that Rena does as well. There's an English translation part there, so it's not all in Swedish.
Absolutely. We'll link to those as well. And more than visiting the websites, if you get to Sweden or Europe, you really have to visit Malmö, because as I said, it's a place that I hope to visit again. It's just a remarkable place, just in terms of community, culture, but also, the work that's happening there, which I think we can all replicate in our own places. So thank you to both of you for joining me. Really appreciate it.
Thank you so much.
Thank you for having us.
I'm so grateful to my guests, Jude Dibia and Rena Baledi, for joining me on Solidarity Is This, all the way from Malmö, Sweden, and I hope that you enjoyed our conversation. Please make sure to visit our episode notes for this podcast. You can find it on solidarityis.org or buildingmovement.org, where you'll find links and other information in order to expand your understanding of what is happening in the city of Malmö.
I also wanted to share a couple of announcements as well. First, I hope that folks will check out a resource that we put out recently at Solidarity is and Building Movement Project. It's called the Ecosystem of Well-Being, and it's a resource that might be useful as you think about how to create communities of care to move through times of challenge and overwhelm in the social change work that you do. And really want to shout-out my colleague, Uyenthi Tran Myhre, who shepherded this resource, and also want to thank our former BMP teammates, Anna Castro, Shelby House, Kitty Hu, and Catherine Foley, who really helped us make this resource possible.
Finally, I want to make a personal announcement that I'm super excited about. Some of you have been following, sharing, and using the social change ecosystem framework or the social change map that I developed and put out a number of years ago, and I'm so excited to share that I'm going to have a book coming out about how folks, as individuals, organizations, and networks, can utilize this framework to advance social change, solidarity, equity, and justice. The book is called Social Change Now: A Guide for Reflection and Connection. It's being published by the Thick Press and it will be available in mid-September for pre-orders.
So please make sure to follow my social media. I'm on Twitter, @dviyer, on Instagram @deepaviyer, or you can reach out to me at the Building Movement Project. So with that, I want to thank you all for joining us on another episode of Solidarity Is This. Please subscribe and share this podcast with your networks. I hope that everyone stays safe and healthy, and that you care for yourselves and your ecosystems, and I will see you on the next episode of Solidarity Is This. Thank you.
- In the episode, we heard Jude Dibia share about his own journey to becoming the guest writer of Malmö City of Refuge. Jude also spoke about the Dawit Isaak Library in Malmö, a library dedicated to books that have been censored or banned. In the U.S., book bans and censorship efforts targeting LGBTQ and communities of color are ramping up. In your city or region, how might you support storytellers and libraries, whether book bans are happening there or not?
- Rena Baledi shared that Malmö is a city in Sweden where a lot of change happens historically; that even as the city has a history and presence of racism, there is also a history and presence of solidarity, from the labor movement to LGBTQ and anti-racism movements. What are the dominant narratives about your city or region? Whose stories are part of that narrative, and why? How might narratives about a place or people be connected to social change work?
- Learn more about Malmö and its people on the city’s website.
- The International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) is an independent organisation of cities and regions offering shelter to writers and artists at risk, advancing freedom of expression, defending democratic values and promoting international solidarity. Learn more of their work and get engaged here.
- The Dawit Isaak Library, a library of literature written by authors who, due to their vocation, have been subject to censorship, repression and/or forced into exile. The library is named for Swedish-Eritrean
journalist, Dawit Isaak, who was imprisoned in 2001 without charge or trial by the Eritrean government following a crackdown on the independent press.
- As public libraries in the U.S. face threats to funding and efforts to ban books, the American Library Association (ALA) shares ideas on how readers can fight censorship, keep books available in libraries, and promote the freedom to read.
- PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, released annually, includes case studies of detained writers, an overview of global trends, and regional and country specific breakdowns of threats to free expression.