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OPINION: Integration is in actions, not words – here's how Almedalen could be more open

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OPINION: Integration is in actions, not words – here's how Almedalen could be more open
Almedalen claims to be "the democratic meeting place for everyone", but how true is that description? File photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT
12:00 CEST+02:00
When recent master's graduate in political science Alyssa Bittner-Gibbs had a chance to attend Sweden's Almedalen festival, she jumped at the chance to experience an event calling itself "the democratic meeting place for everyone". But her experience only highlighted some of the main barriers to political integration, she writes.

I chose to attend events focusing on one of my own hjärtefragor ("issues of the heart"): the disproportionate unemployment of foreign-born women in Sweden. I wanted to hear what the politically engaged understood about the issue and how to address it, and perhaps share my own and acquaintances' experiences. 

I couldn't help but notice that both panelists and audiences were almost exclusively comprised of upper middle-class, native-born Swedes in seminar after seminar.

Almedalen's growth over recent decades has pushed up hotel and travel costs, so that while events are free, it is in practice dominated by the affluent. Compared to Järvavecken, a political festival held in one of Stockholm's suburbs each June, was like comparing Swedish winter darkness to the midnight sun. Järvaveckan was the bazaar, packed with residents of all colours and stripes of Swedish society. Almedalen was the guild house: a rather homogeneous group of well-dressed, well-connected people. 

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It also became clear that this was "hive mind" in action, with little input at any point from the most affected groups. Solutions proposed included internships, mentorship programmes, and UHR (Swedish Council for Higher Education) recognition of non-EU qualifications. I and many others have participated in all three with very mixed outcomes.

From our experiences, many Swedish employers consider education or experience outside of Sweden to be worthless, and many don't consider internships as "real" work experience. Those who achieve regular employment after years often settle for occupations that match neither work experience or education, are assumed by work colleagues as less capable, and critically lack knowledge of their working rights.

The Social Democrats' Almedalen economic seminar, taking place without the party leader and prime minister who chose not to attend the week-long festival. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT

The solutions discussed in the seminars failed to address problems such as discrimination against foreign names and the crafting of job listings or tests designed to sift out foreign-born applicants. Sole responsibility for integration was laid entirely on newcomers, with little reference to the responsibilities of Swedes in fighting discrimination and coming up with fresh approaches and mindsets.

Seeing a need for dialogue, I eagerly anticipated the chance to ask questions within the seminars.  Yet, with few exceptions panel members rushed to their next event, leaving no opportunity for audience discussion. 

While the three key premises for foreign-born citizens to succeed (sense of belonging, feeling included, and full agency in shaping their lives) were frequently invoked by panelists, there was little evidence of this being put into place on site. I observed like mingling with like, and often felt like a token foreign-born participant, wondering if I belonged at Almedalen and even in Sweden.

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Crowds walk through the streets of Visby during the event. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT

Having the chance to attend did give me an opportunity to see the range of Swedish organizations engaged in addressing these issues – key information that newcomers critically lack. And I made meaningful contacts in one-on-one discussion at mingles, glass of wine in hand. Some validated my own concerns, with one remarking that a seminar we attended had been more of a "political rally" than an attempt to brainstorm solutions. Words, not actions.

Having lived in Sweden for nearly six years, following two earlier student exchanges here, I care deeply about this country and share unreservedly in the Swedish values of equality, collectivism, and egalitarianism.

But I'm also aware of the focus on conformity and Jantelagen -- the unwritten social code that emphasizes the importance of 'fitting in' and not trying to teach others --- not to mention the general aversion of making oneself or others uncomfortable in social situations. When we discuss topics such as integration, we need to be prepared for this discomfort. 

IN DEPTH: How is Sweden tackling its integration challenge?

A crowd applauds a speech during the Liberal Party's day of Almedalen. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT

The second step is to recognize that lives and experiences outside of Sweden are invaluable in the quest to attract global talent, fill work shortages, and market Sweden to the world. I am fortunate to have a multi-cultural and multi-faith group of friends, and feel my life is richer for these relationships. My ultimate hope for Sweden is to meet its challenges, shaping a more cohesive Swedish society through diverse, complete, and truly open dialogue that results in a country where we all feel included, engaged, and that we belong.

So, in the spirit of proposing ideas instead of merely criticism, I suggest that Almedalen:

1. Set the example and showcase the kind of Sweden we want to achieve by including those directly affected most by society's problems. Leaders should lend their influence to frame these narratives while providing their political and business expertise to achieve workable solutions, but extra effort must be taken to invite and include the people directly affected.

2. Always incorporate questions. Citizens directly addressing officials about their lives is what democracy is all about. This could be done by allowing questions to be submitted in advance online, or organizing complimentary events. Care should be taken by moderators to ensure that those from underrepresented groups have the chance to ask questions, so it's not only the loudest voices that are heard.

3. Target some mingles towards politically underrepresented groups. Publicizing exclusive mingles for only the powerful and connected doesn't look great in democratic spaces which claim to be "for everyone".

4. Prioritize fighting affordability and accessibility issues. These have been noted over the years, even by Sweden's prime minister who did not attend Almedalen this year, but remain unaddressed. Instead of politicians turning their backs on Almedalen, why not simply help more groups to attend? One way of doing this would be to have a new Swedish city host Almedalen each summer. 

By taking these four steps, we can bring more of Sweden into the conversation. It will require some discomfort and engagement with lived experience outside of statistical data. It will mean that panelists and speakers will sometimes have to give up their microphone and instead listen as engaged citizens. This is what being an ally to affected groups is all about. 

One day, I hope to return to Almedalen. I take heart from my conversations that some of Almedalen's core, native demographic understands these needs as well, and uses their influence to drive concrete efforts to bring the needed changes in our democracy. Their engagement will be crucial to helping Sweden meet its democratic challenges in the coming years, during which we can all learn a great deal from each other.

Alyssa Bittner-Gibbs first came to Sweden in 1998 as an impressionable 17-year-old high school exchange student. She recently earned a master's in political science following an internship at democracy think-tank International IDEA, and resides with her American husband and daughters in Bromma. 

 

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