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INTEGRATION

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

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.

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

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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OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
 
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
 
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
 
 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
 
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
 
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
 
Glad Påsk!
 
Midsommar drowning  
 
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
 
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
 
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
 
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.
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