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Fare insieme: making and doing things together in Milan – by Shireen Walton

ShireenWalton6 November 2018

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

In Italian, the word fare, means to do and to make. Doing and making appears to be a fundamental aspect of community life here in this inner-city neighbourhood in Milan’s zone 2, which constitutes the locus of my fieldwork. A number of activities, events and organisations I am involved in entail inter-generational and cross-cultural mixing, including retired Italians from Milan and the south of Italy, and foreign migrants and their children. These interactions centre around the sharing of skills and knowledge; from Italian language learning to a variety of artisanal crafts, and forms a subtle yet significant part of how social capital is shared and acquired here.

One particular hub for this is the Centro Multiculturale; part of a non-profit organisation, La Città del Sol: Amici del Parco Trotter, established in 2009 to support the wider community life of the state school in Parco Trotter, with which it is associated.

The school-community in Parco Trotter, Milano. Image: La Città del Sol: Amici del Parco Trotter

The Centro Multiculturale is run by community volunteers and teachers, envisioned and operating, year in year out, as a social space (‘spazio socialità’) for women, including mothers of children of the school and the broader neighbourhood. Housed in a small unassuming building in a corner of the park next to a main railway line, the Centro runs Italian classes for foreigners, a weekly sewing group, as well as a weekly open drop-in meeting where women of all ages and backgrounds participate in a range of activities, do exercise, drink tea, and learn about a range of bureaucratic aspects pertaining to life in Italy such as medical facilities and healthcare.

Centro Multiculturale, Parco Trotter. Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

The ethnographic make-up of the Centre sees a blend of ages, backgrounds and ethnicities (mostly Egyptian, as well as other nationalities such as Peruvian, Indonesian, Pakistani, and Tanzanian), including retired, middle-aged and more senior Italian women volunteering as Italian language teachers, sewing instructors and exercise class instructors, shifting between roles as facilitators, teachers and participants. The general spirit is one of fare insieme – making and doing things together.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Through the Centro, the different women experience a blend of social and personal purpose, including, notably the passing on and sharing of skills. Anna (70), Italian, retired, explained how the social make-up of the group and being around younger people in such a dynamic environment at her age ‘keeps me young and alive – it gives me a good feeling’. Coming to the Centro twice a week comforts Anna in her retirement, where she lives alone and her children are grown up and are busy with their own lives. Dahlia (35) from Egypt explains how the cucito (sewing) group at the Centro is a significant event in her week. ‘It means something for us to be together here. Many Mothers are at home all day with young children alone. It can get terribly lonely. Here there is the chance for us to meet and be together, practice a skill and share our time. Of course we are also here to get better at Italian!’ The issue of language learning and usage is a fundamental element underlying all the activities at the Centro.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

All this is not to paint either a rosy or otherwise picture of integration in Italy; in some instances this kind of cross-cultural social care flourishes despite challenges, while in others it struggles to contend with deep-rooted political resistance and paradoxical and problematic logics. Anthropologist Cristina Giordano addresses these kinds of tensions exquisitely in her 2014 monograph Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy based on long-term ethnographic research in Turin[i]. Giordano’s work describes complex relationships of care between Catholic nuns and foreign female sex workers from Eastern Europe and Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for the different womens’ personal alignments and institutional ideologies, caught between religion-inspired notions of altruism and social care, discourses of purity, and moral judgement.

At the Centro in Milan, older Italians share craft-based practices like needlework to younger people, who appreciated the care and attention involved.  This is especially pertinent given the current, xenophobic and populist political climate. What is most interesting here is how the different ages, life and technical experiences of the women work together, in the present context, while laying social and cultural foundations for the future.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

References

[i] Giordano, C. (2014). Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy. University of California Press.

What’s the Opposite of Facebook? Err…it’s (still) Facebook – by Daniel Miller and Shireen Walton

ShireenWalton28 June 2018

Authors: Daniel Miller and Shireen Walton

Facebook as digital allotment for growing community? Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Once Facebook had become established, there developed a general consensus as to its primary social consequence: it allegedly led to rampant narcissistic individualism – people preening themselves in public, and to the decline of community and ‘proper’ sociality. The dominant motifs, much used in advertising at the time, would be of a woman posting herself painting her toenails a bright colour, or a teenager posing for a selfie. As such, Facebook was castigated by older people as something which encouraged this self-centred orientation by the young. Yet by the time the Why We Post project developed in 2012, the evidence was that the primary orientation of this social media was indeed social. The young posed with their arms around their Best Friend Forever and Facebook had become central to mother and toddler groups and the reintegration of families separated by migration and diaspora.

We work in very different field contexts; Danny within a comfortable small Irish town, and Shireen in an inner-city, multiethnic neighbourhood of Milan. Yet in both cases, the people we speak to say that the main reason they use Facebook is to keep up with the community; to share in another opportunity for being together (this time online), and to find out about events and gatherings taking place in the area. In the Irish case this might be a charity walk such as `Darkness into Light’, to raise money for the prevention of suicide, or the events associated with a weekend celebrating traditional music, or to facilitate community development in a new housing estate. In Milan, this could be to arrange and advertise a mass convening in public space one Saturday afternoon, standing side by side holding hands to form a 4km long catena umana (‘human chain’) – an act of celebrating the unity present in their community, and to contest the negative perception of the neighbourhood as a ghetto. Facebook, in both of these contexts, is the main site for local community news, community history, community photography and so forth. In the Irish site, this is especially important for local sports – of which there are a great many in this small town. For example one informant from Buan goes on Facebook several times a day. They look at two Buan sites concerned with swimming, two closed groups; one called Buan Talk and the other Buan buy/sell/swap, a Buan kayaking group, the fortnightly Buan News site, and the site of one of Buan’s cafes. In the Milan site, community Facebook group(s) are where the neighbourhood keeps together in a range of interesting ways, including where people express willingness to offer their time or a helping hand to one another. One informant in the Milan site found it remarkable, for instance, how if someone gets sick or needs help with something and posts this to the group, there will be an average of 20-30 responses each time from people willing to help them – from buying some basic groceries to picking up medicines, and so on.

Such community uses are not new, but they may have become increasingly important while more individualistic uses have declined., This may reflect the way in which Snapchat has become more important for young people, while WhatsApp has taken on the primary role of linking families together in everyday communication. By contrast, Facebook with its combination of visuals, texts, unfolding events in sequences, complemented by basic information such as contact details, is now ideal for advertising the latest play, or explaining to people how to get their T-shirts to support a charitable walk. Another factor, noted by Danny in 2012 is the way Facebook is gradually migrating from younger to older people in its usage. While there is a cross-generational feel to these community Facebook groups, the people that create, use, and invest time in them are increasingly in their 40s and upwards.

In both fieldsites, creating community includes establishing what is appropriate usage. For example, politics is largely avoided since it would be divisive. In the Milan site, this is especially important given the negative views other people have of this area – here, Facebook groups project an alternative, positive image of the neighbourhood. People using Facebook in these ways create a nurturing space for their community; a kind of digital green allotment space (echoing the importance of physical community allotments in both the Milan site and in Buan), where community togetherness offers some respite from the wider noise of Facebook, and the wider web at large, and where above all, the existing altruism we both find present in our fieldsites can plant itself/be planted, collectively self-nurture, and grow.

You will still find selfies on Facebook, and plenty of interaction within families, but in our two fieldsites, what is striking is the degree to which Facebook has taken on a role which is pretty much the exact opposite of its assumed consequence – which was the development of narcissistic individualism. Today, for many people in our fieldsites, Facebook is where the offline development of community spirit is enhanced by its cultivation within a digital online space.