Inspirador How Belgrade Is Promoting the Inclusion of Marginalized Communities

 A woman hands a balloon to a man holding several colourful balloons and standing on a cart.
Skograd develops extracurricular programmes that offer children from different backgrounds the opportunity to meet in an open and public space. | Photo (detail): Ivan Gradišar

Belgrade, like many cities, struggles with the segregation of prejudiced ethnic groups, resulting in the “ghettoization” of the city. But how can the integration of the school with the neighbourhood promote a solution?

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In a neighbourhood, situated on the outskirts of Belgrade, far away from the beautified central zone of the city, children started being ethnically segregated at the local school, not due to segregation laws, but by the decision of their parents. Those parents who identify themselves by the cultural norm of “White, Christian Orthodox” Serbian society, were choosing schools in other areas for their children. The local primary school was turning into quite an ethnically segregated space, as could be seen by looking at the school’s statistics. In answer to this, a group of ex-colleagues from the Faculty of Architecture joined others from the fields of psychology, art, philosophy, and sociology to form the Skograd collective (a play of the Serbian words for school and city) in 2016.

The Challenge of Inclusion

“As this is the school where I went to and the neighbourhood where I grew up, I had a strong urge to do something about it.” shares Predrag Milic, an activist researcher from Belgrade, and a co-founding member of the Skograd group. “We formed Skograd as a sort of response to the growing social disparity in this deprived suburban neighbourhood. We wanted to act to transform this trend of sending kids to other schools to save this school and diversifying it in terms of who goes there.” says Predrag.

Skograd started working with the local primary school on developing extracurricular programs, offering chances for children from all different kinds of backgrounds to meet in an open public space with the hope that they might end up going to the same school. Due to parental decisions, these kids were being systematically separated from each other, even though they lived in close vicinity.

“We organically started from this idea, however, over the course of the past six years, it has grown into a functional, participatory action-based research collective that includes around eight people, who moderate an exchange between a community that is much bigger” says Milic. The idea is to work towards slowly making structural changes in terms of setting up a structure that will prevent the reproduction of this kind of dynamic in Serbian society, while on the other hand, continuously organizing extracurricular programs in the open public space of this neighbourhood, working closely with the local community and with the local primary school.

The Strategy of Opening up the School to the Neighbourhood

The open public space of the school courtyard is the central location for the activities. In the very beginning, only a few of the Skograd people were from the neighbourhood and thus recognized as locals in this area. As a strategy to initiate this process, the decision was to deliberately work directly with children. Predrag says that “we knew that in this post-war environment of the Balkan conflicts, this kind of racial hate is something that we as a group cannot solve. We wanted to work with children who did not choose any of this, but who are the ones who are facing all the consequences of these new dynamics in our society.”

The Balkan conflicts Predrag refers to are a series of separate but related ethnic conflicts, wars of independence, and insurgencies that took place in the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to 2001, resulting in the breakup of the country into seven independent republics, comprised of ethnically more homogenous territories. While most of the conflicts ended through peace accords that involved full international recognition of new states, they resulted in new national identities that gained importance over time. As Predrag describes it: "children that come from white-orthodox Serbian families are those considered ‘ours’, thus rendering children who come from families that fall out of this newly established cultural norm of Serbian society as ‘theirs’". In Serbia and in other countries which emerged from these conflicts people who were forced to leave their homes and resettle based on their ethnicity still face societal marginalisation based on their origins.

In order to reach the children of this area, Skograd organized something that they called the “night surprise action”. “We organized our first action using our pocket money by buying colourful chalk,” says Predrag. One night, between 3am and 6am, while the whole neighbourhood was sleeping, they went out in a planned tactical action, walking around colouring the neighbourhood and leaving colourful chalk around the area. They left no trace of who they were. The next morning, walking through the area, they saw what they call “a total success”: children using public spaces and somehow interacting with each other around these drawings and chalk, and there was this sort of mystery about who did it. “It was a nice intro for us. Next, we introduced ourselves in the local school and from that moment on, we had a very strong growth curve of our mutual relationship, recognizing each other as some sort of partners and also neighbours.” shares Predrag

The Change Is Happening – A Social Infrastructure of Hope

From the “night surprise action” on, Skograd started using the school courtyard together with the local people and opening it up to the neighbourhood. This included some kids who are completely outside of the school system because their families had tried to move to Western Europe and were deported back. This left them outside of the formal educational framework. Skograd organized their actions in the name of the school trying to change this image of a “ghetto” and developing a positive narrative around the school as well as around the children who go to the school, as agents of change.

This happened over the last five years and Skograd now regularly organizes a summer school, in which the neighbourhood children are able to manifest their joint effort in improving the school and the surroundings. “Today, we co-produce this social infrastructure of hope”. As a result they saved the school from closing which was one of the dangers of having an ethnically segregated school because they were not really recognized by the Serbian legal system. “On the other hand, we triggered investment by both private companies, and also of the state, in the school” Predrag

The Unexpected Is Always There, the Key Is Communication

The choice of the school as the intervention ground for the project had some emotional as well as practical reasons. The local school is the only public and cultural institution in this area that brings together around 12,000 people. “Our premise was that by keeping this last refuge of public service and cultural production in this area, we might provide the grounds for living together on the basis of difference as opposed to this idea of living together on the basis of being the same as each other.” shared Predrag

Without a doubt, this is indeed happening, but Skograd also explained that this path was paved by trial and error. They advise to reflect together on the situations that occur that are surprising, unexpected.

“Nobody can prepare for it, but as long as there is this really good internal mechanism for reflecting on it and then readjusting actions accordingly, we can make it work.”

Predrag Milic

This kind of work and project requires a lot of communication, both internal and external, and it requires a certain sensibility on one hand, but also a sort of a readiness to go beyond our own vocabulary and our own way of framing things when communicating on the other. They must negotiate with people from the neighbourhood who do not have any formal education and are illiterate and at the same time, for example, with some international trans-European projects that provide resources for working in this area, and in parallel, with a group of international professionals with certain demands and expectations. Another very important aspect to be aware of is that, when working with marginalized people and with public institutions, the leadership of this institution plays a very important role.

“Also looking for external inputs is very helpful”, says Predrag, “We promoted one event in partnership with Goethe-Institut Belgrade where we invited external professionals to place themselves in our shoes and discuss some of the challenges we were facing with us.” This event took place at Goethe's Belgrade headquarters in the city centre, and therefore brought together a completely different audience that the group had not reached before, and it helped them to share and expand these collective learning processes through debate and discussion.

If you are inspired by Skograd's methods, their advice is: in response to marginalization practices, start from where you are, dealing with your own position in this world. Start digging into it and develop local actions. You can also contact them. They are currently instituting an Action Research Centre and are willing to conduct exchanges with people who have ideas about possibilities for either directly supporting their work, inviting them to share their experience, or somehow doing things together elsewhere. What are you waiting for?


What Is This Series About?

The ”Inspirador for Possible Cities” project is a collaborative creation by Laura Sobral and Jonaya de Castro aiming to identify experiences among initiatives, academic content, and public policies that work towards more sustainable, cooperative cities. If we assume that our lifestyle gives rise to the factors behind the climate crisis, we have to admit our co-responsibility. Green planned cities with food autonomy and sanitation based on natural infrastructures can be a starting point for the construction of the new imaginary needed for a transition.

The project presents public policies and group initiatives from many parts of the world that point to other possible ways of life, categorized into the following hashtags:
#redefine_development, #democratize_space,
#(re)generate_resources, #intensify_collaboration,