Q&A with Claudia Walther

Claudia Walther

Senior Project Manager in the LebensWerte Kommune program at Bertelsmann Foundation

Q: How did you introduce the Welcoming program to Germany?

A: In 2017 we first heard about Welcoming America’s approach: welcoming cities. We realised it would be a great opportunity for Germany if we introduced it here, adapting it to local needs by scaling and modifying the approach. The Bertelsmann Stiftung and PHINEO cooperation began with a series of workshops to develop ideas, indicators, and goals for our project, and invited representatives from municipalities, universities, and NGOs to participate. Subsequently we received support from the Stiftung Mercator—an independent foundation promoting science, education and international understanding—to work with the three pilot cities and communities. This was an opportunity to test, reflect, and modify the program.

We recently received the support of the German government, and will continue our work to support 40 new cities through the self-evaluation process and working-group sessions. In the first 10 of those cities, we have already initiated small-group kick-off meetings between project leaders and the heads of the municipalities. After this, our partner PHINEO will send an online questionnaire to each city to enable them to self-evaluate their work.

The final step will be a series of working-group sessions in the cities with representatives from administration, education, volunteers, welfare organizations, migrant organizations, parts of civil society, and labour offices respectively. It’s crucial to have all the different perspectives in one room. We want municipalities to lead the process, and our role is to support them with professional facilitation and a list of recommendations. We plan to support some of the cities with conferences, neighborhood forums, and seminars for the municipal-level decision makers.


Q: How much of a difference does it make doing this work in a partnership?

A: I usually work in Gütersloh and PHINEO is based in Berlin, so we needed to set up an online communication structure because it was too difficult to meet in person every week. We also needed to create a common database, accessible to both organisations. These small technical details take time to set-up.

We have more or less the same principles and philosophy, and we both came to the project through the support from the Bertelsmann Stiftung, so we complement one another. PHINEO has experience working with indicators, such as impact and evaluation tools, and have had the knowledge of working and communicating with cities and communities for many years.


Q: Does the East and West German divide still impact your work today?

A: There are still a lot of differences between eastern and western German cities, and we work with both, but the biggest difference is between the cities and the rural areas. 

We currently have a collaboration with the city of Potsdam, which has a long history of integration and living together with migrants. We have also worked with the Teltow-Fläming region near Berlin, which spans across suburban Berlin and rural areas. The region’s proximity to Berlin makes it feel very multicultural and diverse. However, many residents of rural areas are not used to migrant presence; they feel disadvantaged and fear structural change. Most young people have left the area, leaving behind predominantly elderly relatives. The demographic, economic, and social challenges are significant in this area, and recently some people in rural communities voted for the right-wing AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland) political party.

Contrary to the asylum seekers’ system, which is centralized across Germany, integration is more a task for regional governments. The different states offer a variety of provisions to support integration. I live in North Rhine-Westphalia where migration has been long established, because many migrants have been present here for more than 150 years. The government here supports integration with enormous resources. All the cities in this region have integration officers, with offices and funds to help them work effectively. Alternatively, in the Teltow-Fläming region there is only one integration officer for the entire area, and that person is also responsible for gender issues. The available resources depend on the region, and the west-east divide is not necessarily a factor.


Q: What approach did you take to developing your standard?

A: Between 2013 and 2015 the term welcoming was very popular, but as the public debate on refugees shifted, the term came under scrutiny and was misused. We decided to look for a word that would better resonate with diverse communities, including the hosting ones. Weltoffen means being open-minded, and is often used by churches, corporations, and unions to criticize racism. We adopted this term, and with initial workshops with experts we collectively worked out what our standard should include. Our standard is similar to that of the U.S. and New Zealand, but we opted for a self-check system instead of a certification process.

We want cities and communities to evaluate themselves using our standard of indicators. It will act as a traffic light system for the cities, encouraging discussions. For example, administration officers may say that we have good meeting facilities in the city, but a migrant organization might have a different perspective. Working groups will look at what has already been achieved and what is yet to be reached in each field of action. The gaps can then be translated into a strategy.


Q: Why did your partners want to join your initiative?

A: Many municipalities that had been focusing on refugee integration for the last four years felt a need for reflection. They wanted to widen their focus towards a broader cross-community approach in order to position their discourse among those centered on migrants from Turkey, Poland, and Russia with a focus on host communities.

The other motivator was the growth of the extreme far-right party in Germany. Our partners wanted to send a signal that they are strongly against this. I received a phone call from one of the regions, where the governor had been elected by votes from the AfD. He was made to resign the next day. There was concern that our partners there needed support to deal with the current situation, and to better communicate with the hosting community about refugees and migrants.

Similarly in Dachau, where one of the former Nazi concentration camps is located, the city wanted to leverage the traumatic history and use it as a reminder to be open-minded and tolerant towards difference.


Q: Can you recall any early story of impact?

A: In Teltow-Fläming, the self-check process resulted in the recognition that they don’t yet have a sound structure for developing an integration policy. The integration officer felt alone within unclear decision-making structures. Our external facilitator travelled to Teltow-Fläming to speak to the integration officer, the project officer on democracy, and the district administrator, and gave them recommendations. These included implementing a steering group inviting different stakeholders to come together, and developing a clear decision-making structure. They are now working to implement these recommendations.



Q: How do you see the partnership with Welcoming International impacting your work in Germany?

A: Welcoming America sent one of their colleagues to Germany for half a year. This was very valuable and gave us many opportunities for discussions. Welcoming America has proven to be very flexible and open-minded, and I very much appreciate that. We learned from their approach and vice versa. We also learned from other partnering countries and adapted their ideas to our context. For example, New Zealand created a Welcoming postcard that we also introduced in Germany.

It’s a great network! Our circumstances are all very different, of course, but many of our challenges are the same: racism, the COVID-19 crisis, and establishing a healthy relationship with hosting communities.

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