Molenbeek will submit the Brussels2030 candidacy: ‘If social cohesion through culture works in Molenbeek, it will work elsewhere.’

Jan Goossens & Fatima Zibouh
Photo’s © Aurélien Goubau

A conversation with mission holders Fatima Zibouh and Jan Goossens

A partnership has now been formed for Brussels2030 with the arrival of Fatima Zibouh alongside Jan Goossens.
What is your shared vision of this project?

Jan Brussels2030 is an urban project in which multiple voices are needed to express the city’s image. Fatima has been following Brussels2030 right from the beginning. She was part of the Reflection Chamber. I have admired her far-reaching commitments to Brussels for a long time. We have complemented each other ever since we started working together. I am a Dutch speaker from Brussels raised in this cultural environment and am keen to share this common vision for the future of Brussels. Fatima was born in Brussels and has a natural cultural sensitivity.

Fatima The things that connect us in this beautiful project are a love of Brussels, a love of culture and a love of diversity. For me, these three aspects have brought us together in this urban project that we are planning for Brussels. We are keen to highlight this complementary new partnership in terms of styles, languages, origins and backgrounds. Jan is more artistic and more institutional. I am more academic and community focused. In terms of our backgrounds, I am more local and Jan is much more international. We complement each other in the ways in which we work.

“Molenbeek has become part of a new centre which has developed and now extends far beyond Pentagon”

The project will involve a bid supported by the Region and submitted by Molenbeek. What is behind this choice?

JAN There is a historical connection. Minister-President Rudi Vervoort first mentioned the possibility of Brussels becoming a candidate after the Brussels attacks in 2016. He decided on a cultural project at a time when our region was suffering and in need of an incredibly generous, unifying initiative. Molenbeek has become part of a new centre which has developed and now extends far beyond Pentagon. New dynamic projects, cultural centres and meeting points are growing up in the Molenbeek area and around the canal. We are already working closely with Kanal, the other major cultural initiative supported by the region. Molenbeek is an immigration area where many new arrivals to Brussels first start out. It seemed fitting to us that this idea and dream of a cultural capital of Europe should grow out of Molenbeek.

FATIMA Molenbeek faces many challenges. It is a very young district with a very high population density, socio-economic challenges and a fairly high youth unemployment rate. Young people have a very important part to play in Brussels2030. This district is also extremely multicultural due to its history of migration over the decades. It could become a laboratory whose success may extend to other areas if social cohesion is achieved. Molenbeek is a concentration of this Brussels patchwork on the scale of a small area. However, this needs to be done in cooperation with the other districts of Brussels. This could be the way into making Brussels the European capital of culture.

JAN Starting from this stigmatised yet extremely rich district, we are going to create a project that will unite the whole region and will represent a cultural dream for Europe as a whole.

“In September we will set up the Youth Coalition, which will be made up of 100 young people in the Brussels parliament.”

We often talk about the importance of young people in the Brussels2030 project, particularly via Speak Up! platform which gives young people in Brussels a voice. What impact will the questions collected have on the project?

FATIMA The issue of young people is at the forefront in the Brussels2030 bid. Brussels is a very young city: one in three young people is under 25. That represents 400,000 people. If we are talking about 2030, it is important to ask them about their vision of Brussels. The aim is to collect 1,000 voices via the Speak Up! platform. Then in September we will set up the Youth Coalition, which will be made up of 100 young people all keen to make changes to the Brussels parliament.

The aim is to define a kind of memorandum based on which a Brussels charter can be developed.

JAN We are working hard to ensure that this memorandum becomes part of the backbone of the bid book that we are to present at the end of 2024 The idea is that Speak Up! will provide us with content and themes that will be discussed in parliament in September. Projects will emerge from those three days in parliament that we will be able to incorporate in the bid. Because we can’t simply put forward a series of themes.

A Summer Assembly was held last July in this same spirit of getting a feel for what’s happening in Brussels. Is this event likely to be repeated?

JAN Yes absolutely. We really don’t want to shut ourselves away in our offices all the time. We want the summers of 2022, 2023 and 2024 to be remembered as the first times of sharing, debating and applying the fruits of our discussions and our work. We were surprised to see a thousand Brussels residents attending the first edition at Tour à Plomb at the beginning of July 2022. After working for a year with les Halles de Schaerbeek, and in particular partners from two major universities, ULB and VUB and two art networks (RAB and BKO), we will soon be embarking on five very intense days for the 2023 edition. The Summer Assembly is in the form of a living lab. It offers a site and platform where Brussels residents can discuss our major themes, make keynote proposals and take part in workshops, city walks and cultural performances. The second edition will be even more ambitious than the first, as we will be offering a rich cultural programme every evening for which we will venture beyond Schaerbeek.

FATIMA We need to view this as fantastic space for discussions, debates and reflections on Brussels in cooperation with universities, associations, leading players in the cultural and artistic sector and above all Brussels residents who are invited to attend. There is a serious lack of space for discussion in Brussels where we can tackle all kinds of different projects that are relevant to the people. Issues such as Europe, art and culture, transition / transformation and inclusion / participation are all addressed at this Summer Assembly.

Did the Summer Assembly bring to light any weaknesses?

JAN The first edition attracted more people than we expected. At the same time, we realised that we needed to go even further in terms of radical inclusion. There were some discussions in which we tackled issues realising that the key participants, such as young people or Europeans, were not present. Those two groups were not sufficiently represented.

FATIMA That goes even beyond the Summer Assembly. Meetings have been taking place over recent months between different sectors, such as fashion and design, theatres, actors, the corporate world and people who tend to gravitate around European institutions. These different meetings show that everyone sees Brussels through their own particular lens and that it would be helpful to broaden the scope in order to redefine the heart of the project and create an all-encompassing Brussels. That is the real leitmotif and challenge of this project. Being at the crossroads of different worlds might allow us from where we are to create a synthesis that will allow everyone to get involved in this cultural Brussels project.

JAN It is not simply about radical inclusion but also radical cross-functionality. It is also about bringing together all these sectors, all these parts of Brussels, in the same space. This happens far too rarely.

Partnerships have been planned with other Flemish and Walloon cities as part of Brussels2030. Have any particular openings emerged in this respect?

JAN At the moment I think it is important to focus as a starting point on the strength and diversity in Brussels and our love of the city, while at the same time emphasising the great openness that it has always displayed. A number of cities have already expressed an interest in supporting us. It is vital to stress this openness, which will also resonate with the bicentenary of Belgium. But our project is above all a Brussels-based and European project.

The European and international dimension is an essential part of this bid. How are you addressing this?

JAN The major challenge is to become what we should have been a long time ago. Brussels is not simply an administrative centre of Europe, it is also a real capital of the imagination and ideas. We are currently in contact with representatives of European institutions as well as Europeans who live in Brussels without necessarily being involved with the institutions. Nearly 300,000 Brussels residents are from other European countries. They represent a real strength for us. These are people with whom, once again, we share very few common cultural and public spaces. It is essential that this project is conducted with and for them.

There is also the issue of Europeans who are not in Brussels. We are working on potential partnerships in this area. We are focusing in particular on other countries that will have a European capital of culture in 2030, such as Cyprus, and countries wishing to join the European Union. These could include Turkey and Ukraine. There is also the possibility of creating links with former European capitals of culture with which we share connections, such as Leeuwarden or Marseille. Interesting things have happened and continue to happen in these cities. These places could provide links for Europeans who are not in Brussels. This is an opening that we are exploring.

There will no doubt also be some collaborations outside the EU, for example with Kinshasa.

“Brussels2030 is a meeting point where we can dream about the Brussels of the future”

Will Brussels continue to be European capital of culture after 2030?

FATIMA We want to take things step by step. But Brussels2030 is a meeting point where we can dream about the Brussels of the future. When we talk about Brussels2030, and even when we talk about Molenbeek as a candidate, we see people’s eyes light up with enthusiasm. Brussels needs this adrenalin. To quote Jan: it is a city project and not simply a festival and fireworks project.

What is the plan for Brussels? The present is a milestone from where we can anticipate and consolidate, create a dream and reflect on how we want to live together in this city beyond fragmentation and difference. Culture is a great binding force for creating a “shared experience”. Culture is emotion and emotion is universal.

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