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Transatlantic Initiative Strengthening City-Level Cooperation against Extremist- and Hate-Motivated Violence: US – Nordic Experiences

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— 6 minutes reading time

On 6 – 7 December 2022, the Strong Cities Network convened nearly 60 local leaders and practitioners from cities across North America, together with their national and local counterparts from Finland, Norway and Sweden, for a two-day workshop on Strengthening City-Level Cooperation against Extremist- and Hate-Motivated Violence: US – Nordic Experiences. The event was co-hosted by the City of Denver and the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP), with generous support from the US Department of State and the European Union.

Through a series of panel discussions and interactive breakout sessions, participants exchanged experiences and shared lessons and good practices around a range of common challenges facing cities in Nordic and North American countries.

Topics of discussions included:

The workshop also featured a screening of a documentary about how the city of Pittsburgh came together following the October 2018 attack on the Tree of Life synagogue, and a live-stream with the Mayor of Helsinki, Juhana Vartiainen, on the city’s comprehensive efforts to prevent extremism and hate, drawing heavily on the municipality’s extensive education and health services.

10 Key Workshop Takeaways and Recommendations

1. US and Nordic contexts are different but the drivers of hate and extremism, including rising levels of polarisation, are similar. In both contexts, individuals are grappling with and/or drawing selectively from a variety of motivations and ideologies as opposed to a single and distinct one. This has implications for prevention policies and programmes.

2. Rather than al-Qaeda and ISIS-related extremism, the most urgent threats/challenges to social cohesion in cities in North American and Nordic countries are hate: based on ethnicity, race and identity, anti-Semitism, extreme right-wing movements, dis/misinformation and political polarisation. It is critical that local prevention frameworks are developed and/or updated, and resources allocated, to align with this threat picture.

3. Although manifesting differently in each context, practitioners in US and Nordic cities emphasise the need for: a) adaptable, locally-led multi-stakeholder, multi-disciplinary approaches to prevention; b) to build and strengthen trust, relationships and durable connections; and c) identify common ground among different groups. This includes between local government and police and communities, and police and non-law enforcement professionals.

4. Prevention is most effective and sustainable when it is multi-stakeholder in nature and collaborative in approach. There is a constant need to draw in different practitioners, new perspectives and varied experiences. The professions involved in a particular programme or case will vary depending on the context and how far “up-stream” it is. For example, whereas the police might have a central role to play in secondary prevention efforts, particularly in cases involving individuals who appear to be far along the path to violence, their role in more routine cases or in primary prevention work is likely to be limited, if any. More broadly, the stakeholders involved are likely to depend on which ones are most trusted by the individual concerned and their family. Generally speaking, social and health workers and police should be involved, although the role each profession plays is community and context dependent. Nevertheless, each require the tools, training and other resources to be able to engage in this space, including in collaboration with each other.

5. Cities in North America have comparative advantages in hate and extremism prevention that need to be leveraged, particularly when it comes to primary prevention efforts. Empowering, resourcing and supporting city-led efforts, including those that leverage their relationships with and access to local communities, should be a priority. And, mayors and local governments need to advocate for a greater role in prevention.

6. Municipal-level resources and services in North American cities – including social, health, housing, youth, schools, cultural, employment and human rights – need to be tapped for hate and extremism prevention objectives. This is more about connecting and synergising what already exists around these objectives than about creating anything new. Cities need to map the hate- and extremism-related threats and concerns across different neighbourhoods and existing infrastructure and initiatives for addressing them. Such mappings should be data-informed and aimed at ensuring that city prevention resources are appropriately targeted. Part of this work should involve identifying trusted leaders within different communities, in particular the “hard to reach” ones, who are likely to have more influence than the city government in those settings. These bottom-up efforts are more likely to respond to the needs and concerns of community members than those framed around extremist- and targeted violence.

7. Schools, and education more broadly, are the “muscles and shoulders” of hate and extremism prevention efforts. Whereas this is a focus of Nordic prevention efforts, the same cannot be said for frameworks in North America. Enhancing critical thinking skills and digital literacy and citizenship, and teaching tolerance and respect for the “other”, are essential ingredients for effectively addressing the dis/misinformation that is fuelling hate, extremism and polarisation. Education departments and schools at every level, as well as local school boards, need to be involved in this work. Teachers need to receive the necessary training to be able to identify concerning behaviours without bias and while avoiding stigmatisation.

8. Hate and extremism should be treated like a drug (more so than a security challenge) as it is often covering up or supplying comfort for people who are in need. Moreover, hate and extremism can usefully be treated through an addiction framework. Such an approach can help to “de-exceptionalise” the threat and make prevention more relatable to community members.

9. Extremism and targeted violence prevention efforts should be “de-exceptionalised”, particularly given that the grievances driving these forms of violence are similar to those driving hate and extremism in individuals more broadly. Many of the interventions for addressing the latter and the former are likely to be similar and “de-exceptionalisation” is likely to lower the barriers to becoming involved in addressing the former. However, this should be balanced with ensuring that professionals involved in extremism and targeted violence prevention work receive specialised training that might be needed to handle the unique aspects of some of the cases in this area. Careful consideration should be given to the most appropriate framing and situating of locally-led hate and extremism prevention work. This includes whether it should be integrated into wider violence prevention or community well-being approaches or treated as a stand-alone issue.

10. Although the contexts, including the underlying legal, political and cultural landscapes, differ between cities in North American and Nordic countries, they nevertheless have much to learn from each other when it comes to the prevention of hate and extremism. There is also keen interest in doing so. The sharing of experiences, expertise, challenges, lessons learned (including failures) among cities around the prevention of hate and extremism thus needs to be intensified. A growing number of relevant local prevention models, toolkits, trainings and other relevant resources exist; cities need to be able to more readily access and benefit from them.