Skill-Up Co-Design Workshop in Bari

Skill-Up is co-creating a co-working space and platform to jump-start collaboration, empowerment, skill mapping and strengthening among migrants, refugees and local communities in Bari, Italy

Can co-design be a tool to tackle the challenge of social inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers in Europe? How can it support the creation of opportunities for refugees and local communities to meet, share experiences and competences, learn from each other and develop professional and personal skills? Despite on-going efforts and the existence of several initiatives to create better reception mechanisms, still little is done on the issue of empowerment, skills mapping and strengthening of refugees and asylum seekers living in reception facilities across Europe, and few arenas exist to bring together migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and social and creative innovators from European local communities on the issue of empowerment based on skills sharing and strengthening, co-creation and acceleration of projects and initiatives.

Four CitizensLab members Stephen Ogbonna, Mama Africa; Margherita Mugnai, Sociolab Ricerca Sociale; Laura M. Pana, Migrationlab and Andrea Rossi, Cherimus started discussing these issues when they met for the first time during the 2nd CitizensLab Network Meeting in Brussels in March 2017. This is how SKILL UP! was born and for the next five months we intensely worked together each of us based in a different European city, from The Hague to Montpellier via Istanbul all the way to Bari.

Our first SKILL UP! Co-design Workshop
took place at the Chiesa Sant’Antonio in Bari, on June 20 and 21

The aim of SKILL UP! is to experiment a new model of co-working space and skills mapping platform, based on the active collaboration between local and European innovators and new European residents, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, in order to prototype an approach based on horizontal relations, co-design and acceleration of local actions of change.

The first step of the process was to organise a 2-day prototype workshop in Bari on June 20 and 21, 2017. The workshop was hosted by the local organisation and Cultural Multiethnic Association Mama Africa, one of our core team members, formed by Stephen Ogbonna, Marina Schirone and Domenico Lombardi. Our aim was to bring together refugees, migrants and local creatives and institutions to test the idea with us and work together on creating a new model of co-working space and skills mapping platform. We wanted to use co-design tools and methods to address such a pressing challenge, by moving away from the representation of refugees and asylum seekers as passive recipient of basic reception services and allowing them to become agents of change by putting their ideas and aspirations at the centre of the design process. Our goal was also to meet and explore possibilities of collaboration with potential and interested local partners such as the Municipality of Bari and local NGOs; have a clear understanding of what can be done and how on a longer term and establish the next steps in the development of the process.

Bari (Italy) was chosen as the pilot location for the project because like other cities in Italy it is at the forefront of the refugee crisis and local communities are exposed to the opportunities and challenges of cultural integration. Bari also shows a high level of social capital and a rich history of migration and diaspora, and is composed of a diverse and multicultural population of naturalised foreigners, first, second and third generation migrants and new arrivals continuously changing the social and cultural landscape of the communities. The city is home of the Mama Africa organisation, one of the core team members, which has extensive experience in bottom-up integration activities and works with and for a wide network of refugees and asylum seekers.


The first day of our workshop in beautiful Bari was dedicated to co-designing the Skill Up! co-working space together with a group of 40 refugees and asylum seekers from different countries, and interested local partners, such as Francesca Bottalico, the Welfare Municipal Councillor of the City of Bari, who manifested enthusiasm and support for the project from the beginning and who opened the workshop together with Lavinia Orlando, the Vice Mayor of the City of Turi and Lisa Schulze from MitOst, the organisation that coordinates the CitizensLab. Because of the great diversity of our group, also linguistically, we had to simultaneously work in three languages: French, English and Italian.

The SKILL UP! team with Francesca Bottalico, Local Welfare Councillor of the City of Bari. From left to right: Domenico Lombardi, Andrea Rossi, Marina Schirone, Francesca Bottalico, Stephen Ogbonna, Lisa Schulze, Margherita Mugnai and Laura M. Pana.

The first part of the day focused on getting the participants to know each other making use of our linguistic diversity, thus turning it from a challenge into an opportunity of knowledge sharing among peers and mutual enrichment. This activity was met with great enthusiasm among the participants, who are used to deal with language barriers on a daily basis.

Further on we worked collaboratively on the issue of skills and skills mapping by encouraging a brainstorming and an affinity matrix activity to discuss collectively what skills mean to all of us. The exchange showed a rich and varied range of perceptions, feelings and ideas, that helped introduce the aim of the session: testing the potential of an online skills mapping database to allow migrant and asylum seekers to highlight their competences and aspirations and access potential professional and learning opportunities. Prototype online forms allowing users to provide basic information about their skills, experience and project ideas were tested together to verify usability and identify bottlenecks and potential. This activity lead to a wider group discussion about the difference between soft skills and technical skills, the relevance of both for personal and professional growth and the challenges that arise by addressing these issues in the context of integration. The activity was dense and challenging, some concepts were new and required explanations and examples that drew directly from the diaspora experience of participants, thus touching upon sensitive and difficult issues. However, a great effort was put in by the participants to take part in the discussion, test the forms with us, share their experience and work to provide the necessary information that could lead them to develop their project or to have access to the job market.

After such an intense first part of the day, we enjoyed a much needed and deserved lunch break: a delicious typical Nigerian “Fufu and Egusi Soup with fried chicken and Jollof Rice” cooked and prepared by the Mama Africa Nigerian Associates Jennifer, James Success, and Blessing; followed by “branded” SKILL UP! home-made cakes and cookies, a special gift from a dearest friend and cake design artist of Mama Africa, Rossella Ricci.

A quick energiser focusing on network creation and on sharing aspirations and dreams helped us to get back in the game and we got together again to co-design the co-working space through creative activities. Four thematic tables were set, where participants could use different tools and techniques to express, imagine, co-create and exchange.

Location: participants expressed that they would like to have the SKILL UP! co-working space located near the train station, which is the main meeting point for all immigrants and locals in Bari. This location is accessible to everybody. In terms of covering the running costs of the space, participants agreed that they would be willing to contribute financially, if they had a job and an income.

Design: participants expressed their wishes on how this space should look like, what objects and colours should be included. At the beginning the idea of working together to design a space for everybody and expressing one’s creativity was quite challenging. Being away from home and sharing living conditions on which participants have little or no control, made it hard for them to get in the mindset of thinking of a place for them and to decide how this might look like. But with patience, time and explanation, the participants were able to develop ownership of the activity and allowed their creativity to emerge. One of the common characteristics of all the four groups who worked on this table was that they all visualised this co-working space as a home: an inviting, welcoming and inspiring space, which includes a room for artistic performances, a library room, a sitting room, a room for meetings and trainings, an office room, and generally a space filled with art and design elements from their own cultures.

Content: participants explored what kind of activities should take place in the co-working space that will help them develop their skills. The exchange with the groups allowed a wide variety of professional dreams and aspirations to emerge as well as concrete activities that could help these become true: from peer mentoring and training, to learning from professionals, to internships in different sectors, to recreational and social spaces and activities that allow networking and meeting. Central to the concept is the idea of an open space were opportunities are offered and created by those inhabiting it, where mutual learning and sharing is key and were business ideas and professional competences are explored and developed with open-minded professionals and creatives.

Make it Real: Participants explored how they could bring to life the SKILL UP! co-working space, what would be needed and with whom they should collaborate with. They talked at length about the main issues concerning their present life in the reception centre for asylum seekers and their problem in finding a job, relating and getting support from the local population and, more generally in getting people to know their real condition as asylum seekers: lack of money; absence of recreational activities; difficulty to reach the city centre by public transport; problem with paying lawyers for appeal procedures consequent to the negative result of the Territorial Commission for Refugees; language barriers and inadequacy of the language courses offered. Most of the people agreed that to address these problems it would be necessary to have some support from the municipality of Bari through the existing contacts of Mama Africa, to get the co-working space started and possibly initiate a campaign aimed at projecting a more realistic and positive image of the refugees. There was also a general agreement that the best way to break their isolation would be to find a job – even as apprentices (i.e. even without a salary or with a very low pay at the beginning) – or to attend professional training work courses as this would give them the necessary certification and qualification to actually work while learning about the Italian ‘work culture’, improving their language skills and become active members of the local community.

At the end of the workshop a round of feedback and comments allowed the participants to share their feelings about the day spent together. Gratefulness, inspiration, feeling of empowerment and of doing something relevant to their life were all part of their narratives.
“The job we did together turned on a light in my life. I grew up in my country, Guinea Conakry, and I had been taught that a leader is born a leader. Today I have learned that it is not true, because you can become a leader when you are aware of your transversal skills, a totally new concept for me. You can work on it. If I have an opportunity to work on these skills, I will be able to grow” – Lamine Dabo, a 26 years old graduate immigrant, owner of Humanitarian Permission.

Our first working day ended with the celebration of the “World Refugee Day”: embracing refugees to celebrate our common humanity, to honour the courage, the strength and the determination of all the women, children and men who are forced to flee their homeland under threat of persecution, conflict and violence. SKILL UP! decided to have a live concert performed by some of the Mama Africa associates, playing their own typical and local music with African percussions “djambé” and “ogogo” accompanied by African dancing, thus getting all of African countries together. A musical journey went on up to India with Fatmira Khan, a Bollywood Albanian dancer and founder of the Bollywood Bari and Puglia Association.


The 2nd day of our work focused on discussing among us to evaluate the outcomes of the workshop, to identify the main challenges and set up the next steps. Some of the participants to the workshop joined us as well. While agreeing that the experience was a powerful one for all of us, participants and organisers alike, we also tried to work on the challenges and issues that this pilot allowed us to identify:

The participants come from different countries such as Nigeria, Senegal, Guinea, Ghana, Gambia, Ivory Coast, Mali, Togo, Eritrea and have a very diverse background. Skills and competences are difficult concepts to approach and discuss, but the use of real life examples to which they can relate to, hands on activities and time can lead to a constructive work.

Those attending are all asylum seekers and refugees who live in camps, reception centres, and second reception house projects, all of these being temporary. The feeling of loneliness and isolation is widespread and the psychological impact is strong. To address this problem, Mama Africa also aims at creating a Psychology and Human Resources Centre that allows them to meet with a psychologist and a human resources specialist who will guide them to a better connection with their emotional life, while exploring their inner resources.

Despite a good turn-out and the presence of the Municipality, more needs to be done to create a local network of social actors around Mama Africa to allow the organisation to develop its activities in collaboration with others. A strategy to work in synergy with other actors is needed, especially after the positive outcomes of this first co-design workshop.

Language Barrier: working simultaneously in three different languages is a challenge but also an opportunity. We explored avenues to work around and with this, but still more needs to be done.

The steps needed to advance in this prototype are many and we are working to identify the most immediate/feasible options to make the possibility of a SKILL UP! space a reality. Among these are the testing of the space on a micro or popup scale, engineered by Mama Africa with the support of local institutions and remote support from the CitizensLab; the creation of a test database using the information gathered during the workshop to develop a simple tool that could support skills mapping and matching; the strengthening of the network with local institutions by showcasing positive results of the activity and by working collaboratively to design training courses, certifications and apprentice opportunities in local companies.


Tired but happy smiles from THE SKILL UP! Team (left to right) Margherita Mugnai, Andrea Rossi, Laura M. Pana, Domenico Lombardi, Marina Schirone, Stephen Ogbonna.
Tired but happy smiles from THE SKILL UP! Team (left to right) Margherita Mugnai, Andrea Rossi, Laura M. Pana, Domenico Lombardi, Marina Schirone, Stephen Ogbonna.
SKILL UP! mentioned in the local media

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