Zouk Mikael en route to glory… “So dreams come true”!

It all started with an email I received from a friend in which she wrote: “the moment I saw this award announcement I thought of the Youth and Culture Center (YCC) and your wonderful city of Zouk Mikael. I have a feeling you can win the award, I strongly encourage you to apply”.

I have to confess that I was a bit skeptical at the beginning: Can we compete? Was it worth the effort, the time and the emotional commitment? What made our experience so exclusive, so deserving of an international award? And why would the judges choose us while our initiative was not unheard of globally? And then it hit me! It was not the idea; it’s the experience, it’s the “parcours” that matter, and the Lebanese context that makes YCC a successful example of a pioneering initiative in urban human development from the Global South.

And so, under the title of “Building better communities: Inspire, Empower, Engage!” the Youth and Culture Center of Zouk Mikael became officially one of the 255 initiatives from 153 cities and 56 countries and provinces that were presented to the Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation in China.  The award ceremony was organized in collaboration with the UN affiliated organization, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), and the World Association of Major Metropolises (Metropolis) between November 14 and 17, 2012 in , Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong — one of the most developed Chinese provinces economically and technologically located in Southern China.

Our application summarized the work we have been doing since 2009: we Inspire the youth of our community, we Empower them with knowledge and know how, opportunities and connections, and then we Engage them in activities that are beneficial to them and the community. In short, we teach them how to pay it forward and become themselves actors of positive change. While this approach is common to other community centers throughout the world, Zouk Mikael’s merit is based on the  fact that the city initiated a human development strategy in the absence of funding and central government support and red tape that prevents the daily operations from running smoothly. Other factors such as the lack of trust in public service and public institutions, the youth apathy and the growing disinterest in culture and arts, the lack of resources and local expertise would have otherwise prevented the accomplishment of the YCC initiative if it were not for the thorough planning, the international expertise and the dedication of the YCC team, but most importantly to the continued and unconditional support of Mayor Nouhad Naufal.

Back to the award; the selection criteria was based on the kinds of solutions to urban challenges, because while every city encounters difficulties in implementing its projects, the committee was looking at the how. Thus the problem solving approach had to be pioneering and innovative in order for the city to reach the top 30 worldwide deserving initiatives.

To counter disengagement, rebuild trust in public institutions, and provide inclusive services that speak to the needs of the people, while knowing that we had no funding, we needed people to believe in us and collectively contribute to the success of our initiative. But how do you do this in a part of the world where citizens feel unheard, unworthy of public service? Where cynicism wins over hope and action?
Building trust and learning were key to our success. And so we embarked on a listening tour, engaging young and old about their needs and their vision of a better community. While non of this is innovative in the west, bridging the gap between politicians and the people is a concept that is rarely put into practice in Lebanon.
When we announced our ambitious plan to become the cultural capital of Lebanon, we were faced with skepticism and laughs: we had no funding, a staff of two and myself volunteering my time and expertise, and all the challenges of municipal bureaucracy. So we had to be creative in finding resources and creating opportunities for growth and advancement.
We relied on open source platforms such as social media (blogging, facebook, twitter), Internet and networking, as the main tool to advertise our events and recruit audience and volunteers.
We initiated a Public Private Partnership with the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (USEK) – a first in Lebanon between a university and a local government – in the purpose of maximizing on both institutions’ human resources and institutional assets and complementing their needs. Zouk Mikael became USEK’s social innovation lab.
We developed our outreach to all publishing houses in Lebanon in order to increase our fund of books and publications for free. We mobilized youth groups and NGOs to work together with us on issues that became nationwide campaigns such as the Smoking Ban in 2012.
It was very difficult to organize these initiatives with a team of three, yet with dedication and the enthusiasm and help of all involved, we made it!

And so I told the story of 30 volunteers, mostly women, coming together to build a unique initiative that thrived despite all odds. I submitted the application and on 24 October 2012, we received a confirmation that YCC was accepted as a worldwide innovative and deserving urban initiative. We were featured in the widely distributed urban development manual which only features the top achievements at the local government level. YCC was particularly lauded for its efforts in creating youth policies that build bridges between the local government and the city’s youth and for building youth capacities and opening opportunities in the fields of culture, employment, networking and the creative industry.

In recognition for this achievement, I was invited to represent Zouk Mikael in the award ceremony and congress in Guangzhou, China.

The experience was impressive; Zouk Mikael, a city of 35,000, received attention alongside metropolises of 250,000+ such as Vienna, Cincinnati, Sao Paulo, Seoul, Vancouver, etc. to name a few. Zouk Mikael was also honored in the Urban Innovation forum where many stopped to read the highlights of our initiative and took photos with our little Lebanese, Zouki delegation. We planted a “Chorisia Speciosa” in Zouk Mikael’s name at Friendship Forest of the Haizhu Wetland of Guangzhou, a special tribute to the city of flowers in the heart of Guangzhou, a metropolis that transformed its industrial identity into an urban heaven of flowers, parks and is a leader in cultural preservation. Our delegation also contributed to debates, discussions and the Guangzhou declaration.

The Guangzhou declaration called for establishing and promoting the human-oriented concept of urban development, persisting in a green and low-carbon direction for urban development, applying smart technologies in the running of modern cities, preserving the city’s cultural heritage, promoting public participation in urban development and to stimulate sustainable innovation and strengthening communication and cooperation among cities to further promote urban innovation.

To the reader who knows Zouk Mikael and the 50 long years of work of its pioneering Mayor Naufal, one knows that our city council had almost covered all points in the Guangzhou declaration which made Zouk, through YCC, a perfect candidate for this award.

Recognized as the beating heart of Kesserwan, Zouk Mikael’s Youth and Culture Center is a platform for the dialogue of cultures. It has hosted over 600 artists from around the world, and produced cultural events of different kinds (such as plays, dance recitals, readings, concerts, book signings, movie clubs, etc.) in collaboration with 50 embassies and international organizations. The initiative is equally valuable for its leading role in initiating public private partnerships and engaging the local population and the civil society in a sustainable development movement that keeps growing.

The Guangzhou Award aims to reward innovations to improve the socio-economic environments in cities and regions, promote sustainability, and hence advance the livelihood of their citizens. Presented biennially, the award will encourage and recognize outstanding innovative projects and practices in the public sector.

Reaching the finals is an achievement for Zouk Mikael and it is once more a testament to how our city is on the road to glory along with the world’s cosmopolitan and most advanced cities like Vienna, Seoul, Cape Town, Vancouver, Mexico and Dusseldorf.