In the latest interview for our Urban Pioneers series, we sit down with Birgit Wachter-Wallner, an integral member of Vienna’s Department for Integration and Diversity.
Birgit began her role as manager of the city’s ground-breaking Centre of Refugee Empowerment (CORE), which developed new initiatives to address integration challenges for asylum seekers and refugees. Her work in this project focused on seeing refugees as equal partners and working alongside them to support their needs. It also involved the creation of a vibrant community hub, as well as support services, including job training, health support and peer mentoring.
Expanding her talents, Birgit is now responsible for the department’s European networking, funding opportunities and international affairs, as she explores new opportunities to learn from the integration work of other cities and introduce innovative approaches to support minority groups in Vienna.
Her work follows in the footsteps of many years of development and support for people arriving and settling in Vienna, reflecting the ever-growing diversity of the cosmopolitan city.
Vienna’s first City Councillor for Integration was appointed 25 years ago, and this year the Municipal Department for Integration and Diversity is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Since its formation, the department has been committed to the development of projects that welcome new citizens to Vienna, promote respectful relationships and support social cohesion.
What are you trying to achieve in your position?
Vienna is an immigration city where two million people with 179 different citizenships live together. As an employee of the municipal department ‘Integration and Diversity’, one of the most important goals to achieve, both in the short and long term, is to contribute to respectful and peaceful coexistence. With our projects, we support all Viennese people, regardless of whether they were born here or immigrated to Vienna some time ago or recently.
What’s your personal motivation to do this job?
As an intercultural project manager, I have been involved in numerous EU funding programs. Vienna was repeatedly highlighted as ‘best practice’ in terms of successful integration. Therefore, I applied for this job and I am proud to be able to contribute to the achievement of the goals our our department.
Although Vienna’s Integration and Diversity approach has won several awards, direct success is difficult to measure. For me personally, it is most rewarding, when successful, innovative and multi-level governance approaches implemented by our department are leading to rights based and inclusive integration policies in the City of Vienna.
Creating equal opportunities, equal access to education, labour and housing as well as providing political and social participation for all people who live in Vienna is a long but very rewarding process.
Walk us through a day in your shoes.
A day in my work routine is hardly any different from a day in any other office routine. The biggest difference is certainly that it’s not about optimising capital, but about focusing on human capital, potential and resources. Which projects should be supported or implemented by the public sector to ensure that integration and coexistence work in a city like Vienna?
All this includes answering emails, networking and holding meetings and phone calls/video conferences. A major part of my role is exchanging ideas with international partners and gathering experiences from other cities in order to meet the challenges in as many ways as possible.
What are your main challenges?
Contributing to successful coexistence means keeping an eye on the entire Viennese population and not concentrating on one target group. That is not always easy. Our department assumes a certain mediating role – between individual needs, political guidelines and social necessities.
In addition, one of the central tasks of our department is to contribute to an objective and research based discussion about integration in Vienna by providing data and facts. These challenges cannot possibly be met in a solitary position. The network of important stakeholders extends far beyond Vienna
When was the last time you felt that your position had a positive impact on your city’s inhabitants?
It is impossible to answer this question individually. My position is part of a bigger picture. Projects are developed and implemented with and by many people. The involvement and empowerment of beneficiaries is particularly important.
We receive a lot of feedback from locals every day. Admittedly, not all of it is positive. We see negative feedback, as long as it is not purely populist in nature, as an order to do our work even better. I believe that our work has a positive impact on our city’s residents every day.
If you had a magic wand, what could significantly improve the way you do your job?
My magic wand would enable everyone to treat others with the respect they expect for themselves.
Pitch your job to other local, regional, national or European governments.
We all agree that migration and diversity are an integral part of our societies in Europe and worldwide.
Using innovative approaches to promote respectful coexistence, meeting the challenges of ever-changing societies by acting at local and international levels in line with the Convention on Human Rights – instead of reacting with hatred and conflicts – these are some of the many challenges we have to face and to develop solutions wherever possible. Resources invested in departments, projects and jobs like mine in public institutions are essential for our society of tomorrow.
This interview is part of ‘Urban Pioneers,’ a Eurocities series published every second and fourth Monday of the month spotlighting innovative and original job positions in municipalities across Europe. Each article in this series highlights a job position aimed at improving wellbeing, health conditions, society and the environment in cities. From tackling the urban heat island effect to countering gender imbalances to encouraging sustainable mobility, ‘Urban Pioneers’ showcases how cities are leading by example and breaking new ground in enhancing people’s quality of life. ‘Urban Pioneers’ jobs can inspire national, regional and EU authorities to create similar positions in their own structures, multiplying across Europe’s regions and nations the positive impact that started in cities.
Click on the links below to read previous articles in the ‘Urban Pioneers’ series: