Carla Schiavone on the genesis of the 2020 Rome Charter

The first anniversary of the 2020 Rome Charter is marked today by an event in Rome, under the auspices of Palaexpo and UCLG Culture Committee to review progress during the past 12 months. With artistic interventions, speakers (including me) and debate, the event will be streamed live on the Charter website between 3pm and 5pm CET. In this guest post, my friend and colleague Carla Schiavone reflects on her aspirations for the project on its inception.

When the idea of the Rome Charter was first proposed, I knew it needed to be different. In my professional life, I had studied different policy papers and none of them had really caught my imagination—I wasn’t able to remember any of them without effort. 

When the Charter process started, the only thing I knew was that I had to make sure the best people in the world would work on it. That was the only card I had to play in the game so I used it. We worked with a wide range of people, some simple rules for the first ZOOM calls of the pandemic era, and a continuous quest to make this work relevant. Like a dent in the universe. I knew there was one person who could condense so many hopes and intentions into the right ideas and words: François Matarasso. I met François a few years earlier, when I co-designed Kathréptis, a project of generative dialogue between Athenian artists, activists and community practitioners with the rest of Europe. We got along so easily in the process: we only cared to ensure the best work, so I couldn’t think of a better person for the new endeavour. 

The diverse and open attitude of the Charter is a result of a process that was honest about its intention since the beginning: a city in the country where the pandemic hit hardest at its beginning, with people dancing and singing on balconies, was opening to the world and offering its vision to find a new voice for a necessary change. The ‘right to participate in the cultural life of the city and communities’ was the topic of discussion, and that would inspire every person working in the field. 

Intended to be as simple and clear as a manifesto, the Charter immediately spread widely in the UCLG network – the widest network of city and regional governments in the world. Day and night, comments were sent in by cultural workers from Bogota to Seoul. It seemed that the Charter was indeed needed. People were popping up, asking to be part of the process. Once it was published, many shared their experience in using the Charter— from a young woman who used it to spark a dialogue in her family, locked down in Mumbai to an institutional palace in Washington; from groups of civil activists in South America to a small Greek association basing a European project on the basis of the Charter. We held meetings with policy-makers in Russia and researchers in South Africa. We had conversations with public servants, politicians, academics, and civil society too. A few days before the Hybrid Conference in October 2020, mayors from American, European, Asian and African cities were sending their recorded messages to be present on such a symbolic moment. National associations as well as deputy mayors in charge of culture of the seven biggest Italian cities gathered to reflect on how the Rome Charter would affect their choices. The magazine of the Financial Times wrote about the Charter and its new vision of society. 

After the Hybrid Conference (it was quite a new name at that time, with the second wave ready to hit), the 2020 Rome Charter – enriched by a new chapter called ‘Working with the Charter’ – was voted by the UCLG World Council as a cornerstone of the Pact for the Future it will shape in 2021-2022 and where the cultural component is expected to have a strong place. 

Since then – and actually since the very first conversations – the Rome Charter has been seen as an interesting documents for agencies of the United Nations as well. Moving beyond UNESCO, and crossing issues such as urban safety and climate change, the Charter has caught the interest of cultural institutions searching for an alternative point of view. 

The work with François and the drafting committee has taught me one precious thing: it doesn’t matter how big and ambitious is the scope of your action. You need to do the right thing at the right time with your most authentic voice. 

I believe this is what made every public servant in the municipality of Rome dedicate themselves to the project, and I think of their dedication and care every time I see the Charter. The project has been open to everyone; its language has been understandable: through this energy we explicitly called on every cultural actor to play their role in social development. And we called on every actor to boldly play a role in the human right discourse. 

And here we are on the first birthday of the Rome Charter. I’m very happy to meet once more those friends that have been contributing with passion and knowledge to this intangible project. There is an entire community that is weaving around the Charter: I hope we can keep nourishing the right roots to let it grow as it should.