Reflections on the end of Kologa

30 March 2021

“You enter into resistance from a situated place in the world, and in that there is no moral value, however it is our responsibility to recognize it.” 

Juliette Rousseau, Lutter ensemble

Kologa is a housing association whose aim is to enable refugees to join shared flats or houses in Brussels. The project has been active with a volunteer team for three years. These years have been extremely rich in encounters, learning and questioning. Our work and the missions we have given ourselves have led us to develop new perspectives on the issues we wanted to address: interculturality, the fight against racism, access to housing.

As we came to grips with the concrete realities of this project, and as we reflected on all these issues, our political vision evolved, gradually moving away from some of the principles on which Kologa was built.

Today, we believe that the project and the way it is being carried out no longer correspond entirely to the values we want to carry, and especially to the way we want to make them evolve.

In this text, we go over in detail about the main questions and changes of perspectives that led us to take the decision to end Kologa.

How we imagined Kologa

Kologa was born in 2017 from a dual desire, on one hand to respond to a problem that refugees leaving the asylum-seekers centers faced concerning access to housing, and, on the other hand and above all, to promote the meeting of these people with the Brussels people. 

The initial intuition was twofold. 

On the one hand, it seemed to us that a mistrust of migrants was growing in our society, a mistrust that we attributed largely to the ignorance about these people, their cultures, their intentions, the reasons which brought them here. Encouraging encounters would help demystify, reassure, create common experiences and spread the idea that these people do not constitute a threat but indeed an asset for our society. 

On the other hand, and more pragmatically, we found that migrants were subject to very strong discrimination in the house rental market in Brussels. However, we had the feeling that the community of shared apartments in Brussels was relatively more open than that of property owners, and that it therefore constituted an opportunity for these people in terms of access to housing. Indeed, very often, when a room becomes available in a shared flat or house, a new flatmate is “recruited”, without the decision having to be endorsed by the owner, or only then as a formality. Whilst some other associations worked at trying to convince owners to become “solidarity owners”, we imagined a model allowing them to be bypassed purely and simply by addressing another public that we seemed more receptive: the roommates. 

It worked like this: on the one hand we met refugees looking for accommodation, on the other roommates looking for a new person to complete their team. We explained to them the realities of each other: what is an asylum journey, what do these people go through? How do you live in a houseshare in Brussels? How does it work? We gathered the desires and interests  of each other and then tried to “match” the respective desires, both in terms of group dynamics (degree of living together, interests, etc.) and location and financial criteria. We then organized a first meeting, and if everyone was happy, the person moved in. We then got involved to support the newly created group on a case-by-case basis, based on requests, for procedures ranging from signing the contracts, to aiding access to social assistance (in particular at an isolated rate if possible), but also sometimes for questions more related to coliving, mutual understanding, and any disagreements or conflicts it could generate. The aim was that everything could go well, that everyone could feel at their best and that the experience could be as rich as possible. 

The plan was to use the house share as a privileged place to practice democracy on a small scale. There was also the idea of ​​helping to create nice dynamics that one could show as an example, so as to encourage others to do the same and thus create a kind of virtuous circle towards more diversity.

What was the problem ? 

We worked like this for three years with a small team of volunteers. From the onset, some questions created important debates, in particular on the degree of politicization of the project, on the autonomy that we recognized to the people we helped, or which actors we agreed or not to work with, etc. Over the course of our reflections, discussions and readings, we gradually questioned the way in which we had imagined the project and a certain number of assumptions on which we had relied, especially in regards to antiracism.

We realized that the way we defined racism was a bit too simple and incomplete In reality, it was a comfortable definition. To put it simply, in our heads, racism was largely an individual issue, people were or were not racist, and if they were, we saw it mainly due to ignorance, or else bad intentions driven by hatred. With hindsight, we are now able to put words to it: our anti-racism was moral and universalist. It was moral because we kept the issue of racism at the level of the individuals, their speeches and their intentions, whether good or bad. It was universalist because we countered racism with an ideal of equality that applied indiscriminately to everyone, where everyone should be treated in the same way. The term “Kologa” is inspired by Colegia in esperanto which means “an assembly of equal people”, so this idea was at the heart of the project. 

Little by little, we became familiar with another perspective, one carried by the decolonial movements, by the Black Panther Party, the “Indigènes de la République”, by Aimé Césaire, Malcolm X, Angela Davis and many others. In Belgium, this vision is also carried, amongst others, by the collective “Mémoires coloniales et lutte contre les discriminations” and by Bruxelles Panthères. This anti-racism is political and systemic. Systemic because it does not see racism as a personal characteristic of such or such person, but as a system of domination that spans across the whole of society. Racism permeates our institutions, our History, our language, but also conditions of access to employment, to housing and treatment by schools, by the judiciary system, by the police,… And all these injustices are cumulative and reinforced mutually to form a system, a set of mechanisms that create domination and injustice in all areas of collective life. This anti-racism is political because it considers that racism is a matter of power and privilege, that the disadvantages of ones are the advantages of others, whether material (who owns what?) or symbolic (who is valued and how?). These advantages only exist because they are not universally recognized. From this perspective, racism concerns us as long as we benefit from it, whether we like it or not. As white people, the racist organization of society benefits us and grants us all kinds of privileges, regardless of what we think about it personally, whether we think it is right or wrong. Seen in this light, being racist does not mean being bad as a person, being racist is simply the starting point for anyone born and educated in a racist society. We cannot get rid of this racism simply through declarations of intent. We can only get rid of it by being actively anti-racist, that is, by rooting out racism within us and within our relationships, and by fighting against the privileges that this system grants us.

So much for the change in theoretical perspective, it would have been comfortable to stick to that. Except that as we wrongly pose the problems, we are necessarily also on the wrong track when it comes to solutions. This change of perspective did not happen overnight and it took a long time to clarify, analyze and name it. But now that we feel in a position to do so, we can also take a critical look at how we designed Kologa.

The main problem with this project as it was built is that it totally ignored our own racism and that of our society. We assumed that if roommates were open to welcoming a refugee to their house share, then the encounter would be good for everyone. What we missed in seeing it like this is that relationships can be oppressive even when they are caring. We missed that racism is not only hateful or contemptuous, it can also be paternalistic, condescending, it can fetishize, exoticize, objectify even though people have the best intentions in the world. However, we were not equipped to help roommates identify these mechanisms and get rid of them. Therefore, the new person found themselves having to bear this responsibility, to manage alone the situations of oppression that they would have to experience. This pressure was all the greater as our final objective was to demonstrate that coliving between these different audiences was rich and joyful.  This added a layer to the burden carried by the refugee who, in a way, had to serve as a guarantor of all refugees. Implicitly and unwittingly, we were therefore creating a very heavy and unfair requirement to set an example. To this problem, we must add the problem of numbers: in each flat or house share there was only one refugee, sometimes living with 10 other people, all white belgian or european. No matter how much we said the idea was to put all roommates on an equal footing, it was simply impossible because of the ratio of refugees to belgian people in the house. 

Moreover, by attempting to create a happy coexistence without giving ourselves the means to tackle the injustices of racism, we were helping to pacify these relationships and to silence their potential conflict. However, there can be no real peace without justice. In other words, without explicitly recognizing the inequality of relationships, the distribution of privileges, the existence of oppressive mechanisms in relationships, even unintentional ones, and without actively fighting to get rid of it, there can be no genuine relationship equal to equal.

At the same time, by disseminating success stories that appealed to both the media and part of the political world, we were asserting as legitimate our somewhat soft, incomplete but consensual vision of the fight against racism. It also meant that in comparison, collectives who chose a more frontal and demanding approach were passed off as radical and unnecessarily angry, although they were rightly denouncing racism as a system of oppression and the people who profit from it as responsible. The discomfort of this idea was avoided by multiplying the clichés where everyone was happy and smiling.

There was a great risk, therefore, of finding ourselves instrumentalizing refugees, so that their mere presence among us would allow us to define ourselves as anti-racists, without having to ask ourselves these annoying questions: how am I privileged by racism? What benefits do I derive from these injustices? And how do I help to maintain them? Am I really trying to abolish them? Or do I just make them less visible, more acceptable?

In other words, by giving to see an idyllic image of a simple and happy coexistence between people who are situated differently in a system of power which favors some and disadvantages others, we are denying and making inadmissible the legitimate anger of those who suffer from it and revolt against it. This amounts to making the responsibility of those who benefit from it invisible. Ultimately, and despite good intentions, it strengthens the system it is claimed to be fighting.

This obviously does not say anything about the intentions. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t genuine relationships, authentic and strong friendships that were created. This does not mean either that there have not been, in the different house shares, attempts to tackle these questions head on, moments of deep questioning, transformations in ways of doing things, enlightened realizations and subsequent relevant actions. But all this sort of happened without Kologa, outside of the framework that we had set in place. And where it did not happen spontaneously, we were not able to create it.

So what is left of Kologa ? 

Despite this, we do not think that everything about Kologa is to be put aside, far from it. 

We keep the idea that solidarity with people in vulnerable situations cannot simply take place through money transfers and relationships with agents behind counters. These “cold” forms of solidarity seem important to us and we know to what extent neoliberal governance undermines them. We believe them to be good and necessary, but nevertheless insufficient. We believe that solidarities must also be embodied in a “warm” way in social relationships, in shared and friendly moments. 

We also continue to think of racism as a major problem in our society, even though we see it differently today. We still believe that having a third party able to step back and analyze the dynamics at work in a group is helpful. We are simply no longer sure that we can play this role adequately. 

On the model, we still find it interesting to use the houseshares to provide access to housing to discriminated groups by capturing the decision-making power of the owners. Currently, housing is not recognized as a right for everyone, but is seen primarily as a highly lucrative market. It is seen as a means for the better-off sections of society to capture the labor income of the poorest. As long as this senseless injustice continues, it is legitimate and fair to attempt to deprive owners of their rights by any means possible, and this has the advantage of being legal.

Above all, we keep from Kologa strong bonds of friendship and solidarity which were created and strengthened despite our mistakes. Bonds who compensated for our mistakes with authenticity, perseverance, shared efforts and the desire to work together, despite our differences and owing to them all at the same time. 

Finally, if we took the trouble to write this, it is also because we have learned so much from it, and the lessons learned are invaluable to us. They give us the will to continue to work on these questions, to read, to learn from the people we are in touch with, to get involved in our rightful place and to fight for a more just society. Taking note of all this does not mean that we give up, on the contrary. It just means that our involvement has to be different, that it has to take into account who we are and which place we take. Only then can we build true political solidarities, self-aware, just, joyful and dangerous diverse communities.

Anaïs and Sam 

for the Kologa team