Fare Cultura to create harmony
Segmento talked to Paolo Baracchi, cultural program manager at CO.AS.IT., about the importance of acknowledging and nurturing multiculturalism in promoting acceptance and unity.
Can “culture” become an instrument for “peace”? I have a passion for etymology, and the origin of words can tell us a lot about their deepest meaning and potential. Peace derives from Sanskrit pac – pak – pag, meaning “to fasten,” “to tie together,” or “to unite.” The Latin term cultura, from cùltus, còlere, indicates “cultivating the land, growing something.” In those words, we cross borders and meanings, in a way that mirrors Paolo’s mission so well: connections, growth, and collectiveness are the pillars of his work in sharing knowledge and building harmony across communities.
I met Paolo in the Carlton headquarters of CO.AS.IT., a charitable institution operating in Victoria since 1968 to promote the general well-being of the Italian-Australian community. Born as the Italian Assistance Association to actively promote and support the integration of Italian migrants into the social fabric of Australia, CO.AS.IT. has developed a full range of services and programs in the aged care, education, culture, and heritage sectors. As an ancient, solid tree, CO.AS.IT. never forgets its past: the story roots of the Italian presence in Australia is well-documented in the Italian Historical Society, established in 1980 to document, preserve, and promote the history of Italian migration and settlement down under through images, documents, histories, and objects from the gold rush to the present. Part of the collection is hosted in the Museo Italiano, which is open to the public and features a special program for school groups. CO.AS.IT., moreover, continues to honor its original mission by providing support to the elderly through home care assistance and social support group programs. Don’t believe that this is all!
Far from being mired in the past, Paolo and his colleagues in the Italian Language, Culture and Heritage Department keep moving with the times by offering Italian language classes for all levels, support services for teachers of Italian, and a cultural program that includes art exhibitions, music performances, and lectures on the most contemporary topics.
Paolo, how do you ensure that CO.AS.IT. maintains well-grounded roots while it keeps growing and branching out?
“My role here as the cultural program manager is one of both privilege and responsibility and consists of offering a varied cultural program based on the synergy between three key groups: the first and most important one is the community, especially the Italian one, but not only. Our mission today is to reach and connect with other communities that constitute the Australian multicultural landscape, as well as to create a dialogue between diverse generations within the Italian groups.” Indeed, CO.AS.IT. Museo Italiano belongs to the network of the Multicultural Museums of Victoria, together with the Jewish Museum of Australia, the Chinese Museum, the Islamic Museum of Australia and the Hellenic Museum. The five museums collaborate on a regular basis.
The second group in this synergy consists of creative people such as artists, from painters to performers and musicians, writers, and poets … in Paul’s words, “the culture makers.” He continues, “Some of them are established and others are emerging, and we welcome both equally because we firmly believe in initiating a cultural discourse that is democratic, where there are no strict boundaries between the creatives and the spectators. Very often, indeed, the creatives belong to the Italian-Australian community themselves.”
Gli studiosi, in Paolo's words, constitutes the third part of this triptych: these are professional researchers and scholars – both freelance and affiliated to universities and other institutions, writers, and teachers of Italian – who research and write on the Italian community, and its continuing history of migration and settlement. In 2019, Italian scholar Francesco Ricatti presented here at CO.AS.IT. Italians in Australia: History, Memory, Identity, his book on the history of Italian migration to Australia over the past 150 years. Paolo recalls that over 150 people of varied ages and backgrounds attended the talk: from older Italian-Australians and their descendants to the new generation of Italian expatriates, but also non-Italians, scholars and students, academic and mostly non-academic audience members. They were all equally engaged, and Paolo's pride lies in making high-quality research accessible to anybody in the community “without lowering the quality, and watering down the force, and the message of these works.” Through this approach, a relationship of exchange is established between presenters, artists, scholars, and the community audience, who actively dialogues and participates as a contributor as well. Paolo is the “wizard” who manages energies and synergies.
The latest issues of Segmento explored themes such as identity and belonging, beauty, and now war and peace. How does CO.AS.IT relate to these concepts?
“Well, I have no definite ideas about these concepts because of their complexity, especially in a world that is in constant and rapid evolution.” Identity, however, is the element to which Paolo’s work relates the most. He explains that “identity cannot be a monolithic and fixed concept solely relying on blood, language, or certain cultural practices… Identity is rather a multifaceted prism, a concept that is amplified by migration and multiculturalism.”
Originally from an Italian-English family himself, and creating here an Italian-Chinese-Australian one, Paolo thinks that in this space of multilingualism and multiculturalism, “one has both the burden and the privilege of constantly negotiating with the identity received at birth and at home, within the family, and the plurality of identities encountered in other environments growing up: school, work, friends, and of course, migration.” As both past and present migrants know, this third space can turn into a space of non-belonging, when one feels being between two or more cultures, languages, and countries without fully fitting in any – this can then become an area of conflict and violence when it comes to racism and difficulties of integration, as sadly experienced by Italians coming to Australia after World War II. Yet this in-betweenness can also become a harmonious and peaceful space of discovery and acceptance, where different cultures and identities connect and merge. When this happens, Paolo says, we inhabit “a fertile terrain for creativity and openness by making it our own unique space of identity: one can be Italian and Australian and Greek, for example, without having to choose one over the other.”
The peaceful coexistence of cultures can start from the single individual, then?
“Yes, but I believe that collectivity plays a fundamental role in this process”, Paolo explains. “The Italian-Australian culture is a creative product in its own right, born here and belonging to both the broader Australian landscape and the Italian diasporic one. Here at CO.AS.IT., we aim to constantly mirror and nurture this twofold aspect of the community so that any member can relate to it. We do so by acknowledging our diasporic origins, which are our roots, while at the same time moving forward through the ongoing relationship with contemporary Italy, especially thanks to the new generations of both Italian-Australians and Italian [expatriates].” The challenge is constantly working on a multilayered identity, which is both transcultural and transgenerational. Paolo sees this as an opportunity because “when a culture acknowledges multiplicity in its specificity, then that culture becomes confident in its own right, sicura di sé, and can be open to sharing its knowledge and perspectives with other cultures in peaceful and enriching ways.”
Images provided by Paolo Baracchi