All three initiatives make use of political opportunity structures and support. For example, in Freiburg the support was manifested by an integration award from the city of Freiburg and different kinds of public and private funding, in Basel with funding and meetings with politicians, and in Brussels with public supportive statements by politicians. This shows the importance of supportive institutional frameworks as posited by the approach of political opportunity structures. Yet, in our material, two points were most salient: The initiatives carried out activities with a high degree of investment and engagement that took place on a voluntary basis, and because of, or indeed against the limits of the political system. We thus interpret the activities of the initiatives as acts of citizenship and then look at the resources that are used in terms of resource environments.
All three initiatives are campaigning for a more inclusive understanding of political rights. However, they are neither inventing completely new forms of political participation nor opposing existing ones. Instead, they make use of existing forms of political participation, as e.g. in interpellations or collections of signatures, or imitate them, as in the case of symbolic parliamentary sessions or elections. The existing forms of political participation are thus appropriated and extended in a visible performative act to create an “as if” scenario. One of the members in Freiburg said: “We are not waiting [for someone to give us the right], we are voting” (Member’s quote).
These acts of citizenship involve a great amount of different resources from the initiatives and their members. Verba et al. (1995) consider time, money and civic skills as the most important resources for political participation, and indeed these were found to be major resources for the resource environments (Levitt et al., 2017) of the observed initiatives, too. Participation was found to be very time intensive. The questionnaires give some insight into the workload of the initiatives: In Freiburg and Brussels some of the respondents report they have invested 100 h or (significantly) more per year. In Basel, the project coordinator—who was employed for a workload of 50%—reported she had gone over her hours on a regular basis, often even doubling her time invested into the project. Quite a few people had invested between 10 and 80 h, while a few respondents from Basel and Freiburg were only active sporadically, e.g. for specific tasks or events, and some found it difficult to count. The workload also depended on the current projects, for example symbolic elections and their preparation in Freiburg were time-intensive and a larger number of volunteers joined to carry them out. Many respondents were either employed part-time (especially in the cases of Basel and Freiburg) or self-employed. 30% of the Basel respondents and 7% of the Freiburg respondents were retired. The preparation of symbolic elections and parliamentary sessions spanned several months of regular meetings in evening hours.
With regards to funding, the initiatives in Basel and Freiburg have raised funds from a number of sources (such as the Federal Commission for Migration in Switzerland, or the EU). In Basel there was temporarily a paid position of association coordinator and in Freiburg the wish for funds for such a post was mentioned. However, representatives also reflected that funding is often attached to fixed projects and the writing of reports. In Brussels, working in the campaign can also mean members making financial contributions, as the initiative has no external funding. Skills such as programming the webpage exist within the group and are contributed without pay.
Members’ public communication skills, considered as civic skills (Verba et al., 1995, p. 304), are also a resource for the initiatives. The initiatives are well aware of the context in which they operate, the importance of their presence in social networks and media and the best ways to formulate their demands. In Freiburg, for example, there is a range of visual material and branding with T-shirts, posters, flyers, photos, films, even a song. In Brussels, an eye-catching logo was developed and the initiative made films with local politicians, each holding the logo. All three initiatives emphasize the importance of being non-partisan and of communicating with politicians of different parties about their issues (Schiller et al., 2020). Members of the initiatives report that their activities have created awareness among politicians, in media and society. The founders and leaders of the initiatives play a special role in this respect, by bringing with them a lot of resources, networks, and professional experience in the field of migration and passion towards more inclusive political participation.
The individual members of the initiatives had high levels both of education and personal and professional skills and experience, ranging from radio hosting to research, politics, IT, education, social work, and cultural programmes, with some engaging with migration also professionally. Statistics show that non-citizens in fact have a slightly higher level of higher education than citizens in Basel and Brussels, while in Freiburg it is only slightly lower (Statistisches Amt des Kantons Basel-Stadt, 2020; Stadt Freiburg im Breisgau, 2020; email exchange with ibsa Brussels). We can thus not directly conclude that the high level of education seen in our survey is representative for the cities: it seems to be specific to this kind of activity. In fact, the literature on political participation in general and the literature focusing on migrants in particular corroborate the importance of education and occupation as a critical resource for political participation (Eggert & Giugni, 2010; Koopmans et al., 2005; Morales & Giugni, 2011). High level education and occupational profiles provide resources and give members the confidence to get involved in this type of political activity. The project leader in Basel expressed it this way: “This is not a low-threshold program.” Similarly, a respondent in Brussels noted that their work “requires volunteers with strong political interests or contacts”.
Moreover, knowledge about the political systems and command of the local languages are important. The three initiatives handle the need for these skills differently. The initiative in Basel offers workshops explaining the Swiss political system and requires all activities and discussions to be in German, partly in order for everyone to practise their German. This commitment to the German language is justified by the Swiss narratives of integration through language: according to the organizers, to be credible in the Swiss political system, it is necessary to carry out such activities in the local language. The other initiatives are more flexible when it comes to languages. 1bru1vote communicates in English within the initiative and in three different languages on their webpage. The initiative in Freiburg, for their symbolic elections, have translated their information material into 14 different languages.
Confirming other studies, we have found a link between rootedness and migrant volunteering (Manatschal & Stadelmann-Steffen, 2014; Stadelmann-Steffen & Freitag, 2011) and a strong link between the length of the migrants’ stay in a new country of residence and patterns of political participation, which is in line with the theory of exposure to the new society (de Rooij, 2012; White et al., 2008). A great majority of members in the studied initiatives are long-term residents and even citizens of their country of residence, proving that rootedness provides a key resource for engaging. Likewise, a member’s personal migration experience in other countries also offers them insights into the experience of exclusion which can act as a motivating factor to change the situation (Negi, 2013; Però, 2008a; Wray-Lake et al., 2008). In Freiburg two members with German nationality explained that they had experienced the lack of voting rights while living abroad, which motivated them to change the situation in Germany for others. Thus, these kinds of resources can be created transnationally, through members’ migration experiences, and applied locally as a resource affecting how members participate.
A further resource is openness to learn, so that investing resources leads to new resources. Almost all respondents said that they learned something or were able to take something away from their work in the initiative. This could be contacts, friends, knowledge about the political system and rights, about exclusion, how a campaign works, or that it is possible to make their voice heard and create change. In all three initiatives, we saw a lot of commitment and passion, emotions and feelings, as Però and Solomos (2010) put it.
When asked about the accessibility and openness of their respective initiative, most respondents from Freiburg perceived their initiative as very open and accessible. Mitstimme in Basel is overall perceived as a bit less accessible, as is 1bru1vote. Two particular points were mentioned in the case of Basel: It has been running cyclically, with new members joining each year and forming new working groups, which can result in easier access for new members. On the other hand, many respondents considered that the fact that the whole project is carried out in German was a potential barrier. At the same time, a very clear majority supported the fact that the project is carried out in German. Other potential hurdles mentioned in the survey in the different cases included time investment, differing interests, fear of political engagement (in the case of undocumented migrants, for example), and the difficulty of joining a tight-knit and highly knowledgeable team.
Networks played an important role in the work of the initiatives, e.g. with local politicians, migrant organisations or other initiatives. In Basel, coordinators had also managed to create strong connections with local politicians who provided regular support and advice to the working groups and agreed to have their requests discussed in the city parliament. Networking and cooperation with other initiatives, like the migrant council in Freiburg or VoteBrussels in Brussels, were providing relevant resources in terms of information and experience or as the basis for larger campaigns. Moreover, all the initiatives were connected with academic researchers and some members were working or doing research in the field of migration. Networks and also friendships were a gain for the members.
Away from the local level, the transnational level played a role in the resource environment, by serving as a point of comparison and argument. Especially in Freiburg and Brussels, the argument was used that other European cities or countries already have local voting rights. The initiative in Freiburg had in the past been involved in a larger international EU project. Transnational connections were also used for knowledge exchange and the initiative in Freiburg had invited international guests as symbolic “international election observers”. In fact, the initiatives have recently started regular online meetings across Europe (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland) in order to share their experience and support each other.
Acts of citizenship are thus carried out within a specific resource environment of networks, time, funding, personal and professional skills, migration experiences and learning potential. The initiatives can work the way they do because of the pre-existing resources and the preconditions that allow for such acts of citizenship. Hayduk and Coll argued that “Success can also be measured by local stakeholders as advancing other goals” (2018, p. 341), among which they included building coalitions, education of the different stakeholders, support for other migration related topics, or developing the skills of the members. And indeed, in line with their argument, we observed successes such as building coalitions, resources and skills during the activities of the initiatives. In fact, many respondents described what they gained through their participation and for some, it seemed like an important part of their lives. However, it is important to acknowledge that the successes of the initiatives come at a high cost, a fact which has so far not been sufficiently recognised in the literature.