Kathryn Carlson meets with Law researcher Mario Pagano for a Q+A about Engaged Academics, one of EUI’s working groups.
Can you tell me a little about what Engaged Academics is?
We are an interdisciplinary Working Group affiliated with the Law department and the History department. Engaged Academics is slightly different from other EUI working groups, because we act externally – our purpose is to connect EUI researchers with local civil society. We – around 30 researchers and staff from different departments – do this is because we think that there is a major role that our academics should play in society. We thought, what does the average citizen of Florence gain from having all these universities and institutes of ‘excellence’ in their own city? So we wanted to try to give something back to the local people. And since the EU is going through a difficult moment, we thought it would be a good idea to talk about it. Since we have this beautiful Institute here, it’s good to give something back to society and this is what we try to do in our small engaged world.
How did Engaged Academics get started?
The inspiration for the group came from a speech the President [Renaud Dehousse] gave at the first event for first year researchers last year. He said he was sure we would find our place inside EUI, but he wasn’t so sure that we would find our place outside EUI, so we should make sure we do something to give back to society. I still remember those words vividly.
What are you doing now?
Our first event was a side event to the State of the Union conference last year in a bar in downtown Florence. It addressed the topics of migration and solidarity practices in Florence. So we were trying to connect European dimension with the local dimension, talking about new policies in the field of migration and building a connection with what’s happening in Florence. This year, we are co-organising a series of public debates on Europe with the public administration of Fiesole on different EU policies such as migration, food safety policy, and euro and monetary policy.
Why do you hold your events in Italian?
Since we act locally, and our activities take place locally, the knowledge of Italian is an indirect requirement. Since we are organising activities in the city centre or Fiesole, and we really want to talk to locals, we do this in Italian. We also have researchers who are not Italian but who speak Italian very well – it’s a big challenge, but it’s beautiful to see researchers getting more integrated into the civil society of Florence and Fiesole.
What has the response been to your events?
We were surprised by how many people came to our first event – I think people in Florence, as well as students and researchers from other universities, are starting to realize that EUI researchers actually exist in the flesh! For the events in Fiesole, the participation was also high – we had 50 or more people at our events, mainly locals, which is a good thing. We also started to hold events not just in Fiesole but also in small outlying villages. Even there we had 30 to 35 people in the audience, and the quality of the debate was very high. I think some of the audience went home with a different idea on what the EU is doing for them, on what academics are studying at EUI, and also what academics could do for them in a broader sense.
What do you see for the working group’s future?
Even more engagement! Our future is full of activities and ideas to implement, and we are receiving invitations and proposals to cooperate with other associations and groups of researchers from other universities. One of our researchers went to Palermo to talk in a high school about migration policy – we would really like to visit more schools in and around Florence. We have also organised with the Scuola Normale Superiore and the University of Florence an event on workers protections in the gig economy, which will take place at Caffé Le Murate on the 20th of March. The real challenge in the future is to spread the word to other academic institutions, and spread the model in other regions and cities – to push academics to explain the findings of their research and talk more about the politically sensitive issues at the heart of their research.