Who’s Ilze?

My name is Ilze. I am a founder of SPEAK Riga.

I am Latvian, originally coming from a small town called Kandava in the west of Latvia, but now I live in the capital Riga.

The small town where I grew up was monocultural and monolingual. We were all very Latvian. I danced folk dances almost every day, sang in the local choir, and only started learning my first foreign language in fourth grade with the help of a very tired teacher.

I loved my life in this town. It was such a sun-drenched circle of happiness. And when I thought about my future, I doubted whether I could ever live anywhere else, like in the east of Latvia. It was so far away and everyone was different there. 

Riga City
Photo by Gilly on Unsplash

Latvia’s social landscape

Latvia is essentially a society of two distinct cultures – Latvian and Russian. However, it varies considerably from region to region. In two-thirds of Latvia’s municipalities, ethnic Latvians make up more than 90% of the population, while in one-third of municipalities ethnic Latvians make up less than 50% of the total population. I grew up in the first of these groups.

The Challenges of Integration

After 50 years in the USSR and its collapse in the early 1990s, Latvia was left with a large Russian-speaking population that had migrated during the occupation. In public discourse, it is often interpreted as a traumatic experience, which changed the ethnic and linguistic composition of the Baltic countries, whereby ethnic Latvians (and Estonians) often felt threatened by the massive influx of immigrants with little or no connection to Baltic languages and culture. Kasekamp A. A History of the Baltic States, Palgrave McMillan, 2010 (accessed 13.06.2023.)

Ilze with a friend
Ilze (2nd from the left) with a friend in an event

This ever-present sense of anxiety and threat, largely played out in political and media discourse, has been a very important factor in shaping Latvian integration policy since independence. To summarize briefly, it could be described with a quote of a Russian student from the study on the attitudes of minority school students in Latvia: 

There is a feeling that there are no Russians in Latvia.[..] They are simply not there, they are simply not noticed”.

According to Central Statistical Office currently, 63% of the country’s population are ethnic Latvians, while a quarter are ethnic Russians. In Riga – 47% Latvians, 36% Russians and 17% representatives of other nationalities (12.06.2023)

The change

Like a slow and cautious bear, Latvia’s integration policy has so far behaved as a caring guardian of the Latvian language and culture. Even the migration crisis of 2015 affected Latvia with only a tiny handful of refugees. No demand, no supply. And vice versa.

Until Russia’s aggressive invasion of Ukraine. Since then the government, municipalities, civil society organizations and the majority of citizens have been very active in providing humanitarian, and military aid and support to Ukrainian refugees here in Latvia. In the context of Latvia’s recent past and its common border with the aggressor, this event hit hard.

There is much to be proud of when looking back at the swift and selfless response of the Latvian state and civil society in assisting Ukraine, but many more lessons to learn in the long term.

Why opening SPEAK in Riga?

Perhaps that is why the core idea and approach of SPEAK resonated with me so strongly right from the first encounter with it at the Global Education Congress in Strasbourg.

I strongly believe that no one wants to be integrated, only accepted and needed.

I appreciate it for the equality it embodies. In SPEAK there is no division between the host and incoming communities. Everyone is supposed to take an equal part in action and contribute to others. This framing is very important for the Latvian context, as civil and institutional bodies tend to act here as “great helpers” or “valuable service providers”.

Ilze having lunch with the SPEAK team
Izle (2nd from the left) with SPEAK Team

I value SPEAK for sustainability. The fact that the model is based on voluntary involvement, where with digital support everyone is a content creator and leader, thus feeling a sense of belonging to the community and carrying the idea forward. This is a lesson for the Latvian context as the dominant formats here are flash donations and colorful activities based on temporary project funding.

And I love SPEAK for its temperature of empathy. As far as I am familiar with the SPEAK team, it appears not to be a project for them, but a way of life.

A Vision for the Future

Nowadays, it is almost impossible to find a small-town sun-drenched bubble like the one I once grew up in – with the same song and dance for everyone. So I want to contribute as much as I can to make Riga a home for everyone.

Beyond that, the dream is to plant the seed in as many Latvians as possible that social inclusion is necessary for each one of us. Because I have experienced that the ability to be actively open is equally enriching for both giver and receiver, no matter whose land we stand on.

Want to support SPEAK Riga?

If you’re interested in helping to build an inclusive community in Riga so everyone can feel at home, here’s your opportunity: Join as a buddy and help newcomers, migrants, and refugees integrate into the community while living the enriching experience of the exchange. 

Like SPEAK Riga, there are many other cities and founders compromised in building more inclusive cities. Take a look at how Mariana is Creating a Community in London or read about the Soulful Action with SPEAK Torres Vedras: Meet Its Founders José, Sara and Fernando.

Author: Ilze

Ilze is based in Riga and has worked in project management in the fields of culture, urban revitalization and civil society engagement. She loves peace and considers dance her “safe space”.

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