An open dialogue on diversity and inclusion
'If you feel like you belong here at school, you'll feel like you belong in the world'
Inholland is an institution where everyone should be able to feel at home, where diversity is encouraged and we make the most of every individual's talents. We see diversity as a strength. Unfortunately, these ideas aren't necessarily universally accepted outside of the university. We are currently seeing an urgent call for change, both around the world and here in the Netherlands. We recognise the importance of this transformation, and organised an open dialogue on the issue on Tuesday, 23 June. What do our students and staff need to feel at home at Inholland? When can an institution claim to be truly inclusive, and what steps will this require in our case?
Naturally, we organised the debate session online. Nahied Rezwani, Rotterdam branch director and Business, Finance and Law faculty director, professor of Diversity Issues Machteld de Jong, a Social Work student at Inholland The Hague* and Communication student and diversity and equal opportunities ambassador at Inholland Rotterdam Thom Maasdam took part in the panel and discussed the issues on the basis of their specific expertise and experiences. Journalist and moderator Baghram Sadeghi kicked off the debate by emphasising some preconditions: the panellists were expected to listen to one another, remain open to each other's experiences and refrain from being judgemental.
Deviating from the norm
Our Social Work student kicked off the debate by sharing his personal experiences with racism and discrimination. 'When I'm riding my scooter with nice clothes on, the police regularly pull me over and ask whether those are really my belongings', he explains. 'In other cases, people are surprised I'm well-mannered and well-spoken. For example, they told me that at my work placement company'. As Machteld confirms, these experiences aren't uncommon. 'For example, we see a lot of these incidents when students start looking for a work placement, such as students that wear a headscarf or come from a migrant background are already too different from these companies' regular employees, which makes things difficult.' So how do those comments affect you and how do you deal with them? Our student mainly feels exhausted by it all: 'I've heard those comments so often, I just can't always find the energy to start the dialogue. I used to try, but I noticed that people would hold on to the stereotypes they'd always clung to. I can't really change all that on my own.'
Faculty director Nahied Rezwani emigrated to the Netherlands from Iran in the 90s. 'I also get plenty of comments about my background. For example, I remember visiting our neighbours for coffee when we first arrived in the Netherlands. We were about to sit down, and they asked whether we knew how. Our neighbours thought Iran was an incredibly backwards country and assumed we'd never seen a couch before. There are plenty of other examples, but I tend to ascribe those comments to ignorance. If I just assume they don't know any better, it's easier to start the conversation and end up at a place where you can treat each other as equals. I also tend to assume no one wants to purposely insult me or hurt my feelings', Nahied explains.
Exploring our common ground
espite his experiences with racism and discrimination, our Social Work student does feel at home at Inholland. 'That's because I can turn to anyone for help if I need it here. I'm not treated like a number, all the lecturers know my name and greet me when we meet in the hallway. That's really special, and it makes me feel good about being here.' As a staff member, Machteld also feels at home at Inholland. As she explains, she made a conscious decision to work here: 'I can be myself here, I get to do things I enjoy, and I'm appreciated for who I am. That's important for everyone. If you feel like you belong here at school, you'll feel like you belong in the world. As a staff member, I try to create the right preconditions to help people feel at home here. In addition to a lot of personal interaction, that involves being visible and sharing my life story. I focus on building connections. Examining our similarities and shared values is far more effective than constantly focusing on the differences.'
Machteld adds: 'Diversity is like being invited to the party. Inclusion means you also get to dance with everyone. Many people mistakenly think you get to say whatever you want just because you got invited. That's not true; you also need to be respectful of others and work together to create a safe environment.' Nahied agrees: 'For me, inclusiveness is all about being open and sharing your experiences. You learn from that. You shouldn't feel like you have to walk on eggshells all the time, or can't make jokes anymore. You just need to ask each other questions: Why did you say that? What do you mean by that? That way, we can maintain an open dialogue and avoid miscommunication.' The idea of creating space for everyone's voices and stories sounds great, but what sort of concrete measures is Inholland actually taking? Machteld: 'We signed the Diversity Charter. In order to feel at home somewhere, you also need to see yourself represented at every level. That's why it's so important that our workforce reflects our student population. That's one of the goals in our charter we're currently working towards.'
As ambassador for Diversity and equal opportunities, Thom also organises various activities throughout the year: 'Unfortunately, you do still tend to get stuck pigeonholing people. For example, I'm personally a Christian, but I'm also gay. Those two worlds can still be pretty far apart at times. As an ambassador, I should be trying to bridge that gap. Organising an event for the LHBTIQ+ community or raising the rainbow flag on Coming Out Day can be personally challenging. I understand the rainbow flag is meant to make the LHBTIQ+ community feel welcome at Inholland, but sometimes I can't help thinking: 'why don't we just raise an Inholland flag? We want everyone to feel at home here, don't we? I suppose we're not quite there yet, but maybe we will be one day.'
*This student would prefer to remain anonymous. The editorial staff is aware of their identity.
This dialogue session on diversity and inclusion was the first in a multi-part series. We will be picking up the sessions after the summer holidays. Further reading:
- The Diversity Issues research focus area conducts applied research in aid of knowledge development and dissemination. The team headed by professor De Jong is currently examining Inholland's teaching processes in order to identify diversity-related opportunities and challenges and support our degree programmes' efforts to develop effective diversity policies.
- So how can educational institutions make the most of their diversity? Our professors Guido Walraven, Machteld de Jong, Femke Kaulingfreks, Joke Hermes, Jeroen Onstenk and four of their researchers are addressing this question as a part of their ‘The Power of Diversity’ research project.
- Each year, we organise at least four Community of Practice events with inspiring and appealing guest speakers from the professional field. In this case, the professional field should be taken to mean our diverse society, with an emphasis on education. All guest speakers are actively involved in the issues of diversity and inclusion.