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Black Lives Matter, one year later: ‘it’s not a momentum or a trend’

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One year after the first Black Lives Matter protests and UU’s pledge to look for ways to do better, DUB invites Laura Coello, from the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Office, for a conversation with University Council member Lieke Schrijvers, who’s recently co-authored an op-ed asking UU to take more concrete steps against racism. Together, they discuss past and upcoming initiatives, plans for tackling racism at faculty level, and an alternative to the discarded Cultural Barometer: “self-identification is the way to go”.

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Since last year’s statement promising to turn the mirror to itself, UU has held three events discussing matters related to racism and discrimination. “Public events may seem like a superficial effort to some, but behind the scenes, it’s not”, Laura Coello told DUB in February, explaining that the goal is to identify how racism manifests itself at UU: the main issues caused by it and how to address them. Many were dissatisfied with this approach, however, including UU council member and PhD candidate Lieke Schrijvers, who wrote that “very little came to fruition”. She misses a concrete action plan, extra funds for this specific purpose, and a more visible commitment to the cause. Assistant Professor Ozan Ozavci echoed the sentiment by saying the events and lectures were “heartening” but he doubted whether they would suffice.

Coello acknowledges the criticisms – in their conversation, there were several moments in which she and Schrijvers were on the same page – but she notes that one cannot force changes to happen fast. That’s why it’s important to remain vocal and provide information and facilities for initiatives such as the establishment of EDI committees at faculty level and the creation of a student association for African and Caribbean students. After all, these can be the building blocks of gradual, solid change, she says.

Laura Coello, how do you look back at the BLM efforts this past year?
Coello: 
"I’m glad that the group who came together for this theme understood that it wasn’t a moment for the university to promote itself and how much knowledge it has about racism. Instead, it was more important for the UU to ask itself how much it’s really been promoting equal opportunities and combating racism at the UU. We took a step back and said we want to listen and explore how students and employees of colour experience the university. To me, that was a step in the right direction.  

“We tried to 'massage' the start of these talks, so we could go more full force later on. That’s also why we invited people from outside UU for the first events. I talked to around 15 people of colour at the university and most of them did not feel comfortable putting themselves as a target, as a spokesperson. That, in itself, is already telling. Having external speakers allowed individuals to talk more freely and share their concerns.

“We’re now motivating faculties to discuss how racism and discrimination take place there, how students and staff experience discrimination in each faculty. Every faculty – and, to some extent, every department and research group – has its own work culture. We have gathered the initial findings in order to make policies at the general level, but they will not have much impact if people can’t translate them into what’s going on at the faculty and department level. Three faculties are already having their first discussions.”

Schrijvers: “I really appreciate the efforts of the EDI office, but there is a hesitancy to make anti-racism explicit. The claim that anti-racism is implicit in all EDI policy (whilst only mentioned once in the plan) is not convincing. We still miss a concrete action plan and extra funding to counter racism. A general diversity budget had already been established. When the Board published its statement saying that we need more attention to racism, that didn’t come with extra funds. So, basically, more attention to racism means less attention to other diversity issues.

“There are tons of actions that could have been taken, structurally, over the past year. For example, making the decolonisation of the curriculum part of the BKO or SKO trajectory (training programme for teachers, ed.), more anonymous application procedures, making the bias training mandatory for all leadership positions…There have been a lot of missed opportunities and I don’t see the structural change that was promised in the statement a year ago.

“That’s not a critique to you, Laura...”

Coello: “But we’re happy to receive critique! We’re so busy doing the best we can to make UU a more inclusive place, sometimes you just get caught up in what you’re doing. It’s good to get an outsider’s view. Just to give you one example, my colleagues and I were very vocal, during the process of the new BKO, that inclusivity and intercultural education should be a mandatory part of the training, but we don’t have the power to make it so. However, every single faculty has the possibility of making one module mandatory for their faculty. So, it’s not only us. That is why having an EDI Steering Committee is so valuable. Because each faculty is represented. I wish your criticisms could be met with immediate responses, but we are working on many levels,  including some where our influence is limited.”

Schrijvers: “Well, that’s part of the problem. Who has the power and chooses not to be proactive? It’s important that these efforts aren’t only done by dedicated people in the EDI office or grassroots initiatives. If you really want to tackle institutional racism throughout the university, then it should also be felt as the responsibility of the Executive Board and those with the power.”

Coello: “I don’t experience it like that. I see a lot of willingness, also at the highest levels. The Executive Board created the position of the Diversity Dean and asked for the creation of an EDI governance body, comprising the EDI Steering Committee and the EDI Office.”

Laura, you were mentioning upcoming initiatives at faculty level. Can you tell us a bit more about them?

Coello: “Two faculties are already active on the themes of racism and discrimination: social sciences and geosciences. Every single faculty now has a diversity and inclusion committee. Faculties have quite a lot of autonomy, the UU is not a strict, top-down institution – which is why the EDI Steering Committee doesn’t enforce change. But these are some of the things that show change is taking place.

“I also hear that, when EDI faculty committees address the themes of racism and discrimination, the international community often puts other topics on the table that may have exclusionary elements, such as language, culture, and even sexual orientation. However, Lieke does have a point when she says that we should not forget that Black Lives Matter is about people of colour, especially black people, who have been on the backseat for a long, long time.”

Schrijvers: “Yes. Faculties can’t say ‘Look how diverse we are, we have so many international people!’ That is not the same, not all Dutch people are white and not all internationals are people of colour. I’d also like to stress that the efforts shouldn’t only be about addressing the grievances of minorities and accommodating them, it’s important to also do some self-reflecting, be critical about white privilege. I mean, look at who’s in the positions of power. They’re mainly white.”  

Coello: “Exactly. Some faculties might think ‘this isn’t an issue for us, we don’t have people of colour here’. My answer would be: Isn’t that the problem?! Why don’t you have any person of colour? That says something about the procedures, culture or support of your faculty, or the marketing, or the way you’re carrying out your research and education.”

Schrijvers: “I agree. If you’re a white faculty, that doesn’t mean you’re not affected by structures of racism.”

Coello:  “Maybe the faculty is white precisely because of those structures.”

How is the university going to measure the effect of its diversity initiatives? UU has recently pulled out of the diversity barometer, which was supposed to do just that.

Schrijvers: “We, as University Council, are glad that the Board acted upon our strong advise to end the participation in the project. There were multiple problems, but I really missed reflection on the categories and terminology used in the Cultural Barometer project. I was shocked that the diversity dean and office didn’t really reflect on the categories of ‘western’ and ‘non-western’. I’m happy that the Council is going to be involved from now on. I personally think we should have a diversity monitor within our own university in which people would be asked for active permission and we’d work in terms of self-definition. People themselves would state what their ethnic or cultural background is. Letting people self-identify gives them more agency, not to mention it gives UU more insight into their actual experiences.”

Coello: “I didn’t take part in this project. However, I understand that this was the Ministry’s project, so they were using these categories as they have been for decades. It involved five Dutch Universities, including the UU. But I completely support voluntary self-identification. I’ve been working for over ten years in the diversity and inclusion sector and I’ve lived in London, where they’ve been using voluntary self-identification for years. For me, that’s the way forward as it gives individuals choice, agency and the results say more about the lived experiences.”

What about decolonising the curriculum?

Schrijvers: “It should definitely be included in a concrete action plan. We should reflect on what we’re teaching and who we’re teaching. This is the topic people tend to get angry about the most. I wonder why that gets so much backlash, why people take it as a personal attack.”

Coello: “There’s a group at the university in charge of a project called ‘Inclusive curriculum’. They are looking into all aspects of the curriculum and the learning environment in order to make it more inclusive.”

Schrijvers:  “There is already a tool, called Diversity Toolbox, developed a few years ago by anthropology PhD candidates. Whenever a new teacher is hired, you could send an e-mail with a link to this tool.”

Coello:  “The group doing the inclusive curriculum is imbedding this toolbox in it. On Diversity Day, in October, we’re going to have a Q&A session with the makers of the Diversity Toolbox. We’re coordinating this with TAUU, the platform for teachers. In addition, since September 2020, UU has made the unconscious bias training mandatory for at least two individuals who are part of the selection commission for full professors. Few other things are mandatory like that. That’s a big statement. “

Schrijvers: “Yes, things are happening. But it’s also about communication. The risk with mentioning it only on Diversity Day is that you’re preaching to the choir.”

Coello, what are the BLM plans for the coming year?

Coello: “I am looking forward to the sessions at the faculty level, at the Corporate Offices and Library services. Each will hold its own programme to address racism and discrimination, and will inform our policy proposals. If all faculties would have an initial dialogue amongst themselves on discrimination and racism at the end of the year, that would be great.”

Lieke, what are your hopes for the next 12 months?

Lieke: “My contract is about to end, so I’ll be leaving UU soon, but I’m happy that more people seem to get it: there’s more awareness about the issues. The council has extended its rights about the diversity policy, we now have the right of consent to the broad diversity plans, which means that the EDI Steering Committee and the Executive Board need to involve us more. That’s a really good sign. I’m confident that Laura and her colleagues will keep on putting this on the agenda and I hope that the deans, the Executive Board and corporate offices will not see this as a momentum or a trend.”

Laura: “I completely agree. Our biggest challenge is that people will not find the fight against racism important anymore, even though they were vocal and active a year ago. You don’t want people tosay ‘BLM is so 2020!’ Change, real change, takes a long time. Removing Black Pete from the official Sinterklaas festivity took 10 years. People need to be patient, but must of all people need to be truly engaged for the long-run.”

Anti-racism protest at UCU
This Wednesday, June 16, a group called UCU Anti-Racist Action is organising a protest at the UCU Quad at 4:30 pm. The event’s programme comprises six speeches from students of colour, alumni, faculty, and a white ally. Participants are encouraged to wear a mask and take a self-test before coming.

“For things to move forward at UCU, there needs to be pressure applied to make changes”, explains one of the organisers, Morgan Diakite, in an e-mail to DUB. The group has published a list of demands, including an assessment of how many issues identified in the wake of BLM in 2020 have been addressed so far, the inclusion of diversity-related literature as part of UCU’s mandatory curriculum, and diversity training for staff and faculty.

“Our core mission is transforming campus into a more socially just space for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity and its intersecting axes of identity. We take students’ concerns and experiences with racism on campus seriously”, the group says in the document.
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