By Chief Diversity Officer Anne de Graaf
Two years into this highly politicized job and the level of resistance is shifting. I welcome everybody’s feedback and am using it in constructive ways. On the one hand there are people who see any change, let alone change that concerns diversity equity, and inclusion—as a threat. There are also still many people who need convincing and/or choose to remain ignorant. On the other hand, there are people who have endured discrimination and prejudice while pursuing their studies and careers—they feel frustrated, angry, afraid, and misunderstood—why can’t the CDO make things change faster, they ask. In between is a large group of people who are waiting. They wait to be convinced, wait to see the impact of new policy on the work floor, wait to see what will be asked of them in terms of time, energy, and career choices, and wait to learn. I often find myself acting as a translator. While one group might be fluent in diversity literacy, another group might need new vocabulary, definitions and interpretations of terms and concepts they might be unfamiliar with due to the protection of privilege. This process is about being willing to understand various perspectives.
In the meantime, the UvA continues to change. Conversations and policy shifts that were unthinkable even five years ago are accepted and pursued now. What has also changed is how I view the resistance. I now see it as confirmation that I am doing my job right, as a sign of the very cultural change we strive toward, and as a potential source of advice. It is the nature of cultural change to upset and cause us to reconsider, renew, and rebuild.
This upsetting is part of the process, and it is a process worth trusting. “Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable” is one way of approaching the awkward and emotional conversations that I encourage and train people to conduct, and that are happening more and more often at the UvA. I acknowledge that this process is a privileged one, for only those who do NOT experience racism and discrimination every day are in a position to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Marginalized peoples have to deal with the consequences as lived experiences. And our aim is not only to have and facilitate these conversations, but also to move beyond them and back them up with action. So becoming weary of having the conversations becomes an aim in and of itself. This cultivation of a discourse is an absolutely crucial step in the process of realizing more diversity, equity, and inclusion at our university. Public discourse is a sign of civilization. This is perhaps the most important skill we can learn in our increasingly deeply divided societies: How do we discuss topics with the goal of understanding one another, rather than convincing, and how do we do this with respect? This increases knowledge and sharpens the potential contributions to society our students and university may make.
In some ways we are playing catch up and at the same time, pioneering new territory. The future will reshape the vision within our university so that education, research, and serving society increasingly overlap and support one another. In some areas we have moved far beyond the argument in favor of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is increasingly often no longer a matter of convincing and discussing the benefits of prioritizing intercultural communication skills, working with conflicting perspectives and critical thinking. In many parts of our university this has become a given—in order to better prepare students for the future and provide them with the skills they need to lead and realize their full potential, we have a responsibility to expose them to conflicting perspectives, for example.
At the UvA we are slowly transitioning from the “why” question to “how.” The first two years of the CDO term focused on explaining and raising awareness regarding diversity, equity and inclusion. Raising awareness itself is but a small baby step in the right direction. By itself it has the potential of destroying more than it creates, since people can use the diversity words to check off their so-called diversity requirement and then go back to telling harmful jokes, for example. When the awareness raising is surrounded by a supportive structure, however, then these workshops have tremendous potential to help change mindsets and inform and inspire about a future we all are working toward. That supportive structure is what we’re working on collectively.
With this shift came the crucial conversation about responsibility. When I began this job two years ago the assumption was that I would design and realize new policy. When it became evident that I did not wield the necessary authority to achieve this, awkward and honest conversations took place about roles and responsibility at the UvA. As a result, the Executive Board defined their own responsibility and role, and those of the faculty deans. During 2019 this role and responsibility division put in place at the end of 2018 was practiced and refined. This resulted in a clearer definition of the CDO role, and Executive Board initiatives such as the Diversity Document and the installation of an interim ombudsperson. At the same time a broader conversation was initiated at all levels of the university about individual responsibility, in the classroom and department by department.
What gives me hope is how individuals, both students and staff, are co-creating with the CDO Team as we nurture and grow diversity work at our university. I am immensely grateful to the CDO Team in particular, a small group with passion and drive, intelligence, skills and expertise, who have made a major contribution toward changing the UvA for the better. Although the CDO Team is compensated, it should be noted that the working culture for other students and staff devoted to equity, diversity, and inclusion makes them vulnerable, and they rarely receive compensation. For example, the faculty diversity officers often only have one day in the week to do their work. There is a broader societal reach, yet workers on equity, diversity, and inclusion must learn to set boundaries and care for their mental health. More importantly, we as a university community need to acknowledge the need to compensate people for this work.
For the reasons outlined above, Diversity 2.0, the next phase in equity, diversity, and inclusion work at the UvA, will prioritize Support and Sustainability as we sharpen our focus on Discrimination and Decolonization. Support is important because most of the people working on improving issues of equity, diversity and inclusion receive little or no compensation. Because the subjects are emotional and personal, they can also be draining. Sustainability is necessary in order to embed EDI policies within the university. Discrimination needs to be exposed and perpetrators held accountable so the UvA becomes more inclusive. And the process of Decolonization breaks down barriers and educates about the past so we can better understand the present.
We’re not there yet, but we’re certainly on our way.