Stop wasting time and clean up, was the tenor among those present during the UvA opening of the Week Against Racism. “I had hoped that the board had long been aware of this issue.”
After two hours of sharing experiences of discrimination and exclusion, someone in the room wondered aloud, “Why are we still sitting here? I had hoped that the three of you had been aware of these problems a long time ago. And would have acted accordingly.”
A difficult question for the UvA trio of Peter-Paul Verbeek, Geert ten Dam, and Machiel Keestra – rector magnificus, chairman of the board and central diversity officer, respectively. After all, their main aim Monday evening was to offer a listening ear during the opening of the Week Against Racism as a prelude to a week full of workshops and panel discussions on the theme of discrimination and racism. New action items would then ideally follow, after hearing all the stories.
“There is still discrimination at UvA,” Ten Dam acknowledged. She expressed a desire to know exactly where it occurs and how to remedy it. But that implementation, according to many in De Brug on Roeterseiland, has been too long in coming, a fact that became increasingly clear as the evening progressed.
“Such a cultural change does not have an immediate effect throughout the university,” Ten Dam responded. “After all, the UvA is a decentralized institution. But if there is one domain in which I want it to be a top-down university, it is inclusion and diversity.”
But more time is also needed, Verbeek adds. “How much, then?” asks moderator Dionne Abdoelhafiezkhan, pressuring the rector magnificus. After some hesitation, he mentions a deadline: “Within a month, I will get back to you.” “We'll hold you to that,” Abdoelhafiezkhan replies sternly. “On April 14th, you'll come up with a letter stating what you're going to do with tonight's input.”
That exchange illustrates the tenor of the evening. Listening and engaging in dialogue is good for those present – a mixed crowd of 50 students and staff – but real action is better. Crucial, even, as was evident from the conclusions of the roundtable discussions in which UvA graduates entered into conversation with each other about exclusion and racism.
Incidentally, those conversations were not only about their own experiences but also about those of two anonymous UvA employees whose stories, by word of mouth, were told. “We are now all going to close our eyes for a moment and listen to these stories,” Abdoelhafiezkhan said in announcing the first story about a UvA employee who had to show his ID at the UvA. His colleagues did not, “because they are not people of color.” “Who can recognize themselves in this,” Abdoelhafiezkhan asked. She looked into the room and observed, “Some people of color are raising their hands.”
What actions are on the table after Monday night? Verbeek mentions creating a space where people can listen to each other and mandatory training in which employees learn to recognize implicit biases in themselves. And, says Ten Dam, teaching in a multicultural setting should not be a skill of just a few teachers, but of every teacher.
Finally, Verbeek calls for trust. The board is not a body that students should necessarily be against, he says. “I would never have become a board member if I did not want to listen to my students. Let's try to create a nicer university together.”