…because some thoughts are worth remembering
On Two Things is a Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Project based on the premise that we are all affected by how society categorizes us, and as such, we have our own experiences to share. I have asked people I know to distill their understanding of a particular aspect of D&I into two things.
I, first generation Japanese immigrant, met Sarah Burvill, a UK national, as we were both desperately trying to make sense of both the Danes and Danish in a language school in Aarhus, Denmark. It was well-known to the ex-pat community that getting to know Danes was incredibly hard. The fear of influx of immigration was just hitting Denmark then, and the ex-pat community bonded in the most intense way I’ve ever experienced. As a result, Sarah and I forged a deep friendship which survived my move back to the US. But it was only recently that we started to speak more closely about D&I, as we discovered we shared more interests.
I appreciated her struggle with my first question: “What communities does she identify with?” She loves her day job, teaching performing arts at an international school in Denmark to young minds, but she’s first to admit that jobs don’t have to define the person. “Identity shifts depending on circumstances,” she said: who she is speaking with, and where she is. The lens she brings to our conversation today was that of an outsider: outside of their homeland, an immigrant, people not satisfied with the status quo and trying to make things better, a volunteer, an activist, a musician and artist. It’s this outsider view combined with her background in disability politics that served as a basis for her 2 nuggets of wisdom in politics of inclusion.
Her Two Things
2 THINGS ON POLITICS OF INCLUSION
1. Society makes us disabled/the underrepresented?
I read an interesting article which discussed how someone with a disability should be referred to: disabled or a person with a disability? Do we focus on their identity (the disability) or that they are a person first? (In short, the article recommends asking the person. If unable to do so, pick the practice used by their community.) Because the article mentioned that in general, the US practice NOW is to focus on the person first (person with disability) vs. the disability (the disabled), I was surprised that when Sarah was learning about disability politics (circa 2004), the UK emphasized the disability first. But why? It leads to Sarah’s first point. People who use wheel chairs (I heard them referred to as wheel chair drivers), their inability to walk using their legs or their lack of legs, doesn’t make them disabled. They happen to live in a society designed and optimized for two legged ambulant folks. We could have built gradual slopes everywhere but for the ambulist, the majority, steps are more space-effective than building slopes. We didn’t think to include others in that design.
The shift in perspective is profound. White or lighter shade color associated with good, beauty, the norm. Having attended accredited schools is how we measure your education level. We define ourselves as a norm and what’s different from us is less ideal, or even wrong. One time, I had to correct a native English speaker refer to Japanese books as being printed “backwards” (what we know as the front cover was the back cover of Japanese books), instead of “opposite” of English books.
2. Protect everyone’s rights
Legislation should protect EVERYONE’s rights, and so it should be written as such. If legislation is written enumerating underrepresented groups, it puts focus on the marginalized. Further, enumerating these groups often intentionally or unintentionally discriminate groups that aren’t specifically called out.
I recognize the need to have focus in our constituent base for whatever program we are setting up. Time and time again, I have seen single-dimension diversity group goal (e.g., “help women entrepreneurs”) end up addressing the most privileged of the group (e.g., white educated women of higher social class) and overlook the needs of the group with other underrepresented identities (e.g., race, physical disabilities), inadvertently discriminating against them. If we designed a program that would respect entrepreneurs of all types (vs. optimizing for the young white male), it would naturally help white women but also other women and men who are currently underrepresented in our entrepreneurial ecosystem.
What’s Giving Her Life
Sarah has spent her time off traveling to refugee camps in Greece to help out. The dire conditions of the camps are literally killing the refugees. “How are you able to put real faces to the tragedies and still have hope?” I asked. Working with both the refugee kids she met in Greece and the kids she teaches in Denmark, she said. Playing music and dancing with kids provides a precious bond: to be able to see how much effort they put into their final product, how they actually listen to her feedback to improve (because they really do care and want to put pride in their work). She uses an App called Seesaw so students can record themselves practicing and Sarah can give them individualized feedback. Her experiences in Greece doesn’t stop with her. It’s now incorporated into the kids’ education, where kids engage in storytelling exercises tackling concepts they can understand (like kids sharing shoes) the world we adults no longer seem to comprehend.
If She Had a Magic Wand
Sarah would allow free movement across borders. She is sure that chaos would quickly reach equilibrium.
If you would like to learn more, here are some sources Sarah provided:
Prof. M.J. Oliver of University of Greenwich elaborating the concept on society defining who is disabled who is not in What’s So Wonderful About Walking?
Vic Finkelstein, “To Deny or Not to Deny Disability—What is Disability?”
Home For All is the program through which Sarah serves a refugee camp in Greece. Their ethos is providing home cooked food for free, for refugees. This grass roots movement was founded by an inspirational local couple. https://homeforall.eu/about-us/