Humanity in Action: Educating a New Generation of Socially Engaged Students

by Ashley Chin

Each summer, Humanity in Action -- an international human rights organization aimed at connecting, inspiring and educating young professionals in the fields of human rights, diversity and democracy -- organizes a one-month fellowship with the purpose of making the next generation of potential leaders critically aware of the society they live in. As the program progresses, important societal challenges such as racism, immigration, religion, racism, gender, sexual diversity, and xenophobia will inevitably become part of the discussions.

HiA Fellows, 2015: Students and Young Professionals from the United States, Bosnia, and The Netherlands.

HiA Fellows, 2015: Students and Young Professionals from the United States, Bosnia, and The Netherlands.

I was a participant in the program this past summer, which culminated in an international conference here in The Hague. Having lived, studied and experienced the perks and pitfalls of multiculturalism, I did not expect the fellowship to be as challenging and as intense as it actually was. The days were long: from 9 am till 6 pm we listened to lectures and discussed issues that are all somehow personally related to individual fellows. The lectures were great, but I think I learned most from my fellow participants who all had a different story, a different (educational) background, and most of all, different experiences in life. Naturally, personal affiliations with subjects such as racism, (forced) immigration, religion or gender generate heated and sometimes painful discussions. I think everyone was forced to reflect on one’s own experiences and to perhaps reconsider some of the opinions we’ve held for the biggest parts of our lives. I remember that subjects such as the (contested) existence of white supremacy, the Dutch slavery past, Islamophobia, and questions of refugees were extremely sensitive topics.

Apart from making the fellows more critically aware of these difficult but important social challenges, I think the program also teaches its fellows to learn to listen, to be patient and to be open to opinions that are not one’s own- to learn to talk across difference and to subsequently build up friendships across difference (a lesson that needs to be extended to national societies in general). Mostly, I think the fellowship has helped me finding my own voice in these different debates, and helped me realize the importance of taking up an active role in educating our societies to become more critically aware of themselves. What is our collective self-image and to what extent is this image truthful or accurate? To what extent and in what fields can we praise ourselves, and where do we need to learn to be more critical?

At the end of each summer program, fellows are expected to write a final research report on a topic of their own choosing. Two other fellows and I chose to write on the de facto segregated school system present in The Netherlands -- a subject that my fellow LUC students and I are continuing to discuss in this semester's Community Project course

For over 20 years now, we have classified certain schools in the Netherlands as being “black” or “white”. When one takes a closer look at the bigger picture of underlying and subtle racism in the Dutch society, the use of such classifications can in no way be justified. The purpose of our research paper was to shed more light on the current “black” and “white” schools situation in The Netherlands, and to emphasize its structural implications, psychological consequences and subtle manifestations.  

As part of our research, we spoke with the principals of the Avonturijn and the Catharinaschool in Amsterdam, which launched a campaign this past year to offset falling student enrollment by recruiting "white" students (back) to their schools. We also spoke with teachers from “black” secondary schools in Rotterdam.

English translation of a flyer used by two primary schools in Amsterdam in order to attract more "white" students, and to make their school less "black."

English translation of a flyer used by two primary schools in Amsterdam in order to attract more "white" students, and to make their school less "black."

 

Eventually, during the process of our research, we came to ask ourselves the following questions:

What are the consequences of reinforcing // emphasizing the difference between “black” and “white” students or parents?

What sort of consequences will this have for the children?

Is being discriminatory -- that is, distinguishing between students -- valid when it is done for the purpose of fighting more systematic discrimination?

 

I invite everyone to think critically about their own opinion in these matters. And to ask themselves why these questions matter at all. Most importantly, I think this means we all still need to be educated on societal questions that we often take for granted, overlook or dismiss.

In The Netherlands, of course, Zwarte Piet is one of the most eminent examples of conflicting narratives and self-perceptions. In terms of building up inclusive national identities at a time of increasing diversity in societies, the question of Zwarte Piet remains highly relevant (even if most people are starting to get sick of having the same discussion over and over again). In fact, there have been two grassroots organization in Amsterdam who have taken it upon themselves to constructively address social cohesion through education: Nederland Wordt Beter and the New Urban Collective. Recently they’ve developed lesson plans for primary school pupils addressing Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet, and the Dutch colonial and slavery past.

On Tuesday, October 27 they will be present their lesson plans and host a public discussion at the VU in Amsterdam.  A number of LUC students will be attending, and I hereby invite you to join us!  It’ll be a great way to see how how local organizations have tried to constructively think about more inclusive national identities, and to see what they think should be included in the education of future generations of citizens.

Meanwhile, to learn more about recent discussions about de facto school segregation in the Netherlands, see this article in English, or visit the group Welkom in Mijn Wijk (in Dutch, but with an English summary page).

 

Ashley Chin is a third-year student at Leiden University College, majoring in International Justice.  She is writing her capstone essay on the relationship between international law and domestic struggles around racial justice in the Netherlands.