30 January 2018 • Gideon Wille
‘OK, people are going to say stupid things’
Who are you? What’s your story? For Aminata Cairo, head of the Inclusive Education Research Group, sharing stories is the starting point in the commitment to inclusivity. Cairo shared her own story during her inaugural lecture. Accompanied by singing and dancing, it was a gezellig affair, although Cairo has her own way of using this innately Dutch term (typically translated as ‘cosy’, ‘friendly’, ‘inviting’, ‘fun’, etc.).
‘I was given free rein to do it my way, and that’s exactly what I did,’ said Cairo in looking back on her inaugural speech in which singing and dancing made it totally unique. ‘My background includes certain traditions that I wanted to present; I need these traditions and history to do my work.’
Listening to each other’s story is important. But what exactly does Cairo mean by ‘stories’? ‘In this case, I’m talking about people. Each of us carries around stories about how we were raised, who our parents were, and, therefore, how we view the world. Education is based on a single story, not on all the various stories that we hear from individuals. But if things aren’t presented to me from my own perspective, it’s hard for me to understand them.’
The story about parents and upbringing is also the story of the community in which a person was raised. Cairo: ‘It always starts and ends with the community. Our school’s approach used to be aimed at the individual. But a student entering our school is an extension of a community – someone with ties to parents, brothers, sisters, the neighbourhood. This has an impact on students and still exerts a pull on them.’
Struggle for survival
Cairo explained how this affects students. ‘I can tell a student that he has to attend class, but what if his mother has told him to look after his little sister? If you’re Dutch, this makes no sense at all: these students are at least 18 and adults and they can each take care of themselves. But what I’m saying is: look at the real situation. Students in their position are involved in a struggle for survival at school. I know for sure that their parents also want their children to be successful. If you ask the parents what academic success means to them, they might not understand this but an aunt would. This would mean getting her involved because she could then talk to the parents.’
‘You should involve the community in what the children from that community are doing at the university of applied sciences. Let’s work together in supporting students to achieve instead of always telling them that they have to find out everything for themselves. We often have no idea of how children are affected by their community and what is expected of them.’
The research group
While other research groups don’t focus specifically on acquiring knowledge useful for THUAS, the Inclusive Education Research Group also includes the goal of arriving at better knowledge (and recommendations) for our own university of applied sciences – in this case, inclusivity. For Cairo, this goal doesn’t mean developing new interventions. Cairo believes that we already possess enough knowledge and wants instead to take a closer look at existing interventions.
Cairo wants to support departments in their own initiatives and to examine the systematic blockages that are hindering these beneficial initiatives. ‘We’ve looked at the surface for a long time – at what students and/or lecturers should be doing differently. This is important, but as long as you don’t take on the underlying system, you can’t introduce any in-depth, long-term change.’
The system involves everyone on campus, both students and lecturers. Cairo: ‘If a lecturer feels insecure, you can’t expect her to promote a feeling of security in the classroom. If the support staff don’t feel appreciated, this will be reflected in how they support lecturers. We’re all interconnected.’
Changing the system
Cairo uses the PowerHouse community – an intervention for long-term students, as an example. ‘What have we learned from this about the system? When lecturers see long-term students coming in, their automatic reaction is, “uh oh, extra work for me”. When students notice this reaction, it creates a barrier. The idea that it’s more work is true. At a certain point, the student is kicked out of the system. That means extra work for a lecturer, but it wasn’t the student’s fault. It was the result of unnecessarily creating a negative situation. The solution is to see if you can change the system.’
An important concept in Cairo’s philosophy is ‘the blues aesthetic’. Cairo: ‘This is the idea that you have to get through the pain – and not be afraid to express your experience – to reach your goal. This goes against everything espoused by our own culture. Dutch people suffer in silence; they don’t like to see anyone displaying emotions in public. Expressing discomfort is often punished by hearing “you’re a victim”: a remark that quickly ends any further discussion.’
‘I realise that a discussion about diversity can be difficult – that it isn’t fun (gezellig) – but I still say we should engage in it. Because it isn’t fun, we avoid this discussion. We’re afraid of the feelings it evokes. But these emotions should be aired because they are painful. If I’m allowed to express them, this doesn’t mean that I’m attacking you or trying to make you feel guilty. It’s not about blame but simply about naming the problem in order to learn about it.
Engaging in the discussion
‘We have to become aware of the language we’re using and how this can sometimes keep us from actually engaging in this discussion. If we can’t even engage in the discussion, we won’t be successful in conducting long-term interventions.’ To teach everyone at THUAS how to engage in these discussions, Cairo’s research group is developing a workshop – the inclusivity toolkit – which has already been run as a pilot project.
Freedom to make mistakes
‘Ultimately, what it’s about is involving everyone in the issue of inclusivity and holding others accountable. This also means that we’ll be making mistakes. As lecturers, we’re sometimes afraid of this even though we tell our students that they’re allowed to make mistakes. Be a bit more forgiving. OK, people are going to say stupid things. It happens. Forgive and move on. It’s important that we give each other the freedom to make mistakes.’
Aminata Cairo: ‘A discussion about diversity can be difficult.’