Creating spaces for meaningful dialogue

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New ISS rector, Professor Ruard Ganzevoort and Scholas vice president, Karen Vargas Perlaza discuss the need for meaningful dialogue in a multicultural environment.

Ruard Ganzevoort and Karen Vargas  Perlaza
Ruard Ganzevoort and Karen Vargas Perlaza

Karen Vargas Perlaza (KVP): Hallo, it’s nice to have you as new rector. I like all the spaces you’re promoting such as the meeting with Scholas and a meet and greet with the students. As we all come from different parts of the world, it's really important for us as students to get to know ISS and settle down.

Ruard Ganzevoort (RG): Thank you. Where are you from?

KVP: Colombia. Have you been there?

RG: Not to Colombia but I lived in Suriname as a child and I have visited Ecuador. I've also visited the Caribbean quite often; places like Aruba and Curaçao. They’re more like a blend between the Spanish and the Dutch.

KVP: Yes, the culture, music, food.

RG: So why did you come to ISS?

KVP: I dreamt of studying in the Netherlands.

RG: OK! That’s not every Colombian girl’s dream.

KVP: Indeed. Once I finished my bachelors, I worked for two years and then came on a European trip last December. When I got to the Netherlands, I felt that the moment was right to continue studying. So I actually found the country and the place before the programme. I started to look around to see what was available. I liked the perspective of diversity that this institute has.

I also checked up on the alumni; where did the alumni end up? What kind of work were they doing? I saw a lot of people working in organizations and in diplomatic circles and that lot of ISS alumni have good positions in government.

And then [I looked at] finances, which is an important part of the decision, of course. And though ISS doesn’t have the lowest fees, it's a good fee compared to other places. ISS also has a special agreement with a scholarship programme that we have in Colombia called Colfuturo. I figured that as I could get Colfuturo financing I was receiving a special discount by coming to ISS. Finance is really important and it’s a common topic of conversation between the students, especially now that the OKP scholarship is changing.

RG: We don't know how, but yes, it's going to change.

KVP: The conversation between students is about what's going to happen, because most of us are here with a scholarship.

‘ISS can’t challenge cultural backgrounds but is it possible to have a neutral point of understanding?’

RG: Yes, that's one of the things we’ll see in the near future – how is it going to play out? What can we do about it? It’s interesting to hear your reasons for coming to ISS. You have your personal dreams, your background, for example, and that's all part of the story. Then there are the practicalities of the finances and the programme and so on. And of course, there's also the issue of content, not only of the educational programme itself but also the values from which it's executed.

KVP: Indeed. For that I got in touch with alumni to better understand what you can learn here, what you can get from ISS. [I wanted] a broad perspective of things.

And so far I’d say it’s true; the values that ISS sells to you, are really what you get. For example, it’s amazing what I’ve learned about intercultural interaction. In Colombia I was working at an intercultural studies centre. For us, intercultural means working with Afro-Colombians, with indigenous populations, farmers and peasants. That’s a different perspective of intercultural. When I came to ISS, I thought I knew how to deal with differences, but here you find another level of interculturalism and that’s been amazing. I hadn’t expected this and have learned a lot about how different cultures and nationalities interact with each other.

RG: It's not only different strands of life as you have those within one country, also in the Netherlands. When you meet with Africans, Europeans, Asians the whole world is on your doorstep.

KVP: That’s true and valuable about ISS. In my country, I never got to know people from non-Western religions, for example. And here they’re classmates so you start to understand the ways of living and morals of other religions.

RG: Yes, I can relate to that. It’s one of the fascinating and enriching elements of ISS; the enormous diversity, both in terms of disciplines, the kind of work [done here], people’s background, personalities, their political views, religion, sexuality, everything. There is this huge variety which is fascinating.

‘ISS is probably one of the best places to learn to deal with difference.’

KVP: It is. I also feel that bringing all that diversity to the same building brings great responsibility. We’ve been dealing with that this year because we sometimes felt that we needed to have certain kinds of conversations that we weren’t having. It's important to talk about tolerance. Discrimination is at all levels because we can all be sensitive to things that are important to us. Someone told us they had experienced food discrimination, for example. And I think that by bringing all these students to one place also brings with it the responsibility of trying to create a safe space for everyone.

RG: I'm new and trying to find my way around, but I have the impression that even though the diversity is huge, we could be better at creating inclusion. We're not there yet. Do we talk about the differences enough? Do we step on each other's toes whether we want to or not? Food is an example, so is alcohol. A religious difference might be another example. Do we really address those differences in a fruitful manner? I'm not yet sure about that.

KVP: That's a really good insight. I feel we were lacking those conversations. We had a course called Collective Prevention of Unwanted Behaviour during which we touched on a lot of broad topics. However, we felt that the course was too long and that we weren’t having important conversations. For this year the course has been shortened but my point is, it can be shorter, it can be longer, but are the students having the important conversations? Because how can it be that by the end of the course, that was six sessions of four hours each, we had never talked about discrimination, for example? In the closing session we gave some feedback and some people said that they still didn’t understand what harassment is or that they felt discriminated against by their classmates, by the institution. How is it that we spent all that time in a classroom and we still don't have an understanding of these main topics? I understand that ISS can’t challenge or change cultural backgrounds because there are cultural understandings of certain roles, for example, but it should be possible to have a neutral point of understanding, of respect for certain things, of what students may consider as harassment, right? To understand limits. Because we all come from different cultures and don't always recognize others’ limits.

RG: Of course, you bring your whole history and your background to the table. I'm not sure there's really a neutral standpoint, but there is a common space where we can meet and that requires respect, openness and so on. But, for example, if one person comes from a culture or a religious background which doesn’t accept sexual diversity and another student belongs to the LGBTQ community, somehow they have to meet. And that's not a neutral space because one person's existence is a struggle for the other person. And neither of them can be expected to neutralize that.

If we can’t live together in this small space of ISS, if we can’t learn together here, then where can we learn this? Of all places, this is probably the best option we have of living together, of enjoying our work together. So if we can’t learn to deal with those differences here in a fruitful manner, we’re probably not going to learn it anywhere else. That's why I said it's not neutral because you can’t just expect the trans person or the lesbian or gay to approach you neutrally and say, ‘Hey, this is who I am’. And someone who has moral objections to that can also not be expected to just be neutral about it. That's where the conversation should start. And that can be a painful one at times.

Ruard Ganzevoort and Karen Vargas
Ruard Ganzevoort and Karen Vargas

KVP: Yes, it’s difficult. I’ve seen different kinds of reactions from my classmates. I have classmates who are really closed to sexual diversity and make homophobic comments when we’re in small groups. I’ve also seen them relating to people who have different identities, talking with them and never making their disapproval public. But I’ve also seen more direct expressions of disagreement to other identities. I find the second reaction problematic, yet they’re the kinds of expressions that are happening in the institute. We’re all individuals and free, but if this is happening in the institute there must also be a space for resolution.

RG: What I find even more troubling is if people who have these opinions keep them to themselves. They don't talk about them or they hide them and maybe talk behind someone's back. I don't have a problem with people who have objections to homosexuality and I don't have a problem with people who are gay. But if we are a community, then we have to learn to make that connection and try to understand what it means to come from where you're coming from, to live with the morals that you have and the opinions that you have. And perhaps that's where a dialogue really starts. A real dialogue doesn’t start between friends; a real dialogue starts with opposing views when you have a real issue with one another. The first step is to at least try to understand each other. I'm not asking you to change your opinion and you shouldn’t ask me to change my identity. That's just not going to happen.

KVP: Yeah, that's not going to happen.

RG: But can I understand you? Can you understand me? And for me, that dialogue is one of the crucial issues. This is just one example. The discussion can be about war and peace, it can be about a conflict, it can be about the use of drugs which is very liberal in the Netherlands whereas other countries are very repressive. All these topics require the hard work of dialogue. And if we don't learn to do that, then we are somehow missing the point of being here.

KVP: I agree. I think the institute has tried to create a structure for these spaces, but something has happened in the process so the spaces for dialogue don’t always exist or aren’t facilitated. For example, as students we said that we needed to talk about masculinities because we were having problematic discussions. The answer was that such a discussion had already been had. And when we asked to talk about feminism the answer was again that the institute had already had that discussion. But the actions are not taken in the present. It was the same when we asked why the institute isn’t more explicit about harassment; the answer was that ISS has already taken a stand against that. But we think it's important for these conversations to be taken seriously. Again and again. With a new rector and a new person in the Welfare Office, maybe now is the best moment to start afresh.

‘We need to learn to ask questions rather than take positions.’

RG: This kind of dialogue and the topics you mentioned are, I think, relevant. These kinds of dialogues are not just a one-time thing but a continuous process of learning how to dialogue. And every year we have a new batch of students and in that sense we have to start all over again. Moreover, I'm not sure it's only students. If we as staff don't build that dialogical culture for the whole of ISS then we can’t expect students to do it. So it's much more about an attitude. In my last job I was, among other things, the chief diversity officer. Whenever I heard about a conflict or tension I would say, ‘Let's have coffee. And let's talk and let's try to understand each other’. That could be around political issues or between Jewish and Palestinian students. If people aren’t yet ready to meet each other, we should at least hear what's important to them and then see whether we can work towards a dialogue. I'm quite passionate about the need to do that. Especially in a world that is polarizing and where conversations end up in a clash rather than in understanding.

KVP: And do you have ideas about how you can promote these dialogues at ISS?

RG: I think the forms can be manifold; from interviews on our podcast, DevISSues or blogs, to meetings, to elements in our classrooms and so on. We just have to do it. In a sense, it's not that difficult. It's just the willingness to say, ‘Hey, tell me more about it. How does that work for you?’ Rather than saying, ‘Let's have a debate and let's fight each other with arguments and see who wins’. The attitude in a debate is the opposite of the attitude in a dialogue. We need to learn to ask questions rather than take positions. It’s just a matter of practicing.

KVP: I hope that’ll be possible because as rector you also have a lot of other responsibilities.

RG: I have many different tasks, of course, but one of the things we have to do is build this dialogical culture because that's where we really meet. And if we succeed in this, then people won’t be talking behind each other's back, which would make the rest of our work easier. If we succeed in this, then we are adding or maybe highlighting an element of our teaching that will be something that you take home and that will help you for the rest of your life.

KVP: That would be really valuable because then it's not just a matter of spending one year sharing space with people of other cultures, but it's getting to that point of understanding the position of others. And when I hear you say it's more about the intention to create this dialogue, then I feel a bit disappointed to be leaving soon because I haven't seen that intention here so far. I think this is necessary because there are many other topics, harassment for example, to deal with. It's a very delicate discussion and there’s a lot of involvement at all levels of the institute.

‘…that could be a good starting point: to regularly train some students to promote dialogue.’

RG: I understand your disappointment because it can’t only be an intention. There also has to be concrete action. There are many different things that you could do. Interviews, for example, or explaining how we do things, adding these discussions to our classes, or as practices, as things that you can do and act upon. It also sometimes works best to use the ‘hot moments’, so to speak, when something happens to say, okay, now we have to talk about it. So if, as Scholas, you say we have to talk about masculinity, let's talk about it. In my scientific work I also have some ideas about why that would be important, how we could deal with that. And then the discussion is taking place at the moment that it’s relevant and people feel the urgency of it.

Issues of safety and harassment are clearly linked to dialogue. It asks for a clear stance that people should be safe here. And that doesn’t mean that as a rector or as staff, as an institute, we can protect everybody. We try, but we’re not in a position to ensure that nothing will ever happen. People respond to each other. People sometimes act badly towards each other. ISS can take responsibility for responding to that, we can take responsibility for prevention. There's a lot we can do. But it doesn’t mean that we’ll necessarily be successful in preventing everything. That’s part of the struggle that we also have as a responsible authority.

KVP: That's really difficult, right? Because we’re all individuals. We have our own agency to decide what we want to do. But I think there’s opportunity to work on that as an institute. Actually, the point of the dialogue is towards the other, to accompany them in the process, to teach them where the limit is. Often, people may not fully understand each other's positions, boundaries and cultural norms. In my experience, a lack of shared and understood boundaries has led to uncomfortable situations that can impact our personal relationships as classmates.

RG: So we need balance, some boundaries.

KVP: Yes, some boundaries. If ISS brings lots of people together in one place it should also point out what is problematic behaviour.

RG: You’re right. I'm not trying to step back and say this isn’t our issue. What we can do and should do - and I'm sure some of this is already in place - is to be clear about some ground rules about how we engage with one another. What we can do and should do is respond when there's an issue and not look away. What we can do and should do is create awareness among students and staff about how to deal with unwanted behaviour. Of course, all this can be done and still there will be cases in which people misbehave towards one another.

'...we also need to have a cultural interaction and new understanding from other cultures and perspectives.'

work, we would like to know. Not because we can solve everything, but we can at least try to make the environment as safe as we can. I think that's also where the dialogue comes in again. For example, if someone calls me repeatedly at seven in the morning, I’d tell them not to do that, but that is not enough.

KVP: Exactly, it’s not clear what’s wrong.

RG: What would help me would be if I realised that if someone normally wakes at five, then seven is a reasonable time. But if they wake up at seven thirty, then seven is too early. So we may be starting out from different places. And at least understanding that would make it a lot easier to follow the house rules. That's again where dialogue comes in – ‘Why does it bother you that I call you at seven?’ And then you can explain and have a dialogue.

KVP: Yeah.

RG: But culture is one of the most difficult things to change. And, at the same time, we are an institute of social studies. We’re looking at structure, governance, economics and so on. It's all there. But social studies also includes the cultural dimension, the soft side.

KVP: And that's what I find a pity; that a lot of us are ending our time here and there’s still a lot of hate. How is it possible that we have been here for over a year and I still have classmates who say that they’re not going to talk to others based on a cultural judgment. Then I wonder, what have we learned in our one year and a half, during which we’ve been together at parties, in classes, having discussions, drinking coffee, if we still can’t have a different perspective from someone who comes from the other side of the world? Clearly we can’t just learn from books here; we also need to have a cultural interaction and new understanding from other cultures and perspectives. It’s a challenge to have more of these kinds of discussions. I’m just sharing with you some of the things I’ve experienced. You’re new in your position so I think it’s good to know what kinds of discussions are important to the students.

RG: I think these are very important insights and I’d be very happy to hear, now or in the future, any suggestions you might have on what we can do concretely. That’s what we’re looking for. How can we change the tendency of either getting into a conflict or into avoidance, as neither approach is particularly fruitful. How can we find that dialogical middle way? I'm still looking for the holy grail of dialogue. I don't know how to do it yet.

KVP: I don't know either but it's good to talk about it. It's good to train everyone. For example, we heard that years ago a group of students volunteered to have some kind of training about how to promote safe spaces at ISS. This was an initiative led by the institution. We think it’s important that Scholas, for example, receives that kind of training and has that kind of knowledge. We received all kinds of cases from students and sometimes we simply didn’t know what to do because we hadn’t received any special training. Our reactions were therefore not always ideal. We weren’t trained to deal with such complaints. That could be a good starting point: to train some students to have these conversations to promote dialogue.

RG: That sounds like a good idea. There are definitely things we can do. But it's not a foolproof recipe that will work for everything. But we can take steps.

KVP: And I understand that it's difficult because each year there are new students who need the same information to get into the picture of what's happening here. We’re only here for 15 months which is a really short time. So it’s a challenge.

RG: That's definitely true. But our staff stays here a bit longer and I'm also intending to stay longer. So, we’ll work on it. Thanks Karen.

KVP: Thank you!