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I am fortunate to be part of a cross-sectoral knowledge exchange project at the moment which looks at practices for working with new arrivals and minority populations [1]. We are five partners in total: two theatre companies (one from Britain, one from Italy), a business consultancy based in France, a university in Turkey and the municipal museums in Germany that I represent.

 

This mix of sectors and countries is such an asset. The project is still in its early stages, yet it is already becoming clear that each of us brings a different set of experiences and viewpoints to the table that are both determined by the respective discourses within which we locate ourselves professionally, and also by our native cultures.

 

This may seem an obvious point; and indeed it was for this reason that the partners were chosen [2]. However, the first training week in Turkey has already revealed that this will not be a simple and benign exchange. We may have expected that our different perspectives would just add up to something that the partners individually simply had not thought of yet. Instead, I am beginning to think that this project is as much about challenging each other’s certainties as it is about learning new methods from each other.

 

Take the fact that the German contingent and I didn’t actually attend the Turkey training. This was a decision based on fear: the then-German foreign minister had just warned all Germans not to travel to Turkey. Then I met the Turkish colleagues, and I quickly began to wonder about German media coverage. Yes, there seemed to be an issue. But was it really the kind of issue that they portrayed on German TV? Or was I being manipulated in the same way I was told the Turkish public were being misled?

 

The reports from participants of the training, and our subsequent discussion in the steering committee, also paint a picture of thought patterns clashing. The training was focused on a theoretical foundation for intercultural exchange. It seems that the Turkish colleagues presented a level of cultural categorisation that the other partners were uncomfortable with. Most of us have been striving to transcend cultural classifications and boundaries in our professional practices for years. We are motivated by the desire to see people first, not subjects defined by a supposedly distinct culture that more or less allows us to predict their expectations and behaviours. In other words, what was presented as a theory appears to have seemed, well, wrong, and somewhat outdated.

 

When we looked at this some more, there seemed to be a divide: the EU, or dare I say the ‘European’ partners on one hand, and the Turkish partner on the other. And some of us became uneasy: was it really ‘wrong’ and outdated what the Turkish colleagues had presented, or was this an expression of our own eurocentrism? And what does this mean in a project that looks at new arrivals, many of whom are precisely not from Europe, and therefore likely to arrive here with worldviews and values that may seem just as ‘wrong’ and outdated to us? What will our response be then?

 

Suddenly, the project is about much more than collecting good practices in working with refugees and migrants. The project is also and fundamentally about us. It has the potential to challenge and test the core of our beliefs, and thus develop a truly critical practice. For example, in my view, the discussion about the training in Turkey has already raised questions about the extent of our rejection of an assimilatory approach to the ‘integration’ of new arrivals. Our daily practice may be much more determined by our instinct to persuade someone else of what we think is right. We have already started to discuss democracy in response, and I think this will be a constant as we look at concrete practice for each of our sectors. I fully expect to be surprised and shocked in equal measure. And in all honesty: I can’t wait.

 

 

Notes

 

[1] The project is an Erasmus + experience exchange called ‘The Promised Land’. It builds on the work that three of the partners – myself included – did in 2016 during the EU Voices of Culture Structured Dialogue on the inclusion of refugees and migrants through culture. You can read the report from the dialogue here. During the project, each partner will host the other partners for a week of training. Inbetween, the steering committee meets to review progress and learning, with the aim of collating a booklet of good practice methods working with refugees and migrants.

[2] The lead partner is Border Crossings in the UK, with its ever-passionate director, Michael Walling. It was Michael and his colleague Lucy who initiated the project and approached everyone.

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