“I’m honoured to be asked for this interview but I also feel a bit awkward. What are my talents? I have a talent for shaking things up, but I know so many people who are trying to change the world. They don’t make a big fuss about it, but rather they work in the background on diversity and inclusion (D&I). But it’s just like in research: the same people are always asked. They’re regarded as talented, have to always appear in the limelight and, consequently, have less time to spend on their talent and passion.”
Wageningen University & Research is committed to inclusion, diversity and equal opportunities because we are convinced that this contributes to better research and better teaching. Percy Cicilia Jr., the project leader of DARE, the project that highlights and deals with racism and discrimination in our organisation and on our campus, responds in this interview to questions about diversity and inclusion.
DARE isn’t an official acronym. But if we specify what we stand for, it’s Decolonisation, Anti-Racism, Anti-Discrimination, Equity and Equal Chances. So it’s logical that we shorten this to DARE. Also because we dare to discuss these subjects and dare to examine our blind spots. DARE is part of diversity and inclusion (D&I) because here we try specifically to address those who fall by the wayside and feel excluded. WUR isn’t just about working and studying; the experience should be a good one, and our goal is to make sure that everyone feels welcome and included. Exclusion isn’t always conscious, and we need to be daring to continue to meet this challenge. So in a broader sense DARE is a focused intervision on a certain topic within D&I, and our goal is a culture change.
Within WUR it is important to bundle initiatives. In close cooperation with Eva Siebelink (Manager D&I) we are looking at where we can strengthen the forces between D&I for employees, students and DARE. We also see that within many departments or groups D&I is taken up. Eva and I then look together at whether it fits more with DARE, more with D&I, or whether we recommend something else to take another step in the right direction.
Is there a contact point for discrimination and racism as promised by Arthur Mol in this interview about the DARE project?
A physical contact point is in the planning but not yet realised. However, you can make a report via your confidential counsellor.
Can you be 100% yourself at WUR and did you feel welcome on campus?
Definitely not when I began studying International Development here 12 years ago. Partly because of that feeling, I was involved in re-establishing the International Student Organisation Wageningen (ISOW). For the past 1.5 years I’ve been the DARE project leader at HR, and now I have the feeling that I can be myself. Perhaps even more so that I can be an example and help others. That change is primarily due to my age and experience, but also to the changed world and media scene.
English has two words for feeling welcome: welcoming (you feel welcome) and belonging (you feel included). For the past 1.5 years, I’ve felt that I belong and that I’m accepted for who I am. I feel connected to diverse worlds; I’m Afro-American but also a Dutch-speaking Antillean. I speak fluent Dutch, English, Papiamento and Spanish. I’m also queer and polyamorous. I can’t be put into a pigeonhole, but of course it’s bizarre to think in terms of pigeonholes. I’ve never been truly at home and have always been in between. This is why I look differently at the people around me and wonder why they act like they do.
Speaking of feeling welcome and behaviour, people initially address me in English (because of my dark skin?) even though I speak fluent Dutch. And I always answer them in Dutch. And I’m also asked whether I’m lost or what I’m doing here, or people don’t recognise me even though I’ve worked here for so long and I’m active in the library and the municipal council in Wageningen. I shouldn’t have to justify why I’m here all the time. No Dutch person has to do that. Instead of the rude question ‘What are you doing here?’, it would be better to ask a stranger ‘May I help you?’. That’s truly inclusive.
Another illustrative example: During an HR meeting held in Dutch, someone asked me after an hour and a half if I’d understood everything. Why? Because I’m the only dark-skinned person in the room? Because I’m the only foreigner in the room? Because I’m often the only man in the room if the meeting is about D&I? You have to agree in advance about which language everyone at the meeting understands.
Speaking English is challenging for many Dutch people. So it’s actually good to speak English together because then you get an idea of how it feels to be different. I think that’s important. You can share experiences, but experiencing exclusion is just as clarifying. For example, experiencing the feeling that you’re overdressed or you’re the only Dutch speaker at a party.
Can you compare the situation at WUR with that at your former employer?
I’ve worked a lot in sales, for example in the telecom sector. Not many women work in the shops but many nationalities do. So there’s diversity, but the (quite often) young employees can’t really advance or can do so only slowly. And then you’re not young enough anymore. In this case, it’s about the structure of the company. At the main office you saw a lot of women (not always in managerial positions, but that’s another subject) but fewer nationalities. In the Netherlands many highly educated women work and they often have opportunities to advance. At WUR we have the Tenure Track programme for this, but you nevertheless see fewer women than men in the highest positions. There’s a ceiling.
Are you an advocate of positive discrimination?
The term ‘positive discrimination’ is a bad translation of an English expression that has become common here. Discrimination is an expression of long-term imbalances of power and unequal treatment; there’s no positive approach to that. I prefer to speak of positive action in response to discrimination. So if it’s proven that women are paid less for comparable work (the gender pay gap), positive action has to be taken in order to catch up.
Yes, I definitely favour setting preconditions or giving people advantages. I support equity whether or not by quota. If there is equality then things are in balance. But to achieve that if there are already very unequal relationships, you first have to give people a chance to catch up. It would be wonderful if you could immediately get the relationships balanced, but that almost never happens. So I think you have to focus on what has gone wrong. And it’s been proven that a positive approach works with regard to differences in balances of power and in economic differences, and I think it can also work to achieve the equal treatment of people.
What issues about Diversity and Inclusion did you notice when you began working at WUR?
There’s a lot of talk at WUR about D&I, but we’re not inclusive. Everyone is welcome, but that’s not enough; you also have to be heard, feel welcome, feel respected and recognise yourself. More than diversity, inclusion is an emotional issue. I’m often the only man or dark-skinned man at meetings. I’m also aware of how isolated everyone works here. Even HR doesn’t precisely know what’s happening elsewhere in the organisation. I try to go to other buildings frequently and talk to people there. That will certainly help, but it’s going to take a long time before we are truly inclusive. So I think more efforts should be focused on these issues.
What can we do to exclude people less?
My credo is to search for ways of taking others along. Ask what someone else thinks is important. Don’t wait, but be proactive. But then you have to do something with what you’ve learned, change your behaviour for example.
In the academic world and in the Western world, we read a book about something and then we ask someone if he or she has also had the same experience. But I think it’s better to first experience something like exclusion. Academics are good at asking questions, right? So do that in your work surroundings as well without hurting anyone.
WUR’s view is that it makes no difference who you love, which language you speak, where you were born or what you believe. What’s your experience?
This is absolutely not so. We want to reflect this attitude, but we’re certainly not there yet. There are linguistic moments in which you say what you are and moments in which you say what you want to become. We’re trying to achieve something, but we’re certainly not (yet) there.
For example, if you’re in an international setting and the foreigners leave the room, then people often suggest simply switching back to Dutch. That feels safe for some. This also shows that speaking another language isn’t fine. But what does the foreigner do all day? Thinking that we’re diverse and inclusive is a pitfall. It’s about what we actually do to achieve D&I. What are the standards that WUR wants to meet? They exist, but no one checks to see if people throughout WUR apply them.
Do you have the idea that diversity is already the reality?
There are many nationalities at WUR, and there is horizontal diversity. What I mean by this is that the higher you go in the organisation (vertical), the less diverse the groups become. But WUR isn’t yet inclusive enough. If we really want to be inclusive, this means that we do not accept exclusion! That we stand up and take action if we see or experience something despite the political consequences.
How could WUR do more about this?
Good that you asked that. What can we do to enhance inclusion at WUR? Do you have a while? For example:
- More focus on diversity during job application procedures. That happens now, but WUR/HR can watch this more closely and make adjustments.
- Quota, so set minima for certain groups.
- Equal treatment. I don’t only mean with regard to pay but with regard to everything.
- Talk about diversity or make it an issue at prominent places.
- ‘Leading by example’, so being constantly alert about diversity in all its forms. Set a good example and this will enable you to learn from one another.
Does everyone at WUR have equal opportunities and career opportunities? How do you think we can reduce unequal opportunity?
In order to have equal opportunities, you have to have the capability to do the same thing. And you need the experience to overcome any resistance. So that’s asking a lot of someone who, in principle, can do the same but who doesn’t get the same chances. We talk about systematic inequality if there are certain factors in a company that lead to people with the same capacities not getting the same opportunities. Loads of sociology books have already been written about this.
If you look at WUR you see very little ‘colour’ at the top and salaries differ widely between departments and groups but also within a group. I know of cases in which there are discrepancies of 2 to 3 pay scales in the same team. Is that because of skin colour, nationality, gender? We at DARE have to tackle this. How can you show that there is discrimination? That isn’t easy and is a question of long-term action.
How is talent dealt with?
Talent alone isn’t enough. A good example is the monarchy. It’s assumed that the first-born child has talent to succeed to the throne even though that doesn’t have to be the case. If you extend that to the academic world you see that people we regard as talented can attract new talented people, but they sometimes have a blind spot and choose from their trusted pool of talent: people from the First World, English-speaking and hetero to give just a few examples. That’s segregation and must be avoided.
Basing choices on talent isn’t sufficient. I think that it’s a bad idea to choose people on the basis of type. Because someone is well known or talented says nothing about how they function in a group, what they contribute or how they’ll work. And background, nationality or gender says nothing about their capacities. Tip: look at someone as an individual, ask questions and if you notice that you’re making an assumption then ask yourself why that’s more often negative in certain situations, whether it’s based on your own experiences or on certain stereotypes.
How do you remain inspired and motivated in your work? Where do you get your energy?
I’ve always been interested in what drives people. That’s the source of my own motivation, I see the pain caused by exclusion. That inspires me. And especially now after corona we have to start to work again on D&I. It’s actually very simple. If someone treats you respectfully, then you feel that you’ve been seen. That’s true for everyone.
When I look towards the future, I think that we as WUR and as a society have to take bigger steps. That also motivates me. I don’t want us to regress to how things used to be. I don’t want that for myself but also not for my friends and my family. Fortunately, there are increasingly more (DARE!) initiatives at WUR. Things that two years ago (prior to corona) seemed impossible. For example, chair groups who themselves contact DARE for training sessions about awareness and prejudices and who ask us to give workshops. That’s fantastic.
What are your plans for 10 years from now? Do you think you’ll still be working at WUR?
I hope to remain active as the DARE project leader at WUR for the next one and a half years. And I want to learn more about D&I and gain expertise about understanding one another and each other’s blind spots. I also want to develop my skills as a multilinguistic reading consultant. And for the next 4 years I’m a GroenLinks member of the municipal council. So I’ll certainly be in Wageningen for a while. And I’ll meanwhile continue to stress the importance of D&I. We need people who are willing and able to do the preliminary work and who can keep at it. Evidently, I can do that. This isn’t a utopia for me. I sincerely believe that everyone’s ideas are equally valuable and that everyone is entitled to equal treatment. That belief isn’t just a button that you can turn off.