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LUC Well Being Week: A Panel Discussion on Racism in Times of Corona

In light of the changes made to face to face teaching by Leiden University, LUC student association Fortuna rose to the challenge by coining a virtual Well-Being week and facilitating it online.

‘Well-Being Week 2.0’ consisted of virtual events which were hosted on Microsoft Teams and saw integrated participation from both staff and students. Events included film screenings, competitions, yoga, meditation seminars, discussions including ‘Coping in Isolation’ and ‘Activism in times of Quarantine‘, giveaways, virtual gallery tours, and more.

Racism Related to the Corona Pandemic

The week concluded with a panel discussion organized by LUC Diversity: Race & Ethnicity on ‘Racism Related to the Corona Pandemic’. The panelists included the Dean of LUC Prof. dr. Judi Mesman, Fortuna board member Diva Estanto and First year student Emma Lindner. Co-chairs of Race & Ethnicity Bhakti Madanal and Rumbidzo Dangarembizi led the discussion by highlighting the value in shedding light on the recent wave of racism that has swept over the world in light of the pandemic.

Following this, questions were put to the panelists on how to cope or respond to racist sentiments, how to disseminate myths about the virus that are grounded in racial prejudice or ignorance, why there is a need to use minority groups as a scape goat for the disease and what role privilege plays in this pandemic. The discussion emphasized the polarization that unfolds in society when something scary occurs that threatens people’s sense of security.

Precarious Nature of our Citizenship

Attendees were invited to put forward questions and thoughts or to share their experiences with the panelists and those in attendance. Student Life Officer Lenore Todd was quick to highlight the "precarious nature of our citizenship". She highlighted the incredible shift and rise in hatred towards those who had previously been seen as a "model minority" and urged that the of lessons from this to be directed towards "consciousness raising".

In light of the discourse on racial discrimination that has been raised within LUC, the panel discussion saw attendance by members from all walks of the LUC community. The commitment of LUC in addressing racial discrimination has been illustrated in the active engagement from both staff and students in recent panel discussions, meetings, and solution orientated approach taken by the College Board.

Following the panel discussion on ‘Racism Related to Corona’, Dean of LUC Judi Mesman engaged in a Q&A in order to shed light on the role of LUC in addressing racial discrimination within the community and the institution.

Why do panel discussions like that which took place on racism in times of Corona matter?

 A panel discussion is important to give a platform to students who are affected by this to share their experiences, and to raise awareness in general that a particular group is now the target of racism that was less visible before. The panel discussion made clear that the Corona crisis has brought to the surface prejudice against Asian people that is not new but is now rearing its head and needs to be addressed.

When was the issue of racial discrimination first highlighted to LUC?

 This is a difficult question because I have not been at LUC for its entire existence, but I would assume that experiences with racism have been present from the beginning, simply because LUC is not entirely a bubble, but part of society in which racism unfortunately exists. It would be naïve to think that this only happens ‘out there’ and not within our own College. Of course recently, we have seen a more prominent discussion of these issues in response to several student initiatives. This discussion was long overdue and will continue to take place from now on.

With no face-to-face learning taking place, what is still being done to address racial discrimination and what has been brought to a halt?

 What has been brought to a halt are of course live sessions about racism with staff and students. And because this topic requires careful communication, trying to make major steps via online platforms does not seem wise. That does not mean however that nothing is happening. What is still being done are extensive preparations for next academic year to make sure that issues of racism are addressed regularly and at different levels. This includes – but is not limited to – the development of a webpage with concrete information about these topics and where to go with which questions and concerns, a mandatory program about (racially) inclusive communication for first-year students (as part of a larger first-year project), a workshop on racism for the new RA team, workshops for staff regarding racism, continuation of the decolonizing the curriculum working group, and the appointment of a senior academic staff member with the portfolio of diversity and inclusion.

When will the community see tangible results?

 That depends on how you define results. Results in the sense of concrete activities, most will be implemented next academic year. Results in the sense of reducing experiences of racism at LUC is more difficult to predict, because even with many of these activities in place, it will always be impossible to fully control a community of students and staff that includes about 1,000 individuals, and substantive fundamental change takes time. But the goal is certainly to also see results in terms of less experiences of racial discrimination as we go forward.

The community is often told that developments are unfolding out of sight or behind closed doors. Is the transparency and legibility of this process something that will need to change and if so, how?

 So far, I have communicated in the LUC newsletter about the plans that I also mentioned above. New developments since then have been slower than planned because of the Corona crisis, but as soon as I know more, I will make sure to put it in the newsletter. And new events for students will be forthcoming after summer as well, so that they can continue to have input on the further development of the plans.

All members of the community were invited to come forward and present solutions. What stood out in this process?

 The lack of clarity about modes and channels of communication when a student experiences racial discrimination stood out most for me. This will be one of the key things to clarify on the website page that we are constructing about diversity and inclusion at LUC, as well as creating awareness among staff about how they can respond to these concerns.

What are the challenges faced by the College Board in addressing this?

 The need to proceed carefully and thoughtfully so that actions are well-prepared and well-informed to optimize the chance of success, while at the same time facing calls for immediate actions that I don’t think provide real solutions.

A meeting was held by SLO Lenore Todd for both staff and students to discuss solutions to racism in LUC. The number of staff in attendance was seen as lack of commitment to change in racial discrimination from the academic side. Was the attendance of academic staff reflective of the commitment to institute change?

  As I remember it, this meeting was scheduled rather last minute in the evening during a school holiday, so that many staff were not able to come. Lenore who organized it got many responses from staff who said that they would have liked to attend but could not. It may be good to know that I have chaired three separate meetings with staff on the topic of racism in block 3, and these were not only very well attended, but also clearly brought to light a strong motivation to address this at all levels of the College in a considered and thoughtful manner.

Different segments of the LUC community have responded to this issue in different ways. However, overall there has been a charged emotional response and at times severe criticism to the talks, discussions, and actions taken. How does LUC strike a balance between the outcry of the community with a course of action?

 It is the Institute’s responsibility to translate the community’s concerns into feasible action plans that can produce sustainable results in the longer-term rather than to make empty promises, or take quick token actions that do not actually change the underlying mechanisms that have sparked recent discussions about racism. Taking time to create a shared discourse that staff and students can support is in my view preferable over top-down rules that community members do not understand or do not feel like it applies to them. So the balance is to take the concerns very seriously, but not to be tempted into hasty unproductive actions which would actually be the opposite of taking it seriously.

Article written by Jayne Fitzgerald.

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