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Diversity officer Aya Ezawa on George Floyd and racism: ‘this is a time for reflection’

The death of George Floyd has led to fierce protests against police violence in the United States and beyond. What effects are we seeing in our University community? We discussed the situation with Diversity Officer Aya Ezawa.

What have the past few weeks been like for you?

‘As Diversity Officer, I spend a lot of my time talking to teachers and students. Those talks have shown me just how much impact the death of George Floyd has had, including on the Leiden University community. For a lot of people it’s just another news item, but imagine what it must be like if you identify with George Floyd.  What kind of effect will that have on your sense of security? And how does it change your view of society? This really is a time for reflection.’

The protests started with police brutality in the United States. So, what does that have to do with a Dutch university?  

‘It may well have been sparked off by a single incident, but that proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Now, the protests aren’t only about excessive police brutality but about everyday racism and structural inequality in society. African Americans, for example, appear to be more susceptible to coronavirus; this makes the social inequality and consequences of racism in society much more visible. Leiden University is also a community. We should be questioning whether everyone here feels safe, that they belong and that their voices are heard.’

What can we do for students and staff who don’t feel safe at Leiden University?

‘The most important thing is to listen. Be open to differences in experiences and perceptions, and try to put off forming an opinion. This is a time to talk to one another and to recognise the pain and the inequality that is now playing out in front of our eyes. Everyone has a role to play here and everyone can make a contribution.’

What about the Executive Board?

‘Our Vice-Rector Hester Bijl [who is responsible for diversity, Ed.) has made sure that ethnic diversity has been on the agenda at events and in talks over the past year, and she is firmly committed to achieving more ethnic and racial diversity among students and staff. She herself has spoken openly about racism around the ‘flag incident’ last year and has had discussions with students about their experiences in Leiden and The Hague.’

What can we expect in the coming period in terms of Leiden’s diversity policy?

‘The Diversity & Inclusiveness work plan that’s due to be adopted shortly will set out our ambitions in more concrete terms. I would like to see more attention paid to unconscious bias in the recruitment and selection of new staff and clear agreements about promoting diversity among staff across all types of positions. We’re going to offer workshops about inclusive education, both in terms of teaching methods and curricula. In the end, it’s all about students and staff learning more about the causes of inequality and that they themselves can make a contribution to an inclusive learning and working environment.’

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