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Walls that need to go: Ideas for a more inclusive world

This article originally appeared on on September 29, 2017. 

How can we create more inclusive communities? From fighting censorship on social media to creating a new unifying European identity, guests of this year’s 6 Degrees forum in Toronto put forward examples of barriers that are in desperate need of breaking down.

Tell the stories that heal, not harm.

Tell the stories that heal, not harm.

— Abdul-Rehman Malik, London-based journalist, educator and organizer

Every person in the room was either crying or fighting back tears. At a community arts centre in Jakarta, Rey and Yans embraced each other. A moment later, about 30 youngish Indonesian women and men — activists, teachers, social workers, youth group conveners, poets, artists, religious leaders — began to applaud, cheering loudly. They were celebrating the bravery Rey and Yans showed by telling their stories together. Rey and Yans are both mixed heritage — his family is Chinese and hails from Manado in North Sulawesi and Ambon Island, two overlooked regions in Indonesia’s vast archipelago; she is also from Ambon and Manado, but considers herself from the Indigenous people of Ambon Island.

Since moving to Jakarta, Rey and his family have faced racism and prejudice for being Chinese. The recent defeat at the ballot box of Jakarta’s Chinese Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, widely known by the nickname Ahok, and his jailing on a flimsy blasphemy charge has recently heightened tensions again. A powerful alliance of alt-right Indonesian nationalists and alt-right religious chauvinists has been blamed for the rising intolerance. Rey choked up as he recalled how as a child he had hid under a bridge as nationalist mobs took to the streets. As the Suharto dictatorship collapsed, he tried to convince Muslim Indonesians that the Chinese minority had engineered some kind of coup d’état. He described how he forgave a friend who in recent months had begun sending anti-Chinese messages on social media. It was a difficult choice. To do otherwise, would have been to continue a cycle of misinformation and recrimination.

Yans grew up in a Christian family. She also grew up hating people of Chinese descent — even those who professed her Christian faith. She saw them as stingy, clannish and unsociable. Her life was a contradiction. She was active in social service, yet she kept away from her Chinese and Muslim neighbours. Her assumptions and learning was challenged when in college she faced some intense personal crises. Her Chinese and Muslim classmates came to her aid, surrounding her with love, support and unconditional help. Yans had to eventually confront her elders and her faith community and question the almost institutional suspicion of people — fellow Indonesians, don’t forget — who did not share her cultural background.

Rey and Yans then told a story of “us” — a story of what Indonesia looks like when they are both in the frame. Through telling their story they found common ground — in their shared regional and linguistic heritages, which were obscured by race and ethnicity, and also in a renewed vision of what it means to be Indonesia.

This is vignette from a project that I have co-created in Indonesia (with the Jakarta-based Habibie Center and veteran Canadian-British interfaith and intercultural activist Stephen Shashoua) to combat a rise in violent attacks against religious and ethnic minorities in major urban centres there. We train young changemakers to tell the story of what inspired them to become leaders and activists. We also pair participants from different religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds and give them a chance to tell a new story: the story of a country where they both belong. A country, like ours, that is constantly changing.

It has been a powerful, moving experience. We now have 150 leaders recreating these storytelling circles in five major cities in Java. There are plans to expand this work throughout Indonesia and beyond. We call these gathering Café Cerita — the café of stories.

Our world needs more spaces like Café Cerita. It should be a public policy priority.

As a journalist and an organizer, I work with stories every day. I know the importance of the narratives we tell — how we tell them, to whom we them tell them, the way we tell them. Stories can bind us together and stories can tear us apart. Stories create false mythologies and stories shatter our illusions. Stories can create dangerous enmity and stories can help heal profound trauma. Stories can also become barriers to understanding.

It doesn’t need to be this way. We need to consider what kind of stories we are telling about ourselves and what impact they have on our understanding of one another and “us” — as citizens of cities, nations and the world. If the quality of our stories is poor, our understanding of one another will be equally abysmal. It begins with truth telling and honesty and compassion to hear and take and reflect.

Stories told by us, about us, are like jigsaw pieces. It’s not until we hear others tell their stories that we realize how we connect to them and they to us.

My friend, teacher and activist Mark Gonzales puts it a bit differently: we cannot live in trauma, pain and wound. We must remember that there was a time before trauma. That memory — preserved through stories — allows us to imagine a story after trauma. Tell the story, he says, of that time.

The master storyteller Neil Gaiman says that stories connect us as humans. “Because,” he says, “we all have stories. Or perhaps, because we are, as humans, already an assemblage of stories. And the gulf that exists between us as people is that when we look at each other we might see faces, skin colour, gender, race, or attitudes, but we don’t see, we can’t see, the stories. And once we hear each other’s stories we realize that the things we see as dividing us are, all too often, illusions, falsehoods: that the walls between us are in truth no thicker than scenery.”

It is these divides, these barriers, against which we must harness the best of our stories. Narratives that will push us to have better conversations and find more enduring solidarities in an increasingly divided and violent world.

Abdul-Rehman Malik is an award winning London-based journalist, educator and organizer who works at the intersection of faith, culture and social justice. He is currently a Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellow at Yale University. 

Put technology in the hands of the displaced.

— Josephine Goube, CEO Techfugees

In 2016, 47 percent of the world’s population had access to the internet. This is up from just one percent in 1995. The internet, and more broadly technology, has had a profound effect on our lives and has changed the way we interact. Think about it: your smartphone is more powerful than the technology which has put man on the moon. So, there’s no shock then that people fleeing wars, persecution and natural disasters would use the same internet and technology to seek support, guidance and assistance when in need.

In the past decade, the numbers of displaced persons using smartphones, social networks and the internet to access services and advice has been on the increase. A recent report from better lab in Germany reports that smartphone use is almost universal for Syrian refugees. This is no more apparent than in the media coverage of what they dub the “refugee crisis,” which shows refugees accessing services and provisions through the use of their smartphones.

Techfugees therefore seeks to empower those displaced through the use of such mobiletechnology. We focus on five key areas in which mobile tech holds the biggest potential to impact refugee lives: access to information, education, identity, health and community. To cater for the specific needs of refugees and displaced in the domain, we create hackathons — events designed to bring together technologists, charities, governments and displaced persons to co-create bespoke and technical solutions.

Through those hackathons, Techfugees enables spaces allowing for constructive dialogues between refugees and locals. We don’t come with answers and solutions. We come together with questions and tools to share and design a future together.

An example of such meeting was a hackathon over the summer with Paris 2024, Paris’ bid for the 2024 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games. The event brought together over 50 people, from 20 different nationalities to ‘hack’ and think together ways of using available technologies such as apps, messaging platforms and social networks to reconnect refugees to sport and locals. Half of participants were refugees, while the other half was made of locals passionate about sports or tech. In total, 15 prototypes were designed throughout the 48-hour event, with two teams winning an incubation of six months at Liberté Living Lab and Le comptoir de l’innovation, two Parisian social tech incubators. The incubation programme will enable them to develop the prototype further so it can be deployed at local sports clubs as a first pilot. If successful, the project could be used during and after the Olympic Games of Paris 2024.

For us techies, we understand digital technologies as powerful agents to scale solutions and bring transparency in the process. We look at the way humanitarian aid and delivery of services to refugees happen in the humanitarian sector and wonder how we could make processes more efficient, more dignified, and in a way that it empowers its end recipient. In short, how do we co-create those processes.

There have never been as many refugees and displaced people in the world, and more than half of them are under 18 years old. The societal challenge that refugees represent is of global scale and will not go away. We know there will be more flooding and bigger hurricanes.

To date, we haven’t made best use of technologies. But with continued instability in the Middle East region and new challenges in South-East Asia, we will confront greater migration flows. Now is the time to start embracing tech.

We need to redevelop our understanding of migration systems and refugee assistance. First by putting refugees and local communities needs at the centre, instead of assuming what’s best for them, and decide upon successful and failed experience of humanitarians in the space, where we go together.

Where possible, we need to create local capabilities for refugees to come up with solutions for themselves that contribute to the local community they have settled in. Refugees have talents and can bring something to society, if given the chance.

The solutions Techfugees community is developing today will assist the displaced, irrespective of whether their displacement was by the Syrian civil war or hurricanes Harvey and Irma. They are helping to advance the Sustainable Development Goals and society as a whole, a line of code at a time. We hope you can join us on this journey, by coming to Techfugees Global Summit 2017 in Paris.

Josephine Goube is the CEO of Techfugees.

Barriers in healthcare: Providers should be as diverse as their patients.

— Sara Alavian, 6 Degrees Junior Fellow

How important is it for there to be diverse representation in medicine? I would consider it be of life-saving importance.

Representation in medicine should be differentiated from the idea of cultural competency; a necessary component of healthcare systems that encourages an understanding of individual patients’ cultures and needs in order to provide appropriate care. Cultural competency is predicated on the idea that our patients are not homogenous bodies that simply face pathology — a purely biological breakdown — but rather whole persons that interact with their environments and carry history, personality, and struggles.

While cultural competency has greatly advanced the cause of health equity, it doesn’t have the scope to imagine a healthcare system where physicians of all backgrounds — socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, gender and sexuality — are shaping healthcare agendas. As a concept, it relies on the assumption that there is a minority population of patients that has to be catered to, without recognizing the possibility that some physicians may identify as minorities or marginalized themselves.

To be a physician is to exist in a position of power and privilege. One is given access to individuals’ lives and bodies in some of the most vulnerable and intimate ways, and thus is given the potential of also inflicting harm. On an institutional level, when the healthcare system is dominated by a particular perspective, blind spots appear and the potential to do harm is magnified.

However, for marginalized voices to become more apparent, they first need to gain access to the field. Within the past year, the conversation around medical school admissions in Canada have started to shed light on the fact that most medical students come from relatively high-income households and have limited ethnic and racial diversity. The challenge of applying to and entering medical school is rigorous and for some populations it may be well nigh impossible. However, it is these individuals, ones who can empathize, identify with and share the struggles of their patients, that need to be in medicine the most.

The implications for representation in medicine for our communities are far-reaching. When marginalized populations see themselves and their needs reflected in the healthcare system, their experiences in accessing care are enhanced and their outcomes are better. As more diverse voices participate in political discourse, the conversation begins to shift and expand to include a greater range of lived experiences and priorities. Once individuals are given the opportunity to seek health and well-being through safe and appropriate care, the vision of a thriving and inclusive community where all are able to actively participate in the life of society may become a reality.

Sara Alavian is a 6 Degrees Junior Fellow. She is a recent settler to Canada and is passionate about the intersection of politics and health. She is a member of the Baha’i Faith, a contributing writer to online journal platforms and a burgeoning advocate for increasing diversity in health professions through mentorship. Sara is currently a medical student at McMaster University, with an interest in community and emergency medicine.

When the digital world doesn’t reflect you, add your own voice.

— Sana Malik, founder and creative director of This is Worldtown

In my work as a journalist, I come across this argument regularly: our world is increasingly polarized and we are using technology to divide ourselves. It’s a means to prove that niche digital communities are creating virtual walls, rather than virtual bonds.

I would offer a different view — in defense of digital storytelling communities across identities that are speaking to their own real, lived experience, and can no longer be ignored. These are communities that have always existed, but have not always been allowed to enter the conversation — as mandated by those with the power to set an agenda that is exclusive.

This has prompted communities and individuals to define and defy narratives on their own accord, rather than have them defined and framed for them. When people hear about “niche” community, they immediately think of the toxic alt-right’s proliferation of hate speech and disdain, which has spread quickly and dangerously. They overlook the incredibly creative and entrepreneurial expression bursting out of places that have been mired in negative, helpless narratives.

When I look for inspiration on this front, I’ve found media companies and collectives formed by young people in Pakistan that have grown into far-reaching enterprises, reclaiming space and negative narratives about youth in a country pathologized by stories terrorism and violence.

In a similar vein, for young queer Muslims seeking solidarity and wanting their stories reflected back to them across borders, these communities and platforms present a critical opportunity. Sometimes, they are a means of survival. And women from Afro-Caribbean diasporas share some of the most inspiring and politically charged work I have seen online. Young people across the world who have long felt marginalized from and misrepresented by mainstream news are not interested in reductive narratives: they are creating and celebrating their own futures for the world to take note. And we need to listen.

There is a decisiveness in this digital age to no longer produce for the colonial, or “white” gaze — but to do things on one’s own terms. They create without begging for recognition and room in traditional formats and media newsrooms. And with this unapologetic production, audiences grow and grow.

Meanwhile, traditional newsrooms need to reflect on their own practice. Some are being influenced by digital storytelling communities from around the world — from the ways that they report on certain identities and communities to the language that they use to do so — but they are still struggling with meaningful gender and racial representation in their own newsrooms.

To break down walls, we need both — greater representation in positions of power at influential media outlets and full support of the celebratory works of young people tired of being made invisible, and ready to define the terms that will dominate the next generation.

Sana A. Malik is the Founder and Creative Director of This is Worldtown, a platform featuring content exclusively by women of color storytellers from around the world. Sana is Pakistani-British-Canadian and previously worked in gender and development in Lebanon,Tanzania, Burkina Faso and the UK. She is currently pursuing an M.S. in Documentary Journalism at Columbia University in New York.

Stronger guidelines and more transparency are needed to combat censorship on social media.

— Ramzi Jaber, co-director of Visualizing Impact and Robin Jones, project coordinator at Visualizing Impact 

In the wake of the Occupy movement and the Arab uprisings, an abundance of tech-positive narratives emerged. The internet, it was said, could break down barriers between the strong and the weak, serving as a great equalizer. Pointing to the use of social media to coordinate demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, optimists viewed an opportunity for a new digital public square that would facilitate communication between progressive actors.

Yet cyberspace can also replicate many of the barriers and hierarchies that exist offline. In contrast to the belief that the internet is an open market of ideas, every social media platform has a set of community guidelines that it moderates at its own discretion. Since platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are corporate-owned and have little accountability to their users, these policies can form a major barrier to free expression. Social media platforms often lack transparency toward their users and have at times conceded to the demands of governments as they shape their policies. Moreover, vulnerable groups tend to be targeted on the internet and those with political and economic power have the opportunity to dictate what content gets censored.

The case of Palestine is a prime example. Twenty-six Palestinian journalists are currently under administrative detention by the Israeli government. Meanwhile, political dissent or news about the Israeli occupation shared online has repeatedly been flagged as “incitement” and taken down. The notion of incitement is sufficiently vague that legitimate political criticism is being removed from the internet at the Israeli government’s request. In 2016, after meeting with Israeli government officials, Facebook disabled the accounts of three editors from Al Qudsnewspaper and five editors from Shehab News Agency. Due to public pressure, Facebook eventually apologized for this “mistake,” but offered no explanation for why it occurred.

Palestine is merely one instance of a global phenomenon in which dissenting voices are being stifled by social media platform policies. In Australia, Indigenous feminist activist Celeste Liddle’s Facebook account was banned four separate times for sharing a trailer of an Indigenous comedy show that featured images of topless women. In 2017, a coalition of 77 social and racial justice organizations wrote to Facebook about consistent and disproportionate censorship of Facebook users of colour, including takedowns of images discussing racism. Last year, Facebook censored a video of a mass arrest of 22 activists at a Dakota Pipeline protest.

How can we break down barriers to free expression online? It is clear that the community guidelines and content moderation practices of major social media platforms need a rethink. Users must demand greater transparency and communication. A clear set of policies must be made accessible to all and applied evenly and fairly. Moreover, a public appeals platform for content takedowns with due process is necessary for social media platforms to be accountable to their users. When content is censored, platforms must explain why, and users must have the opportunity to challenge these decisions. An engaged citizenry that values the positive power of social media as a platform for public expression can help to realize this vision.

Ramzi Jaber is co-director of Visualizing Impact (VI), a non profit that specializes in data visualization on social issues. In partnership with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, VI runs, which encourages social media platforms to operate with greater transparency in their approach toward content moderation.

Robin Jones is a research and project coordinator at Visualizing Impact.

Foster a new, more inclusive European identity.

— Conor McGlynn, 6 Degrees Junior Fellow

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the foundation stone of the European Union. In those first years of post-war Europe, political leaders shared a vision of a unified continent built on a shared set of liberal values of tolerance, inclusion and integration, and a drive never to return to the inward-looking nationalism that created so much bloodshed on the European continent.

This expansive vision of the EU’s founders is at risk today. Europe is seeing a return of populist nationalism and a strengthening of narrow, exclusionary identities. This has manifested itself in anti-immigrant sentiments and in direct repudiations of EU integration such as Brexit, the UK vote to leave the union. The failing of the original vision risks fragmenting the continent once again, returning to the borders and barriers of the past.

In many ways, this wave of anti-EU and nationalist sentiments stems from a lack of a strong common European identity. The push in the UK to leave the EU arose because many British people do not feel European; they did not feel they shared a common identity with the Poles and Romanians who came to work in their country. The inability to promote social integration alongside political integration has been perhaps the greatest failing of the European project.

It is important that strengthening European identity does not require abandoning national identity, which is a central part of many people’s sense of self, any more than identifying with a national polity requires giving up local sources of identity. Greater European cohesion does not come at the expense of weakening nation states, but rather strengthens them, by giving them more power to act together on the world stage.

Promoting European identity is challenging for a number of reasons. Creating a shared sense of identity on a continent with a multitude of different languages poses significant practical problems. Europe as a whole is also a religiously and culturally diverse region. These challenges also have the potential, however, to be Europe’s greatest sources of strength. By accommodating and incorporating diversity, any European identity must of necessity be inclusive and expansive; it must be cosmopolitan, repudiating xenophobia and celebrating difference. A robust sense of European identity would undoubtedly have helped in how European countries handle the integration of migrants.

What, then, does a European identity consist in? This is a difficult question: too nebulous a definition risks the charge that being European means standing for nothing in particular. Many people have attempted to promote European identity through a shared philosophical, artistic and scientific tradition on the continent. This is largely the strategy of the EU itself, which chose Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as its anthem and which celebrates figures Leonardo da Vinci, Desiderius Erasmus and John Locke as heroes of a shared European heritage. It is a shared heritage in these thinkers and creators, and a shared belief in their values, that makes us European.

But while this idea is commendable, this attempt to ground identity in “high” culture lacks popular resonance, making European identity seem instead to be something elitist and exclusionary. This ideal of European identity needs to be augmented by a popular source of European identity. Such popular expressions of European identity already exist, albeit to a very limited extent: The Eurovision Song Contest and the UEFA Champion’s League soccer tournament are two annual examples where people from different countries come together (and compete) under a shared sense of being European.

The signatories to the Treaty of Rome had witnessed a Europe ravaged by deprivation, war and genocide. They envisaged a future where people all over the continent would stand together under a shared sense of being European, and where the prospect of war in Europe was unthinkable. This vision now seems dangerously fragile. The barriers to a common European identity need to be removed, so that we can ensure peace and security for all people on the continent.

Conor McGlynn is a 6 Degrees Junior Fellow. An Irish graduate living in Brussels, he works in public policy and political strategy, previously with the European Parliament and now in the private sector. Before coming to Brussels, he studied philosophy at the University of Cambridge and economics with philosophy at Trinity College Dublin. 

Ideology and identity can be limiting — knock those walls down, too.

— Bernard Lim, 6 Degrees Junior Fellow

Humans build walls between us. To defend, to protect, to preserve our sense of self. Otherwise, foreign ideas will poison our minds and render them strangers in a foreign body. No way!

The walls that exist between us: ethnicity, faith, political ideals, gender, and many others. The divides that separates us are built high and steady, but they can be breached.

The internet has facilitated the steady flow of information and people are growing more aware of information they may not have learnt in their schools. There is a growing sense that people have rights, people have power and people understand that their destinies can be changed. But old antipathies still remain — powerful as they may seem, the walls will come down when people work together.

First, the wall of ethnicity. Many people still define themselves by their skin colour or government racial categorization. In Singapore, citizens are classified according to their “race” — Chinese, Malay, Indian or other. Discrimination, or preferential treatment, is meted out based on those characteristics. Walls will only come down, and a common sense of solidarity emerge, when people define themselves, not by shade or label, but by the content of their character.

Second, the wall of open-minded thought. People walled themselves up because they do not wish to expose themselves to other ideas that may change their manner of thinking. Does God exist? Is capitalism or socialism the best form of governance in a new world where automation and the internet are pushing most jobs out of existence? Should we legalize drugs….or just marijuana? Very pertinent questions. Prepare to take a beating when society engages in mass discussions on these sensitive topics; they may change the face of our world forever.

Lastly, the wall of self. The ability to introspect is a prized one, one that allows humans to interact with their inner mind and inner heart. There is no bigger obstacle than the niggling doubt in your own mind telling you, “That’s not suitable for you…this is dangerous, so don’t hear it…it’s stupid…” Confront your inner demon, your ego, your niggling doubt. Enlightenment is yours when you cultivate the senses that see through the fog of misinformation and antipathy.

Grab your hammers, folks. Let’s start KNOCKING!

Bernard Lim is a 6 Degrees Junior Fellow. He is also a two-time recipient of the Young Community Leader Award, awarded by Singapore’s former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to youth leaders. Bernard has been active in Singaporean civil society since 2010. He has represented Singapore in conferences, including the United Nations ICPD Global Youth Forum 2012, and was awarded the Women Deliver Young Leaders Fellowship in 2016 for working on water generation and health in the Mekong Region with the Young South East Asian Leaders’ Initiative of the US State Department.