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Moving Together on DEI Issues

By Nicholas Alchin
Moving Together on DEI Issues

Excerpt from an address to all United World College of South East Asia, East Campus teachers: This talk was part of a plenary whole-School address on a day of professional learning. We had been looking at DEI issues for several years, as part of our Mission to “make education a force to unite peoples, nations, and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.” Multiple overlapping and occasionally confusing things were happening. The tragic events of 2020 gave a renewed impetus and an intense focus on race, and like many communities, surfaced many differing perspectives. The aims of the plenary were to (i) re-state our commitment to DEI (ii) inform and clarify the community about actions so far, (iii) address ways in which we might talk about and address differences together (iv) explain our professional learning roadmap for DEI with multiple layered opportunities. This article is the section on aim (iii).

... Having named those differences, what I want to turn to now is a little bit more about how we engage here; how we talk; how we listen; and to share a little bit about what I have learnt over recent years. How we deal with this situation will say a lot about who we are as a community. Indeed, it may determine how we change and grow as a community. 

And the reason this topic can be difficult is not because we have different opinions; we have different opinions about many, many things. But if elsewhere, two people disagree on, say, the teaching sequence in a unit that disagreement is likely to be boundaried; the disagreement is likely to stay above the waterline of the iceberg. But as we know, for these topics, people’s life experiences, values, and identities can come into play. Thus, this is higher stakes, and genuine conflict may be possible. Now this may be no bad thing - many good things can emerge from a conflict; and in any case, the absence of conflict is not always harmony; it can sometimes be apathy. But it is also possible that conflict can damage us, and set back the very things we believe in.

So I want to say a little about good conflict, and place it in a broader context.

Let me start with Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s classic, 27 million times watched, 2019 TED talk - the Danger of a Single Story (if you have not seen it, then please do watch it. It’s moving and powerful and funny).

What Adichie talks about is the way that her own thinking was straightjacketed by one way of thinking;

  • how as a child she thought books were not about Africans because the books she saw had no Africans in them;
  • how because she saw her helper labelled as “poor,” and indeed, labelled him that way herself, she was astonished his family had some beautiful objects in their home;
  • how because of her ethnicity, some people expected her to listen to tribal music and could not believe she loved contemporary pop.

She also speaks how despite this, despite her being a subject or victim of stereotypes, she has herself also stereotyped Mexicans. So, she’s really talking about the way all of us, regardless of our own identities, oversimplify and rob each other of some dignity. How any of us, whatever our identities, will have blind spots in different areas. How we are all prone to reduce things to good or badblack or white, or in my view, most poisonously, for or against an issue. She’s arguing that this is just naive.

The second thing I want to draw on is from recent United States election. With the polarized and fractured conversations that were splitting communities, families, and even relationships across the United States, journalist Amanda Ripley wrote a very influential piece which is a lovely follow up from Adichie’s Danger of a Single Story. She spoke to people with experience navigating conflict — lawyers, conflict mediators, psychologists and religious leaders — and her piece Complicating the Narratives, points to ways that have been shown to allow for progress in difficult areas.

A simple example here: There was a concern raised from some students that some staff members were referring to them as boy or girl as in “thank you girl” or “please do this boy” and that they were not comfortable as it didn't feel respectful or right. 

Now, many of you will know that some support staff use the terms boy or girl in the same way as many of us use the terms auntie or uncle. They are gendered; they are age-specific - but in our local Singaporean context they are also affectionate and respectful. Now it would be easy to tell them to stop, which would be in line with our general approach not to foreground gender. Or we could tell the students that we would not address it, which would be in line with our approach to respecting local traditions and culture. But actually, both of these foreground a single story and avoid the complexity. Either approach would be easy to take, in the sense that it could be made to fit a narrative. Easy, but mistaken and, ultimately, reduces this to one side against another, does not help but actually undermines the search for progress.

It’s an everyday example; I am sure you can think of others. For me the key thing here is to avoid simplification; to recognize the dangers of single story and to avoid seeing polar opposites in what is, in truth, an issue with shades of grey (the solution here may be an easy one, an open, sensitive, vulnerable conversation between good people trying to do the right thing. In fact, it usually is). 

In all these issues, the aim of our discussions should not be victory but better understanding of other views. That’s the long-term work, the hard work. None of us have a monopoly on truth, no matter how fervently we hold our beliefs. So, we can learn from each other if we can find the right way to do so. I read recently “be an explorer, not a preacher, nor a prosecutor.” That’s how we do this work and use it to strengthen our community....

This is a challenge for us all. We want to liberate our students, ourselves, anyone... from the bonds of any prejudicial thinking; I feel more strongly about that than I can easily say. We want to liberate our children’s future from the things that have blighted our past. We will not do this without moving as a community. So, in all our interactions, we all need to ask how might we use this interaction to build a stronger community here? 

You might know the proverb if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. Well, we want to go far, so we will not rush this work. It cannot be done by a few. We will do it together or we will not do it at all. We have many here who are perhaps at the forefront of social justice advocacy; we have many for whom this is newer. Most of us are somewhere in between. But wherever we are, we share common purpose, to unite peoples, nationalities, and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. Doing so is no easy talk, and we need to be ready to talk openly, make mistakes openly, and listen openly.

I told my wife we should embrace our mistakes. She just gave me a big hug.

Originally published on

Nick is Head of United World College of South East Asia, East Campus. 

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