Linde, Floor, Minne, Jozefien & Julie are part of VUB’s strategic Community Engaged Research and Learning- project gathering students, teachers, researchers and various stakeholders to learn together, with and for each other. Like all of us they are moved by today’s generation raising its voice calling for an end to discrimination and racism and like to address an invitation to reflect for a moment on what’s happening, as well on our practices in higher education. They believe CERL offers the possibility to create powerful learning environments contributing to individual and social transformation…

For those who haven’t heard about CERL yet, CERL is about …

The overall, cross-sectorial collaborative learning strategies experimented in Community Engaged Research and Learning strategies offers the possibility and richness of meeting and confronting oneself in relation with others and the complexity of our 21th disruptive society. It challenges one’s authentic and creative being and offers the possibility to discover different awareness thanks to the involvement and the supportive and benevolent engagement of each of the participants.

When a person starts collaborating, it is each member of the group who benefits from it. Thanks to the resonances awakened on themes that might not have been brought to us spontaneously. Little known, underdeveloped, sometimes shameful or guilt-ridden aspects of ourselves and buried memories find a more appropriate place within us. We believe the emancipatory character of CERL’s collaborative learning strategies is a powerful vaccine and response to address todays urgent need for more diversity-sensitive teaching methods. 

Our university is not racist, she welcomes all students. Whatever their origins, she seeks to make her students emancipate, succeed and flourish. It is also a place for human rights education and social justice. In principle all ideas can be expressed. The problem is – and we should be even more aware of it – that some ideas are part of the programs, some are not, and some are totally opposed to them. Depending on their identity load, these ideas will be accepted or rejected in a more than variable way. “I am Charlie” or “I love democracy” will be popular. “Arafat” and “Patrice Lumumba” will be discussed. “Jesus is my savior” will be a little scary. “Allahou akbar” will trigger an appeal to the authorities. Our university is not racist but implicitly considers some stories more important than others. Because the programs and authors are decided by the “winners”, she is still so much more interested in white people’s readings and the history of the old continent. 

Our teaching teams of course come from all walks of life. It’s just that they’re really also so much less diverse than our student population. Whom of us can affirm they really work in a diverse team? It is hard to communicate serenely about identities or to imagine diversity-sensitive teaching programs without experiencing diversity itself. Our university is not racist. It’s just that for a lot of us she’s different. If I don’t have the same cultural background, if I speak another tongue or desire another food, I will more or less gently be reoriented to what others expects from me. 

We see university as a place for neutrality, some kind of sanctuary, free from any political, ideological or convictional influence, but in fact it is important to admit she’s NOT neutral in her conception of neutrality. We have to acknowledge that and do something about it. More than we actually realize, we underestimate the importance of learning to talk about differences, rights, ideological and political positions. The resources we have, in fact are very few and when we take the challenge we experience the difficulty of takin it up, sometimes feeling very alone in the desert. Our humanist university can’t be linked only to the history of an ethnic group and a particular socio-economic model. 

It is – very much – about time to deconstruct stereotypical thinking and imagine our education programs beyond the usual expert-novice binary model, squeezing our realities and visions on emancipation into outdated paternalistic, uncomfortable and stigmatizing models. 

  • Where can I learn for instance about the existence of a liberal Islam which, among our fellow students is massive? 
  • In what course can I feel safe and sure that during teamwork my teacher and my fellow male students won’t expect me to be the secretary, taking notes AGAIN, because I am a woman? 
  • How can optimize the inclusion of diverse experiences, forms knowledge and learning styles in my teaching and learning practices? 
  • What methods can I use to stimulate awareness about and respect for minority groups and opinions? 
  • Which tools can I rely on to stimulate collective learning, organization, analyzation and in order to communicate each other’s knowledge, experience and reality in such processes?
  • How can I make complexity more accessible for my students and how can you help them with system thinking?
  • How can I create connections for building powerful learning dynamics amongst my students?

A university that is afraid of otherness is not free from dogma, but is ignoring individual freedoms, which are rights. A university that normalizes a discriminatory situation is not neutral. It is our responsibility to build more inclusive educational programs beyond today’s narrow reading of neutrality, taking up our mission to be open to diversity seriously. If we don’t … our structural so to say “non-racism” will continue leading to personal racism which is dangerous for our societies.

The problem can no longer be denied or minimized: while Brussels is one of the most diverse cities in the world, studies show that we are among the European champions of discrimination. A few years ago, some young people shouted this unease to us as they left our benches and neighborhoods to join an ideology of fear and destruction. Today it is a whole generation that is raising its voice calling for an end to discrimination. For decades, hundreds of thousands of young people have been silently suffering from a state that belittles parts of their identities.

If university could invite diversity to express itself instead, if teachers would learn to lead the debates, they would realize that these are great starting points for moving forward and for dealing with the shortcomings of certain ways of thinking. If institutions understood that expression goes beyond words and that it is important to invite diversity in food, language, festivals and clothing as well, they would see the beneficial recognition this brings to students. If university could see that this hospitality is the opposite of community withdrawal and that it can serve as a springboard for building projects, shaping common pride, discussing problems and putting solutions in place together, they would then see the full civic potential of the pupils, whether they were born well or come from the neighborhoods… 

Cultural openness presupposes a capacity to question its principles and codes in order to be enriched by those of the other. Translating this into our curricula and teaching methods is a way to all gain in humanity. Such a policy would be neither be a submission nor a concession to cultures of foreign origin. It would simply be the recognition that these cultures are legitimate and honorable, while at the same time putting into practice our principles of openness and equality. 

Therefor we find it important to recognize without complexes and in concrete terms that our societies are now mixed, and that this is one of their qualities!

Quality CERL requires focused design and leadership, aligned with both the starting situation and the desired outcomes, taking into account heterogeneous learning needs and capacities.  Participants must be prepared to play an active role in and take responsibility for their own learning on the one hand, to interact with actors and needs outside their own field of study, work and/or surroundings. Diversity should be considered not only a reality, the norm, but should be purposefully integrated and monitored throughout the learning strategy, with equal participation and a positive and democratic learning climate as the end goal.  Community engaged research and learning strategies aim at stimulating both individual as well as collective change capacities, personal and societal resilience and progress: learning to know, learning to be, learning to live and work together, beyond dominant and established practices and frameworks. Academic expertise is deployed to enhance the civic awareness and engagement of its participants and to respond to societal challenges. CERL partnerships are a means to develop with respect for everyone’s contribution and individuality and target mutual benefits.

Following in the footsteps of Hannah Arendt, with Amor Mundi as a guideline for our education and research, we want to take our responsibility and make the well-considered choice to set new outlines for our education and research.

Education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.

Hannah Arendt, 1945

In discovering new views and connections from which we can all learn rests the opportunity to build a truly sustainable, democratic and future-oriented institution.

Let’s get started!

For more information or coaching on this topic, please contact our team!

Amor Mundi, the time is now! 

(Special thanks to Bruno Derbaix, pedagogical consultant at the European Foundation for Democracy, for his meaningful coaching on the matter of racism and designing futureproof and inclusive education programs)