In participation processes concerning public issues, inclusivity is frequently discussed. However, there is still a lot of ambiguity surrounding its specific meaning and implementation. That’s why the Knowledge Center for Participation at GovernEUR|Erasmus University Rotterdam has commissioned in-depth research on the topic of inclusivity in participation processes in the physical living environment. Through interviews with experts from both academia and practice, various perspectives will be explored to address the question: What is inclusivity? Why is it valuable to aim for inclusivity? How can participation processes be made more inclusive?
This interview was conducted as part of the research on inclusivity and diversity in participation processes by the Knowledge Center for Participation.
Halleh Ghorashi is a Professor of Diversity and Integration at Vrije Universiteit (Department of Sociology). She studied Cultural Anthropology at VU between 1989 and 1994. In 2001, she defended her dissertation titled ‘Ways to Survive, Battles to Win: Iranian Women Exiles in the Netherlands and the US’ at Radboud University Nijmegen. In addition to being a professor, she is also a member of the Social Economic Council (SER) and a member of KNAW and KHMW.
In your work, you focus on inclusivity and diversity. How do these two concepts relate to each other?
For me, there’s a difference between “being invited to the party” and “being invited to dance.” “Being invited to the party” concerns diversity and involves the presence of people from diverse backgrounds. Inclusivity is “being invited to dance” and is about actually being able to participate, not just being present. The definition I’m referring to is dominant when you search for inclusion. At first glance, this might seem somewhat superficial. What if someone doesn’t want or can’t dance? That’s why I find it important to add that this is about the dance of perspectives and life worlds of people who come from backgrounds different from those in the dominant group. So, I’m quite critical of a superficial use of the term inclusivity.
Could you explain that critique?
The dominant way of speaking about inclusivity is about involving people within existing and accepted frameworks and structures.
“For me, inclusivity means being open to changing existing frameworks and disrupting structures.”
But inclusivity is more than that. It’s about being able to participate from your own perspective and thoughts, in a way that suits you, and that becomes challenging when you don’t fit within the dominant system. For me, inclusivity means being open to changing existing frameworks and occasionally disrupting dominant structures. Organizing inclusivity means creating receptivity and making space for those who question the frameworks. This provides opportunities for people who are currently less inclined to participate.
“Those conflicting and uncomfortable situations, in my view, touch the core of democracy.”
An essential question that participation professionals – those who aim to promote inclusivity – must ask themselves is: How do I make room for disruption? And yes, that will lead to uncomfortable situations. Those conflicting and uncomfortable situations, in my view, touch the core of democracy! Relevant questions to ask yourself then are: How do I make room for difference and diverse perspectives? How do I make room for those I create policies for? How do I make room for people who are distant from me?
Changing frameworks and disrupting structures sounds like an ambitious task…
That’s correct. Changing structures is a process of trial and error. It starts with small changes and disruptions. Through gaining experience, these small changes can expand and eventually transform the existing structures.
I’ll elaborate on that based on my own experience. I moved from Iran to the Netherlands when I was 26. Because of this, I’ll never speak Dutch as a native speaker. When I became a university lecturer, I felt quite nervous about giving lectures in Dutch. However, my motivation, passion, and enthusiasm for storytelling resulted in positive evaluations from students. However, the same did not hold true for the tutorials where I had to teach academic writing in Dutch. It was unsurprising that the evaluations for these were much less positive. I expected that I would be criticized for this during my performance review. But to my surprise, this wasn’t the case. My supervisor attributed my lower results in the tutorials to a wrong decision from the organization. Instead of rejecting me or assigning me a Dutch language course, he said, “How foolish of us to have you lead these tutorials, we should utilize you for the large lectures where you excel!”
It’s unique that my supervisor recognized this; he looked at my talent and corrected himself and the system. This has been crucial for my self-confidence and further career. This is an example of a broad perspective on valuing quality and talent rather than fixating on shortcomings. It’s about questioning the frameworks and not adhering to prevailing norms.
If we extend your story to participation processes, what can we learn from it?
Let me first focus on the government organization itself. I notice that the government often wants to set an example in terms of diversity, which is certainly important for promoting inclusive participation. However, the question is to what extent government organizations allow for the disruption of their organizational structures.
“One key question is to what extent government organizations accept the disruption of their organizational structures.”
A recent example from one of the ministries illustrates this point well. During a meeting on equality and participation, specifically regarding population groups struggling financially, none of the officials at the table claimed to know anyone personally in similar situations. However, it later turned out that someone with a migration background was present at the table who actually came from a similar background but didn’t feel safe enough to speak up! They didn’t feel secure enough to share that. Yet, insights from such a lived experience are crucial for policy development. After all, how can you truly understand the challenges of the people you’re creating policies for if you can’t imagine their experiences? This example shows that the dominant conformist behaviour doesn’t leave room for “different” perspectives. In this way, diversity mainly serves a symbolic role: diverse people are included in the organization, but it doesn’t lead to the inclusion of their lived experiences and perspectives. This happens due to the lack of receptivity within the organization for diverse perspectives and lived experiences, potentially resulting in disruption. Therefore, a change in the dominant frames of thinking and acting is crucial for new connections with society.
“When empowerment is discussed, the goal is for citizens to fit within the dominant frames, and these frames are not up for discussion.”
When addressing this dynamic, it often becomes a problem attributed to the individual employee with a migration background, who might not be assertive enough. Just as my supervisor critically looked at his own role and the existing frames back then, that should be the guiding principle for how organizations can learn to be inclusive: start by questioning your own perspective, correcting your own mistakes, and not always putting the blame on the employees themselves. Unfortunately, I still see this approach as lacking in ministries and many other organizations. And that’s a missed opportunity.
And what else can we learn from this?
My second lesson is related to empowerment; empowering citizens by developing skills that enable them to participate. Empowerment usually operates under the idea that governments or societal organizations assist citizens in participating (better). When discussing empowerment, the aim is often to have citizens fit into the dominant frameworks, with those frameworks themselves not being up for discussion.
“By believing that you’re doing the right thing by giving others the chance to be part of society or an organization, you’re actually reproducing a hierarchical relationship.”
In reality, this approach seeks to make people conform to the norm. As I mentioned earlier, to me, that’s not inclusivity. Inclusivity entails changing structures, not just fitting citizens into the existing frameworks.
But isn’t empowerment necessary to bring forward those disruptive perspectives?
What I notice is that many people believe they are doing a good thing by focusing on empowerment. Without doubting their good intentions, I see that this approach actually hinders true inclusivity. By thinking that you’re doing a good deed by giving others the chance to be part of society or an organization, you’re actually reproducing a hierarchical relationship between yourself as the giver and the other as the receiver. This doesn’t establish a connection with the other person’s life experiences, which means there’s no real space to understand what the other person truly needs. There is no reciprocity and no equal relationship.
I’m not suggesting that we completely abandon empowerment. What I am saying is that empowerment needs to be broadened, so that there is also an effort made on the side of the powerful. People in positions of power need to develop competencies that are more inclusive. They should also be empowered to better see and hear other perspectives and life experiences and to occasionally question their own frameworks. Only then can there truly be the necessary receptivity to disruption.
If we start from the premise of the necessity of equal relationships, should we then leave the promotion of inclusivity to society itself?
Inclusivity requires creating connections based on differences. In society, you have those opportunities. Particularly in small-scale settings, people are patient when it comes to forging connections and commonalities.
In places like the Indische buurt in Amsterdam, neighbourhood initiatives have provided a solid foundation for accommodating refugees for years. Often, governments perceive small-scale initiatives as merely cosy and enjoyable, but they are much more than that. They do genuinely important work!
Citizen initiatives have the potential, in their small-scale nature, to create meaningful connections from the idea of an ‘in-between space’. This is a space where the ‘self’ is momentarily set aside, and personal convictions are suspended. This creates room for stories, rather than opinions, of others. That’s when a true connection with others can be established, leading to a fusion of horizons; you can empathize with the situation and perspective of the other, from which valuable and innovative ideas arise.
You mentioned several successful neighbourhood initiatives. However, we often see that such initiatives are vulnerable because they might depend on subsidies or a small number of key figures. What needs to happen to make initiatives stronger and more sustainable?
For community initiatives, it’s important that they create value in a way that aligns with their nature. It’s about the complementarity of community initiatives. By thinking in terms of complementarity rather than competition, we are already strengthening the position of these initiatives. This enables them to engage in discussions from a standpoint of societal added value.
“By thinking in terms of complementarity rather than competition, we are already strengthening the position of these initiatives.”
It also helps if they can communicate their impact. Initiatives can better equip themselves strategically by showcasing practical examples that demonstrate impact through various methods and at different levels.
When it comes to the complementarity of initiatives and professional or governmental organizations, how do these different parties relate to each other?
We need to constantly seek connections between the lifeworld and the system world. We do this, for instance, through the Refugee Academy. In this initiative, we connect stakeholders from policy, institutions, businesses, civil society organizations, researchers, and community initiatives around the refugee issue. Together, we formulate practical conditions that enable inclusion in practice. This enhances the learning and reflective capacities of all involved parties.
By stimulating and experimenting with bringing together diverse perspectives, we aim to generate new narratives and directions for solutions. That, in my view, is the essence of empowerment.
And what is the specific role of the government concerning community initiatives?
I see that the government is undergoing an interesting shift in its attitude towards community initiatives. On one hand, it is retracting its role by dismantling the welfare state and encouraging self-organization among citizens. On the other hand, it seeks to maintain a strong grip and control over these initiatives.
What the government should do is reduce its focus on control and emphasize more on connecting and facilitating. It can achieve this by fostering connections between initiatives or various societal forces, allowing them to learn from each other and engage in knowledge-sharing. The government can also shift its focus towards process-oriented impact and long-term outcomes, rather than fixating on short-term numerical impact.
“What the government should do is reduce its focus on control and emphasize more on connecting and facilitating”
This requires the government to develop sensitivity to listen to what is being organized and done in society. It must be willing to question its own assumptions and adopt values of vulnerability and receptiveness. Starting from a standpoint of equality, not attempting to lecture or dictate, and believing that engaging with different perspectives and changing structures towards inclusivity is enriching rather than threatening, are crucial principles.
Finally, why is inclusivity, understood as creating space for disruption, so important?
Inclusivity is at the heart of democracy for me. I draw inspiration from political philosophers like Iris Marion Young and Alexis de Tocqueville. The value of democracy lies in being able to incorporate the positions and perspectives of minorities. When people feel excluded from participation, it leads to frustration, marginalization, and, in extreme cases, radicalization.
Perspectives that are not as commonly heard should be precisely the ones we incorporate. The question is how we respond to disruptive voices. These voices help initiate the process of structural change that allows for inclusive connections. Democracy is about providing space for the minority, not just amplifying the voices of the majority.
This interview was previously published as part of the series by the Kennisknooppunt Participatie.
 Ghorashi, H. (2003). Ways to survive, battles to win: Iranian women exiles in the Netherlands and United States. Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
 Rast, M.C. & Ghorashi, H. (2018) Dancing with ‘The Other’: Challenges and Opportunities of Deepening Democracy through Participatory Spaces for Refugees, Social Inclusion, 6(1), 188-198
 Young, I.M. (2011) Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press
 De Tocqueville, A. (1835/2012) Over de democratie in Amerika. Rotterdam: Lemniscaat