‘The change comes from a small minority’ – An interview with Halleh Ghorashi

On November 9, 2021, Halleh Ghorashi receives the Impact Award 2021 for her research on refugees and diversity. Her research primarily focuses on the stories of refugees and migrants. The Impact Award is presented annually to renowned researchers or research groups that make a meaningful contribution to society. Halleh is a Professor of Diversity and Integration at Vrije Universiteit and a member of the Supervisory Board of Movisie. Communication advisors Olaf Stomp and Paul van Yperen spoke with her about her research and the impact of stories.

Congratulations on the award!

Halleh Ghorashi: ‘It was a huge surprise. I didn’t even know that I had been nominated by IXA (Innovation Exchange Amsterdam, ed.). It’s a career award, I understand. The relationship between research and society is important for IXA, and I had come to their attention through the Refugee Academy, which I co-founded with colleague Elena Ponzoni. We conduct research on refugees and diversity in co-creation with society, and the people who are directly involved. And subjects like refugees and diversity are certainly “hot” at the moment.’

‘When I came to the Netherlands as a refugee myself, I was surprised that refugees were mainly present in the public space through statistics and percentage categories, but not through their stories. In my research, I wanted to focus much more on the narrative aspect, the perspectives of individuals. As I once heard Kim Putters from SCP say: “We don’t just want to count, but also to tell.” Later, I realized that this narrative approach is valuable, but if you don’t connect the perspectives of refugees to those of policymakers and other researchers, you create little impact in policy and research. That’s why I started conducting co-creation research that connects different perspectives. From there, you create impact through the connection between various perspectives based on diverse forms of knowledge – personal, professional, and academic knowledge. That’s when you truly influence the way people look at each other, conduct research, shape policy, and work in organizations. I see an impact in that connection.’
Portretfoto Halleh Ghorashi













Do more researchers incorporate narrative elements and co-creation in their research?

‘I see a development in that direction. When I started my academic work, very few researchers were focused on stories. In the social sciences, only anthropologists were somewhat engaged with that, but the thinking is changing. Empirical research is not just about numbers, but also about stories. I still hear policymakers say that they can’t create policy from stories, but what does a policy mean without a connection to stories?’

Stories provide a glimpse into people’s lived experiences.

‘Stories provide perspective on how people navigate life, and what their challenges are. They offer a glimpse into people’s lived experiences. If there’s something we’ve learned from 2020, it’s that our systems – even with the best intentions – can be quite disconnected from people’s lived experiences. That’s why so much goes wrong. Especially in our society where we think we’re doing so well, it’s important to translate those good intentions into and connect them with that lived experience. People who research poverty or loneliness or create policies to address them usually aren’t poor or lonely themselves. I myself am a refugee and experienced that great existential uncertainty when I came to the Netherlands, but now I have status, nationality, and money, and I forget what it was like. So stay close to those stories, even I, in order not to forget what they’re going through and to connect your work with that.’

What advice would you give to the city of Amsterdam in this regard?

‘Looking at my own development as a researcher, I have increasingly come to the conviction that change must come from progressive individuals, those who want change. Amsterdam is a very progressive city that wants to do something special for refugees. What I find challenging about this is that progressive people often think they are already doing very well, but precisely then you need to be critical of yourself and engage with society. That’s the biggest challenge, in my opinion. I once wrote a text about my experiences when I came to the Netherlands and lived in a communal housing project for GroenLinks (Green Party), where all my illusions disappeared.’

‘Inclusion and connection involve trial and error. But we need to look beyond what is visible and see how we can take a step further each time. We must also not be afraid to make mistakes because we learn not only from each other’s successes but also from each other’s mistakes. We have been dealing with the diversity issue for 20 years, but look around, you can see how little diversity there is in institutions and municipalities. Why isn’t it working there? We need to have a conversation about that together.’

Why have we made so little progress with diversity?

‘Many people who have expressed a willingness to invest in diversity have, with all good intentions, mainly focused on what the other person must do to adapt to the norm. What hasn’t happened is questioning that norm within organizations and institutions. How can we make certain norms that we often take for granted discussable, so that the organizational culture and structure become more inclusive for the diverse groups we want to include in our organizations and institutions? Only then will their perspectives and backgrounds be seriously valued as assets to the organization.’

‘An insightful study was conducted by researcher Alison T. Wynn from Stanford University. She received funding from a Tech company in Silicon Valley to conduct research on the impact of their gender policies. The company had invested a lot of money to create gender equality. In her research, she concludes that this investment was not entirely successful because the client had only invested at two levels: interventions focused on women – women needed to improve, “fix the women” – or on broader societal issues of inequality patterns, but not at the organizational level. How do you change organizational structure and culture to make it more inclusive and create gender equality? This is a symptom that I see in many diversity discussions. Either the structural issue is treated as a macro-issue that’s so large it’s almost unmanageable, or it’s so small that it’s only about “fixing the other,” rather than looking at the organization. For the first time in the 20 years, I’ve been in the Netherlands, I see with the Black Lives Matter movement that this issue is being approached more structurally. For the first time, I see us discussing diversity and inclusion in relation to each other and asking what kind of structural approach is needed and what the organization itself needs to do.’

People can’t just fit in if the systems don’t change.

Black Lives Matter is a beacon through which we are starting to question the norm on a structural level.

The discussion is being held at a structural level and is no longer limited to the individual level. We’re no longer telling immigrants and refugees to develop a thicker skin and be strong for an emancipation process. That’s an individual approach to the issue, where the problem is always placed on the individuals themselves. After Black Lives Matter, you can see that a real change has taken place in the discussion, and diversity is being approached from a structural perspective. People can’t just fit in if the systems don’t change. Even if they try to assimilate by conforming to the norm, you end up in a catch-22 situation because they can never truly become the same. Even if they want to, they are still perceived as “the other.”

Are you more optimistic now?

“Ten years ago, I was already called a ‘race optimist’ by Het Parool. And yes, now I might be more optimistic than ever because the issue is receiving structural attention. I also see a huge polarization in society, and social media plays a big role in that as well. But change comes from a small minority that is wholeheartedly committed to something and ultimately translates good intentions into meaningful actions.”

The reception of refugees is a problem for many municipalities. What do you see as a possible solution?

“I see that we’re not learning well from the positive moments we’ve had in the past years regarding the reception of refugees. The discussion keeps repeating itself. It’s all about large-scale reception, cost coverage, and municipalities having to accommodate many people. In various articles, we’ve shown that after 2015, a movement had emerged where many small municipalities wanted to establish smaller forms of reception, closer to the people, and that there were also numerous societal initiatives in the reception. What have we learned from that? I don’t see that reflected in the current discussion.”

“What I find very interesting in the book by Tjeenk Willink, ‘Can the Government Handle Crises?’, is that he describes how the focus on societal initiatives, the attention to the strength of society, has diminished. In the past, these things were organized through various pillars, but the welfare state weakened that. We keep forgetting the power of society, that positive collective that can contribute to shaping societal solutions. After 2015, there was a tremendous amount of energy, but that energy wasn’t translated into structural forms of collaboration with local and national governments. It didn’t succeed in making that energy part of a collective solution to the refugee issue. We’re still dealing with reception in an old-fashioned way. Ad hoc and mostly from the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA), on a large scale…”

“Many of those initiatives have been neglected, and people have moved on. I know someone in Amsterdam who was active and said, ‘Alright, now I’m going to do something else.’ Advocating for such initiatives is also exhausting. If you have to fight for funding year after year just to keep them afloat and do everything voluntarily. Well, if we’re not capable of learning from these wonderful initiatives, what are we really doing?”

Impact Awards

The Impact Awards are part of the Amsterdam Science & Innovation Awards, which recognize the most innovative scientific ideas in Amsterdam. The award ceremony is an initiative of IXA (Innovation Exchange Amsterdam), the Knowledge Transfer Office of the UvA, VU, HvA, and Amsterdam UMC. The Impact Awards focus on the impact that a scientist or research group has had on Dutch society. The other two winners are Jeroen Kluck (Hogeschool van Amsterdam) and Hergen Spits (Amsterdam UMC). The Impact Awards were presented on Tuesday, November 9, 2021, during a major innovation festival at NEMO Amsterdam.

This interview was previously published on the Movisie website.