We celebrated our 75th anniversary as British Council in the Netherlands in 2021 by sharing 75 personal stories from people who have a special connection to both the UK and the Netherlands. Read the 75 NL-UK stories and join us in celebrating our 75th anniversary. Expand the box below to read the full stories by Laura Coello, Mary Tupan-Wenno, Nick de Jager, Canan Marasligil, and Ronald Ligtenberg.
75 UK-NL Stories - Diversity and inclusion
The UK and I
I don’t think I have ever felt as comfortable to be who I am as I did when I lived in London in 2007-2008. I am a migrant, a visible minority, speaker of other languages (English is not my native language), international, multicultural and I love to learn new things (in formal and informal manner). I ‘met’ the world in London and had the feeling that we, wherever we were from, were all equals.
In those years the attention to combating discrimination and creating equal opportunities was visible and tangible. For every single vacancy I applied for had a diversity statement. Each time I had to use a standard form designed by the organisation to minimise irrelevant differences and review relevant competencies and knowledge. I was so taken aback, in a positive way, by onboarding programmes which almost always included knowledge and concrete actions to take in possible discriminatory situations. And by the diversity of staff. Later on I saw that the higher you aimed for, the more difficult it became for diverse individuals. But even there, there was more diversity than I had ever seen in the Dutch labour market.
After living and studying in London, I worked in various projects with British partners; amongst which the British Council (UK and Netherlands). I appreciate the way that work-relationships with my British partners always had a personal touch, while remaining professional. I experience our relationship and the work we do or did as quite flexible: I receive frameworks and am able to fill these in as the situation sees fit. That makes our partnership relatively equal: it acknowledges each other’s role and expertise area. And allows that personal relationship to flourish.
In 2010 a book of mine got published: Significant difference? A comparative analysis of multicultural policies in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. In the book I explore the way the UK had (at that time), after a discriminatory event and the results of an inquiry, incrementally adapted existing policies and adopted new ones to create truly more equal opportunities for everyone. The result was that, in the year 2004 98% of public sector organisations and 68% of the private organisations had equal opportunities policies. In the Netherlands (in 2003) around 40% of the public sector organisations had these policies and just roughly 12% private sector organisations. The result of these other policies inspired by multiculturalism in the labour market participation of minorities, is clear. In the UK the difference between the average male employment rates of the majority population versus minorities was 4.4% (92% for native British males and 87.6% for immigrant males). While in the Netherlands the difference for the same groups during the same period was 12.8% (96.8% for native Dutch males and 84% for immigrant males).
What I mean to say is the following: the UK’s government at that time had the ability to look into the part it had played in not preventing this discriminatory event from happening, along with the willingness to take necessary policy steps to change this. This duty and necessity to explore the role you, as an institution, play in allowing, condoning or combating discrimination will feature prominently in my advice towards an organisation when addressing diversity and inclusion.
The 75th anniversary of the British Council coincides with the 30th year of the launch of the European Access Network (EAN). EAN was founded to increase equity of minoritized students in higher education. I attended this launching conference while working for the Dutch Ministry of Education, to share the developments on underrepresentation of migrant students and became one of the founding members of EAN.
The British Council co-initiated this conference in 1991 which was transformative to me and the work I have been doing since. It was empowering to learn from research, policy, and practice of colleagues in the UK, who had a vocabulary to address racial, gender and socio-economic disparities as well as concrete policy and solutions to enhance equity. I became part of a network that went beyond EAN.
Through my work at the ministry, I had the opportunity to be part of the establishment of ECHO, Center for Diversity Policy, founded 25 years ago to increase access and success of students with a migrant background. ECHO still provides a professional space for me and my colleagues to advocate for inclusion and social justice, to innovate within systems and structures who were not designed for current cohorts and to push boundaries within a progressive yet polarized society.
The journey evolves. 5 years ago, GAPS, the Global Access to Postsecondary Education initiative was established to address similar issues on a global level. With the executive committee we aim ‘to connecting the unconnected’ by engaging in a global community, building on experiences and perspectives of the Global North and the Global South.
The work continues but never ends. Not because we do not progress but because the societal, political and economic context changes constantly. What remains is the ability to share narratives, accept different perspectives and connect on a human level.
Mary Tupan-Wenno (she/her)
Nick de Jager
In lots of ways I’ve seen how the United Kingdom can be beautiful and hideous, even simultaneously. For example, I recall myself ordering ‘fried pizza’ at some food truck around Glasgow Train Station. Obviously, the concept of ‘fried pizza’ is objectionable in every single way, and I’m pretty sure there is no other country than the United Kingdom to order it. Despicable, right? But I have to admit, I loved it.
Of all my visits to the UK, one truly stands out. In the summer of 2018, I was invited for what became one of the greatest experiences in my life. The British Council organised their annual ‘Future News Worldwide’ conference in Edinburgh, an event to unite 100 young journalists around the globe. Delegates had origins varying from Fiji to France, China to Canada and Ghana to Germany.
I had just turned twenty at the time and was a young boy who hadn’t seen anything in the world. And there I was, meeting people from all continents. I climbed up Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat hill with a Colombian, Brazilian and Bangladeshi. Went clubbing with a South Korean, an Indian and a Motswana. Had dinner with a Greek, two Spaniards and various South Americans.
The event opened my world, without doubt. It taught me how stupid most stereotypes are and how you should always try to escape from your prejudices. And it wouldn't have been possible if it wasn’t for the amazing British hospitality.
Nick de Jager
I have been working with people in the arts and higher education across the UK for more than a decade: co-curating an exhibition of comics reframing our idea of Europe, being a translator in residence at the Free Word Centre, collaborating with universities in Norwich, Lancaster, London on literary and translation projects, publishing poetry chapbooks with the Poetry Translation Centre that ended up in Edmund de Waal’s Library of Exile...
Every encounter and collaboration, many times turning into friendship, has been an enriching experience on all sides. I learned from my peers, my expertise and knowledge were welcomed and valued, I always felt celebrated and every project I worked on expanded my vision of the world, and vice versa.
I have discovered the creative energy of places such as Dundee and Belfast. I have always been in admiration of how creativity and diversity have been celebrated by the people I have been in touch with.
It is through working with such organisations, including the British Council where I was employed before I started my freelance career, that I learned that diversity and inclusion need to be implemented on all levels, starting with policy. That awareness has become daily practice for me since then.
It pains me to see current politics negating the importance of a diverse and inclusive society, but I have trust in the arts and culture to continue empowering us all to keep doing better, and my experience with UK based organisations has always proven this is possible.
In 2010, the British Council invited me a few times to give presentations about multi-sensory music events for and with deaf people. The response was so overwhelming that I moved to London to establish new partnerships. Before arriving, I had already scheduled several meetings with potential business partners. The meetings looked promising to me at first as they all elicited positive responses like “Your proposal sounds very interesting’’.Of course I took this literally ( I am a Dutch man after all!) and was enthusiastic that it was going to lead to fruition. However, after a few months passed, and I did not hear back from those meetings, I realised what the Brit meaning of ‘’interesting’’ really is.
After these initial disappointments, I was inspired to transform my approach completely to make headway. I’m glad to say that in the end I managed to organise a couple of wonderful festivals having ‘the senses’ as the main theme. The United Kingdom being one of the most accessible countries of Europe taught me so much about how to make a society inclusive to a whole new level that it turned out to be a challenging but enlivening experience for me. I have to add that the bonus of my stint in London was that I met my exotic future wife, and we were blessed with our wonderful son soon after.
So all I have to say to you London is that you did not make it easy for me but you gave me back more than I imagined and hoped for! So thank you :)