- Harriet Hooper
Amsterdam United: Providing a Diverse Community for the Students of Amsterdam
By Harriet Hooper
Published Sat Jan 02 2021
Diversity is such a huge part of Amsterdam, but how is it being encouraged and nurtured in the academic scene? Within the University van Amsterdam, there are over 100 different nationalities studying and working within buildings scattered around Amsterdam’s center. When it comes to celebrating diversity, it is more than just celebrating our similarities; it is about celebrating our differences and putting in the groundwork needed to create room for them to flourish in society.
One student-led platform that aims to encourage this is Amsterdam United, founded 8 years ago by a group of students at the University van Amsterdam that didn’t feel accepted, and as such realized they were not represented in policy or taken into consideration as part of the student body. To overcome this, they created a community and from there on grew, eventually working with the university. Their aim is to provide a sense of belonging and community for those who feel they have none, something which should not be underestimated in times of a pandemic. I asked if it was mainly for internationals, to which Isa, chair of the board for Amsterdam United, replied “We are not a student body for internationals, but we do have internationals. Not a student body for first-generation students but we do have a lot of first-generation students”. The idea is to not define those who they are appealing to so as to appeal to more than one community. Intersectionality is at the core of Amsterdam United; no matter who or why, Amsterdam United aims to provide a safe space to share and encounter others; “It has a very nice exchange because, in the end, these people are drawn to something we can give.” Essentially: what makes us unique, but also what connects us in ways we don't necessarily expect?
In the interview with Isa, I asked about the work dynamic within the organization. The response I got was exactly what you would expect from such an inclusive group; “We have a care for each other that you don’t often see.” Team members are not scared to speak up when they're not at their best, something that has become more frequent in the last year due to Covid-19, and when they do speak up, the team is always there to pick up tasks and help. Supportive atmospheres like this are important in organizations that aim to support others, but Isa also named a shift in the work focus; “Last year we were more policy-oriented in promoting diversity and inclusion within the Universiteit van Amsterdam. As times have changed and things have been rough, it has become more about how we can be there for each other.” With so much social disconnect at the moment, perhaps the Amsterdam United team needs each other as much as their community needs them.
An important part of the festive time in December is traditions. However, there are some traditions that do more harm than good, and the question of how we deal with them is an important one. Amsterdam United’s most recent event, before the winter break, focused on that question. ‘Moving traditions’ is an event that this year ran for its 8th consecutive year.
In previous years, it addressed topics with a more serious or academic undertone, including ‘Zwarte Piet is racism’ and other Dutch traditions originating from a deeply problematic colonial past. This year was slightly different: According to Isa, “we recognize the last thing people want to do right now is spend more time in front of a computer to hear someone with although of course an interesting lecture, a less motivated audience.” Instead, Amsterdam United decided to focus on what has helped us in these Covid-19 times: artistic expression. “From traditions of oppression: how do you use that, target it towards positive things and digest it through artistic expression?” Being the first semi-live event in a long-time (following all necessary distancing procedures), the event included several artists and was live-streamed. It provided people with a medium to approach a serious topic in a lighter way.
Changing Academia for the better is not without its obstacles. Although Amsterdam United is in communication with the Chief Diversity Officer of the UvA, there can be a clash in interests. From Isa’s point of view, “The UvA could do more. I think that the UvA recognizes a problem and thinks that recognition is enough and I think the same efforts that are put into financial issues or electricity, real estate, and education should be put on diversity.” There shouldn't be a compromise between education and diversity; they are intertwined, as diversity is of equal importance to other, more traditional fields of work at universities. When this is achieved, not just recognized, then progress can start to be made and change will be enacted. Isa and her team are growing frustrated: Despite academia’s attempts at making leaps with regards to diversity, they forget the importance of the groundwork needed to support this. Groundwork that Amsterdam United pushes for.
Obstacles in academia are frustrating due to the internal policy of the university being slow and bureaucratic, making it rare to see big results; but at least they are expected. The unexpected obstacles of the Covid-19 Pandemic have been a new cause for concern with Amsterdam United this year. Isa shares; “Not being able to make plans, and the plans you do make getting confused or canceled; that really hinders your motivation”. Their frustration is well-founded, “you put your heart on something and then it gets canceled last minute and it's just shattering, you're like ‘I gave so much for this’.” So Amsterdam United had to learn to celebrate the small things, taking a new approach to Covid-times activism like so many others.
Social media use has been essential in these times. It's an easy way to reach people to spread information and visibility, to support their diverse network online. The work Amsterdam United does, although restricted, is perhaps evermore important at the moment; “Still, we want people to know that if they feel helpless that they can reach out to us. Maybe we don't have the authority to revolt against the university but we can at least be there for each other.” Additionally, they are making the best of things by collaborating with other struggling organizations: In November, they collaborated with YOUthACT on the topic of intersectional feminism, finding it better to bring people from different communities together rather than separating the reach.
When I asked Isa what made her most proud about working in Amsterdam United, it wasn't the hard work or even the changes they implemented at the university. Instead; “Just all the women that I work with, we have a hard time reaching men for this part and it's not a deliberate choice that it's only women. But, wow, they're all so great and I’m so proud of being in that group.”
As she beams and brags about each of them, it becomes clear that she is their biggest fan, and they are hers. They all have their own lives and struggles outside the board, but it is Amsterdam United that is giving them a community to fall back on in times of need as well as of celebration. Providing them each with a healthy environment to explore and grow as young adults in a troubling time; “It's one of the few Zoom meetings when you feel refreshed and energized after.” This looking out for each other spills over into the community they have built, a space they want for themselves and to share with other people. As important as their work may be, in line with Amsterdam United’s values of diversity and inclusion, it takes a backseat to building relationships, to having a community.
In these times, it's important to feel included, wanted, and part of something bigger.
Amsterdam United provides people with the space for this. There is something comforting about an organization that is not just an intersectional student platform, but also focuses on nurturing a community being supportive within the board as well as with fellow students A big thank you to Isa for allowing me to discuss with her some of the work they do at Amsterdam United. And to support Amsterdam United, stay up to date with upcoming events, or to become a member, find the association on their official instagram: @AmsterdamUnited and website: www.amsterdamunited.org.