Speech – The More Subtle Level of Discrimination

By on feb 15, 2013 in English, Speeches | 0 comments

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I wrote this speech to City Councilor in Copenhagen, Neil Stenbæk Bloem to be given at the Intercultural Cities Milestone Event “Making Diversity Work for Cities”, Dublin, Ireland, Feb. 7, 2013. It was published in Vital Speeches International april 2013.

You can also read about the reception on sociale media – here is a storify showing more background, Behind the Subtle Level.


The More Subtle Level of Discrimination

Minister for State, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It’s great to be here in Dublin. And it is quite fitting that Dublin is hosting this confer¬ence for Intercultural Cities.

There is no doubt about it. Diversity should be an essential part of any local policies in a global society. Because we are all interconnected.

Today, whatever injustices happen in countries far away it has repercussions in our cities as well. What is coming our way, is not just unexpected expenses overthrowing our budgets—it is also unprecedented opportunities and new perspectives that have the potential to make our cities prosper.

Problem or potential? Conflict or community? Grief or growth? How we see it, will determine how we approach it and what we make of it.

I might be the one speaking from this podium, but I speak on behalf of the city council of Copenhagen. And we are quite a few here today. And with good reason. In Copenhagen we fully participate in Intercultural Cities and we thank you for inviting us to this Conference. Conferences like this can spur our imagination and we always leave with more intriguing ideas. We have been looking forward to this Conference.

When each of us picks up the glove and accepts the challenge of globalization, we need Intercultural Cities in our corner. Together we share experiences and set another agenda for diversity. It is much needed as there is still much prejudice and many preconceptions. If Intercultural Cities did not exist we would have to invent it. Not just because it makes it easier for us to change ap¬proach and claim the diversity advantage in a global world. But because it effects our citizens tremendously. It effects us all.

In the 70s a young black man was fighting against the brutal Apartheid regime in South Africa—one of the worst examples of institutionalized racism and discrimination in modern times. Their brutality knew no boundaries and to survive he had to escape to another country. That man is my father. The country where he sought refuge was Denmark, and here he met my mother. Denmark offered him an education; he got a place to live and a livelihood. Unfortunately, he could not find a job matching his qualification. Time went by and frustrations build—and when the regime in South Africa changed—he decided to go back. It was a hard decision to make for him. It signaled a hard time for our family. And it was a bad investment for Denmark He was divided from his family, I grow up without him in my life, but it was Denmark that lost out on the investment of education, living quarters and his contribution to our society.

Unfortunately, he is not the only one. Every single time a skilled foreign worker feels forced to leave or is unemployed or is driving a cab when he has a PhD in microchemistry, it is a bad investment—both on the human and the economic level. This is true in Denmark, it is true in South Africa and it is true all over Europe. When we work with diversity, we are really working to get the most out of our shared potential. And we need that –especially in times of crisis.

We have come a long way, all of us. And we must not allow ourselves to forget our past. Far up in the 1800s most European countries—including Denmark—were shipping and selling Africans as slaves. In Europe scientific racism was accepted right up until the Second World War. In the United States laws of segregation only stopped in 1965. In South Africa Apartheid stopped only 23 years ago. And today this part-African, part-European—and fully copenhagener—has the honor of speaking to you—representatives of the most progressive cities—about the potential of diversity.

In 2010 Copenhagen changed approach and fully embraced diversity, inclusion and interculturalism. We broadened our policies from administrative to truly city-wide to think more holistic about the quality of life for our citizens. We engaged business partners to widen our scope to reach the citizens when they are not in contact with the ad¬ministration. And we moved from delivering a minimum of the same service for everybody to looking at the outcome of serving a diverse city. Historically, we have eliminated the most visible and concrete barriers to achieving the diversity advantage. We have anti-discrimination regulations in the workplace, in civil society and even on the soccer field. Today discrimination is formally unacceptable—and we should be very proud of this fact.

But is that enough? Could we do more? Should we do more? We should.

Because there is a more subtle level of discrimination: The discrimination without intent. When fewer ethnic minorities vote compared to the majority—this is not discrimination with intent, but it is a problem we need to address because it is a problem for our democracy and it might be a problem of access. When fewer ethnic minorities are able to land an apprenticeship than the majority—this is not discrimination with intent, but it limits young people’s aspirations and it must be addressed if the city aims to treat all citizens equally. When more ethnic minorities are homeless compared to the majority. This is not discrimination with intent, but it must be addressed when there is a social down side to ethnicity.

To prevent discrimination and deliver true equality to our diverse citizens, we have to go from intent to effect. We might not intent to discriminate, but if discrimination is the effect of our actions then discrimination is experienced in our city. And we can’t have that.

I have a friend from Turkey who arrived in Denmark with her parents and siblings as an immigrant. Her parents cleaned the gym floors in schools to make a living. Cleaning was hard work with late hours and it didn’t at all go well with being home when the kids returned from school. So my friend was home alone taking care of her younger sister and her brother. At some point her parents felt that it was too much. They didn’t want that life for themselves and for their children. So they send her and her brother back to live with her grandmother in a small village outside Ankara for two years. It was traumatic for her to be apart from them for so long. It was hard for them to do what they thought was right. But worst of all: It was a completely unnecessary sacrifice!

You see: Denmark has free daycare after school for low income families—only they did not know that. There was no intent to discriminate, but there might as well have been. Their lack of knowledge about city services, their lack of the Danish language, and their lack of local network. It created the effect of discrimination with consequences to this day.

That is why we have engaged in an ambitious program of equality treatment within the Copenhagen Administration. It starts with us. And how we best deliver a diverse service to our diverse citizens. This means translating all our communication to the major languages of our minorities. It means communicating on the web, in brochures, in animated movies and in personal communication to make our information truly available for our citizens. It means using advanced video interpretation to provide the best service for everybody.

This is what we aim to do internally in the administration. But of course we can’t do it alone. A city is more than the sum of its parts and it is definitely more than local politicians and the public administration. We can do all the right things and still have little to no impact if we do not engage the larger society where our citizens spend most of their time. This means working with business’ where most are employed and it means working with civil society where most spend our free time. We can work with business, civil society and citizens while improving our city on multiple levels. This is not a zero-sum game!

When we work to equip companies to hire and maintain diverse employees, we are really adding value to the com¬pany, we are helping people achieve their dreams and we are able to create a city with better schools, hospitals and infrastructure. When we provide education to children in their native languages we are really recognizing the students for what they can actually do, we are increasing the number of young people rising to secondary education and we are providing better employees and access to new markets to local companies. When we celebrate diversity with events, we are really acknowledging the positive contribution of minorities, we are increasing companies’ revenue by expanding their markets and we are making our cities more attractive to live in for all citizens regardless of background or status.

We used this idea of combining elements to create our Copenhagen Host Program. The program matches newly arrived immigrants with established hosts and job mentors to deliver a better arrival in Copenhagen. It provides knowledge about public service, local geography, infrastructure and language—as well as network that might lead to a job. Networks are crucial in today’s job market and immigrant have very little of them. The program is a huge success and has just been expanded. This is good for the citizens getting a chance to make a difference and getting to know new people and languages. It is good for the companies as it will reduce expats leaving Denmark before ending their contracts. It is good for the city because diverse people get to meet and interact in a meaningful way. It creates community!

Another example is Copenhagen’s diversity festival ‘Taste the World’. Here 82 associations and 24 restaurants all with an international twist line up in a central street for two days. There are two music stages and they deliver a festival celebrating diversity for 50.000 Copenhageners. This year we were nominated for a Danish Music Award. It is a great contribution to making Copenhagen a good place to live for our citizens. It provides restaurants with a great opportunity to make money. It celebrates the diversity that is Copenhagen. It brings people together!

That is what we do—we try to create community by bringing people together. And we try to do it by combining business, civil society, citizens and public administration in projects that combine our goals. We make diversity both the destination and the road towards it—both the goal and the method to accomplish it. We all need to acknowledge that diversity is a fact. If there ever was a white and homogeneous past, it is just that: Past.

We have all come a long way, but there is still work to be done. We need to move beyond intended discrimination to look at the discrimination effect. That is the next step. It will not be easy but it will bring us closer to providing true equality for our citizens and to claim the diversity advantage for our cities economically, but more importantly: Humanly.

We can learn a lot from other cities within our national borders, but to truly get inspired and learn something new, we must look beyond the border posts and tie in with fellow progressive cities who has the same challenges, the same potentials and who are in the same boat. That is why we are here today. That is what we have come to do. And that is what I have been looking forward to sharing with you.

I would like to end with a Chinese saying that embodies the spirit of this conference: “When the direction of the wind changes, some people build walls—and other people build windmills.” So to all you windmill builders: Thank you for listening and have wonderful and enriching conference.