3 Things I learned from working with Human Rights
In 2010 I left my comfortable life in Sweden for a job opportunity in Belgium that I could not resist. I wanted to move out of my comfort zone and live abroad, and Brussels attracted me as it is the capital for European politics and lobbying. I started working for Social Platform – the largest European network of civil society organizations, advocating for human rights and social justice. Before moving on to a new job adventure I would like to share with you three valuable things I have learned thanks to the amazing people I have had a chance to work with.
Poverty and discrimination are two sides of the same coin
Growing up in Sweden in the 80’s and 90’s l was rather oblivious to poverty, especially within Europe. For all l knew Sweden was a welfare state with a predominantly Social and Democratic government. Education and health care is for free and the state provides housing support for lone parents and unemployed. Not untill l started working in Brussels did l learn about socioeconomic inequalities, those we see and others more hidden. Colleagues at the European Anti-Poverty Network taught me that people living in poverty are not always unemployed, in other words people can have jobs that exploit and pays indecently little that they still cannot make ends meet. Friends at the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless taught me that homeless people do not always live on the street. Women are especially vulnerable as they may be forced to remain in a domestic relations – or seek shelter – when experience violence and abuse in order to not end up on the street, especially if they have children. In fact, poverty and discrimination are two sides of the same coin; if you cannot get a job because of your foreign name or disability you might risk ending up in poverty. If you don’t have a job a landlords often won’t rent a flat to you, without an address you cannot open a bank account and without an account you cannot receive a salary – that is to say, the circle is vicious. 28 European states may be joined by a Union but there are stark differences between and within our countries.
Today I better understand how socioeconomic inequalities is at the core of what divides people, local communities and societies, and at Social Platform I have been a part of developing solutions promoting a more social just Europe.
Afrophobia, Antigypsism and Islamophobia are specific forms of racism
For several years I worked in Stockholm. A very beautiful but very segregated city, where the color of your skin determines how far away from the ‘white’ city center you live (going on the subway line until the end stop gives you a first-hand view). I lived among privileged people, and I worked in a very homogeneous environment where I was – presumed – white Caucasian, middle-class and educated. However, growing up with migrant parents in a working class suburb, I never really felt I belonged. My year in Toronto as a student, surrounded by diversity, was the place that made me feel the most at home. Moving to Brussels I knew that at least I would live and work with different European expats.
Listening to stories by my colleagues at the European Network Against Racism and friends, have made me aware about forms of injustice and discrimination people different from me face. My Congolese friend worries that she won’t be able to provide her daughter with role models, because women and men of color rarely get jobs as for example a Doctor or Banker. My Romanian friend fear disclosing her nationality due to prejudices about Roma people, and my Muslim friend avoids public spaces where she is afraid of harassment due to her headscarf. These are not unfounded fears. Afrophobia, Antigypsism and Islamophobia are not just complicated words but specific forms of racism that needs to be articulated and talked about. About one in two of all North Africans (45%), Roma (41%) and Sub-Saharan Africans (39%) in Europe experiences discrimination (EU survey). By learning more about racism I have realized that my personal experience of belonging to a minority is somehow similar, in my case being gay in a ‘straight’ society. Together we all relate to the feeling of running an unfair race that you rarely have a chance to win.
Human rights leaders preach equality but do not always walk the talk
Arriving in Brussels I had to re-learn behavior l naively had assumed were universal, realizing it was in fact contextual for me as a Swede. l was used to very flat organizational hierarchical systems were little difference in status is assigned to those on high managerial positions. The French ‘Madame’, ‘Monsieur’ and ‘Vous’ is never practiced in Swedish. Swedes use first name regardless if it is with the doctor, teacher or politician. This way of not making a difference between people and people results in a rather informal and direct way of communication. While the intention is treat everyone equal, it can in an international context be considered rude, especially in written. I had to learn how to be formal and more respectfully address those senior to me. Today l have come to appreciate the effort to overall be more polite, especially when writing mails, by the least saying ‘could you please..’ ‘many thanks’ and ‘best regards’. The flip side of hierarchical structures is the sometimes arrogance and disrespect by heads of organizations towards those more junior. Far from all managers – but some – don’t even bother to greet those lower on the ladder, whom they consider not influential and important enough. Human rights leaders righteously preach that all people deserves to be treated equally, but often their own behavior speaks differently. My point is, a smile and a friendly greeting can make a significant difference to the work environment, whether its the boss popping by your office to say goodbye on their way home or you saying good evening to the cleaner in late afternoon. The same goes for external meetings; to be equally friendly and talk, not only to the high-level decision-maker, but also to the intern next to you. Besides, sometimes the latter can be the most rewarding and pleasant of the conversations.
While l am the first to wholeheartedly embrace digitalization, l do not underestimate face-to-face communication. I have learned to always pick up the phone if the information you want to communicate is sensitive or personal; never write in a mail what can be misinterpreted. A phone call or a meeting over a coffee is almost exclusively the best way to prevent misunderstandings and to build relations of trust.
It goes without saying that these are only three – out of many things – that l have learned, thanks to everyone I had the pleasure to work together with.
A Special Thanks To:
My dear colleagues: Marie-Paule, Ariella, Mehran, Valentina, Bartek, Alison, Ruw, Herlinde, Ilias, Agathe, Maxime, Lisa, Helen, Gilberto and Silvana. Roshan who hired me, Pierre who was my boss for most of my years, and Kélig during my last months; current and previous President’s: Jana, Heather and Conny. Another warm thanks to all members that I have met during the years as a part of our working groups and task-forces, partnership with other networks of civil society organisations, think tanks as well as the many dedicated and engaged civil servants and politicians I have had a chance to cooperate with.