Anatomy of Ostracism

In April and June of 2018, two separate groups of 15 people each from Serbia – consisting of teachers, educators, researchers, civil servants, and activists – travelled to Finland and met with a similar group from Finland. They were all participants of a project called Anatomy of Ostracism.

Ostracism means exclusion from a society or group. The idea for the project, funded by the Europe for Citizens programme by the European Commission, came about when Riikka Jalonen, director of Rauhankasvatusinstituutti (Peace Education Institute) in Finland, and Ana Brtka, director of DeaDia, an educational NGO in Serbia, met at a youth work seminar in Norway in 2016. Over conversations, they shared a similar concern about the increasing discrimination, nationalist tendencies and popularity of far-right ideologies among young people across Europe. For Ana, it was especially worrying in Serbia, a country with a still rather recent history of ethnically-fuelled wars.

As educators themselves, both believed in the central role of education in shaping the behaviour and attitudes of the people in their respective societies. Educators, whether in schools, as youth workers, or activists, play a huge part in creating a safe environment of mutual trust, in breaking down stereotypes, in showcasing the value of diversity and in broadening the understanding of universal human rights.

The first seminar in April was held to build a common ground for the project, through identifying and mapping out the root causes threatening social cohesion, and the role of education in building social inclusion and a sense of belonging in both societies. Some of the questions explored were: what is the role of education in reproducing power structures and/or challenging social norms and narratives? What competencies do teachers need in order to challenge racist and xenophobic attitudes and behaviour among their students? Where and how do they get these competencies, and what are the concrete ways in which we can support them?

As part of the programme, the participants attended the conference of the Stopped-project on ethnic profiling in Finland, where they learned of the discriminatory and illegal practice of public authorities stopping someone suspected of breaking a law or rule, or to be likely to cause trouble, only due to their perceived ethnicity or religion. It was a conscious decision to break the Nordic/Finnish exceptionalism view of Finland as a country which has achieved equality early on in the project, in order to ensure a non-hierarchical relationship between the participants of the two countries, since Finland also still has some ways to go when it comes to the treatment of minorities.

That experience was an eye-opener for Sonja Viličić, the executive director of Haver Serbia – an NGO in Serbia which aims to introduce Serbian society to the culture, history and traditions of the Jewish people, and advocates against prejudice, discrimination, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, and fosters intercultural dialogue through informal education. She nuancedly observed how in both countries there is the same type of hierarchical discrimination in which the majority in society thinks the minority groups are not worthy of things like jobs and education – “When we talk about discrimination, we don’t talk about racism simply because we are very white in Serbia, and historically unwelcoming to immigrants [who are not white]. We have a lot of discrimination towards Roma people, we are a homophobic society, we have discrimination based on gender, on religion. I think in Finland it’s pretty much the same, just more polished, I would say. In Serbia, it’s more raw.”

The April seminar also included a keynote session from Aminkeng Atabong Alemanji, a postdoctoral researcher whose pioneering doctoral work explicitly focused on antiracism education in Finland, and a school visit to Pasilan peruskoulu, a primary school in Helsinki, where the participants had the opportunity to see some classes in action. They also learnt more about the inclusion education model from teacher Hanna Lampi, and about the school context and student perspectives in Kokkola, a city in Western Finland, from teacher Eeva-Liisa Kiiskilä, who was the Finnish Global Educator of the Year in 2017.

Reflecting on the schools in Serbia and in which ways they are similar and what they can learn from the Finnish system, Jelena Vasiljevic from Labris – a lesbian human rights NGO based in Belgrade which advocates for LGBT+ rights and works with schools to prevent bullying based on gender and/or sexual identity – thinks that there is not much difference. “While general LGBT human rights progress in Finland may be something like 50 years ahead of Serbia, the approach taken in schools to tackle discrimination are pretty much the same. What can you do for the prevention of bullying, how to work with groups rather than individuals, how to train teachers in recognising discrimination based on sexual and/or gender identity, how to work with kids so that they are not themselves discriminatory in their own lives. The same methodologies are being used.”

One particular challenge highlighted by the Serbian participants were in regard to their policymakers. According to Sonja, “In Serbia, there are no official programming or direction when it comes to tackling discrimination in schools. It is the local NGOs who develop the programs, but there is no systematic approach to the curriculum. Teachers do not feel safe broaching the topic as there is no support from the system. It all depends on the NGOs.” For Annimari Ollila, a participant from Finland, that does not necessarily lead to a lot of difference in Finland. While Finnish schools are guided by equality legislation, and teachers have more freedom to address such issues in their classrooms alongside the official curriculum, discrimination still happens.

The second seminar in June aimed to address this and further provide teachers and educators with the competencies to tackle discrimination which were identified in the previous seminar. Held in conjunction with the annual Global Education Summer Days in Päivölä, about a 2-hour drive from capital Helsinki, the participants were guided through a series of workshops with Finnish drama educator Jouni Piekkari, youth work trainer Farkhanda Chaudhry from Scotland, and Finnish peace educators Hanna Niittymäki and Amiirah Salleh-Hoddin (both of whom were also awarded Global Educator of the Year in 2013 and 2018 respectively).

A key competency to address ostracism was to foster intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding, as well as to combat the stigmatisation of marginalised minority groups in their respective countries, simplified into three steps: The process starts with first recognising not only discrimination and exclusionary practices, but also recognising one’s own prejudices, biases, privileges, and position of power within the society. This is followed by constructively and effectively managing discriminatory situations when they arise, rather than being passive bystanders when witnessing injustice. The last step of the process is transforming these situations and hateful behaviour and attitudes through the proactive creation of safe spaces and the adoption of more inclusionary practices.

Quite a few of the participants were initially doubtful of their abilities to contribute to any meaningful change when it comes to working with minorities and on the topic of social exclusion. For those who had been working as teachers for decades, they doubted that they would learn anything new and meaningful based on their past experiences. However, after having gone through the full pedagogical process of the three days, they understood how it all connected. They were extremely appreciative of the constant space given for a self-reflective process where the participants were led to first recognise and reflect on their own privileges and existing prejudices and biases, and also felt empowered from the process of understanding their position of power in effecting change in society through their work.

A couple of participants also initially felt insecure and thought their participation would be restricted because they were not as fluent as the other participants in English, which was the working language of the seminar. However, because the workshop trainers and facilitators were practising what they were preaching, in terms of demonstrating how a safe space can be created in classrooms and youth spaces, and how one can be inclusive in their practices, the two participants were able to actively participate throughout the workshops because they felt safe and included. This personal experience of “being on the other side” and “being in the shoes” of youths in their classrooms who are marginalised, and seeing for themselves the power of what a safe space and inclusive practices are, really made them feel empowered by the end of the seminar.

A version of this training workshop has already been given to other educators, students who are becoming teachers, youth workers, and social workers in both countries. The workshops were organised by the participants and trainers of the international seminars in autumn 2018 and reached more than 100 educators in Finland and Serbia. A common feedback from the participants has been the need for more of such trainings, considering the increasingly polarised societies and the rise of nationalistic and far-right rhetoric and xenophobia across Europe at the moment. While this project focused on youths and transforming schools and youth work institutions, the principles and methods from this project are also applicable to other sectors of society. The project has now ended, but the lessons learnt and the concrete outcomes from it continue to have an impact in both countries.  While some doubts and fears may remain about their ability to practice what they have newly learnt once they go back into the system with all its routine obligations, it was clear to them now that they no longer can be passive bystanders – that is it their responsibility to not only be reactive, but proactive in tackling discrimination, and that is in itself a better start than none.