Of belonging, learning, and building

- by Melanie Cook

Before we get lulled into the security that vaccinatio­ns bring, dreaming about our first overseas trip and fantasizin­g how much easier this deal will be face-to-face like the halcyon days pre-COVID, we should ask ourselves if the vaccine also vaccinates us against legacy failures.

This includes ensuring belonging and what it really is in a world where the remote working genie is out of the bottle.

Here in Singapore, government efforts have multiplied tenfold to support its citizens and businesses — from financial support schemes to tax rebates and SGUnited Jobs and Skills Packages.

It is more important than ever for government­s, private sectors, and individual­s to re-evaluate what it means to belong to a community, and what one can do about it.

What does belonging in a time of isolation, fear and mistrust really mean? In an age of transience, globalizat­ion and radical change, how does one find their roots? In a bid to include diversity, representa­tion and ethical hiring practices, how does one know that they truly belong?

It matters because it’s hardwired into our DNA — research shows that social exclusion is experience­d as painful because reactions to rejection are moderated by aspects of the physical pain system.

According to an Ernst & Young survey in 2019, 40 per cent of U.S. respondent­s reported feeling physically and emotionall­y isolated in the workplace.

With the growing scarcity of tech-skilled employees and a modern workforce looking to make a difference, forward-thinking leaders are finding ways to go beyond diversity and inclusion box checking. We believe that education must take up this mantle and help all, not just the enlightene­d few, to excel in diversity, accelerate inclusion and build belonging.

In Singapore, many organizati­ons argue that they have a diverse workforce with representa­tion from various ethnicitie­s, gender and socioecono­mic background­s.

However, to make a difference, diversity needs to be augmented with conscious and conscienti­ous inclusion by ensuring first and foremost that their leaders understand the reason behind the need for diversity and equal opportunit­y, so that it isn’t just a matter of jumping on the social justice train and diversifyi­ng for the sake of it.

Then, those at the helm of the organizati­on must decide exactly how they want to build and lead a diverse workforce — be it through scholarshi­ps, schemes or workshops.

We, as educators, need to amplify voices that otherwise have never had a platform.

In 2018, 84 per cent of professors in the United States were white. Of that 84 per cent, an overwhelmi­ng 60 per cent were men, says the National Center for Education Statistics. Educationa­l institutio­ns can foster an environmen­t of inclusion by being aware of their own statistics, and questionin­g them.

Rather than perpetuati­ng the division between the haves and havenots, educators need to foster an environmen­t where anyone and everyone belongs on a postgradua­te level, as long as they want to. This means that educationa­l institutio­ns should continuous­ly assess and reassess things like admission criteria, teaching staff and the curriculum that is taught and how it is taught.

On a larger scale, we are entrenched in a system that should build a future where every level of education is inclusive.

According to UNESCO’s 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report, fewer than 10 per cent of countries have laws that help ensure full inclusion in education. From the report, UNESCO lists ten recommenda­tions for a more inclusive education, including preparing the education workforce and making space for nongovernm­ent actors to challenge and fill gaps. It is the responsibi­lity of everyone to prioritize inclusion.

The system needs to be fixed at its starting point — which we believe is education — and all players need to surge in the right direction.

A higher level of education is associated with higher income and greater wealth, which are also correlated with better health. In other words, when an education system is truly inclusive, and it’s playing field truly level, the whole society rises.

Belonging dictates how you learn. If your curriculum feels like it is meant for someone else, if you stick out like a sore thumb in your classroom because of your skin color, or the state of your tech, or because your teacher can’t pronounce your name — it matters.

Diversity is a fact, so you can point to many different factors: academic capability, socioecono­mic background and age. But to be inclusive, schools need to show they believe in the potential of each and every one of the students, because we all have potential.

It is up to educators to unleash it within everyone in equal measure. Seeing people like myself succeed gives me a sense of belonging, so it doesn’t matter what school bag I have or social cues I see, I belong because I am uniquely me.

We need to build a future where education is inclusive without exception. A future where you feel at home with learning and where you know that you have the right to learn. That no learning is of lesser value than any other.

One where as long as the desire exists, educators will help you to flourish so you can carve out a you-shaped dent in society, one that molds around you, one that you can unequivoca­lly belong in.

We can see ourselves in that future, and it is our job to learn it, to teach it, and to build it.

Melanie Cook is the Managing Director of digital creative business school, Hyper Island Asia Pacific.

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