Pursuing social justice

Interview Isabel Awad
A group of people at Rotterdam Central station

When is a city diverse and inclusive? And how can academics contribute to more inclusive cities? According to Isabel Awad, researcher and theme lead within Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens (VCC), “Inclusive and diverse cities are cities in which diversity is acknowledged and appreciated, instead of being used to justify hierarchies and inequalities”.

The university’s responsibility to fight social inequalities

According to Isabel, much of the discussion and decision-making processes about social inequalities occur within urban contexts. And, as Isabel notes: “The topic of social justice cuts across most if not all the work we do in VCC and – I dare to say – the university more broadly.” Concerning the cities Rotterdam and The Hague in particular, Isabel sees a role for the university: “I think the Erasmus University Rotterdam has a special responsibility and there is still much room to strengthen its contribution.” 

Contributing to more inclusive cities

Through VCC, Isabel hopes to help strengthen EUR’s research and teaching related to urban inclusion and diversity and bring the university closer to local organizations engaged in social inclusion efforts. She feels she has a responsibility to connect people and open new opportunities, especially for younger researchers, students and lecturers interested in the topic. Together with fellow theme lead Maria Schiller and several young researchers, she started mapping local organizations working on social inclusion in Rotterdam. 

Another example of her efforts is the ‘Learning for equality in Rotterdam’ website, in which Isabel has been working on combining her role in VCC with a CLI fellowship. The site will showcase work produced by students across different faculties. Her team’s goal is to make education on diversity and inclusion more visible and, at the same time, offer lecturers, students, and other actors in Rotterdam valuable opportunities to learn from each other and to collaborate. 

Integrating research, education and practice

Isabel teaches the Bachelor elective ‘Communicating (in)equalities in the city’, together with Zouhair Hammana. Zouhair is trained as a sociologist and draws significantly from post- and decolonial approaches. He is working on a VCC-funded PhD project on diversity in secondary education. Isabel approaches the topic from a media and journalism studies perspective and relies significantly on her experiences conducting ethnographic research. “We bring our diverse expertise, backgrounds and interests to class and invite students to do the same.”

This year, they collaborated with the WE, an organization that fights discrimination by encouraging dialogue among people with diverse backgrounds. “Associates from WE teamed with our students to produce shared maps of Rotterdam that expanded our social-spatial understanding of the city.” 

The importance of interdisciplinarity 

It is apparent that Isabel values interdisciplinarity in her work. However, interdisciplinary work does not always happen naturally: “We all know that – especially when addressing pressing social issues – interdisciplinarity is incredibly important. In practice, however, crossing disciplinary lines is not that easy.” 

Within VCC, interdisciplinarity is highly valued, which is one of the things Isabel appreciates most about the initiative: “Specifically within the Inclusive Cities and Diversity theme, I am extremely fortunate to work with Maria Schiller. She brings her expertise on the governance of migration and diversity to our projects, and our shared network and team are much richer, innovative and creative than if we followed disciplinary lines.”

Isabel also works closely with Jiska Engelbert, theme lead on smart cities and communities. Together they examine power dynamics involved in process of urban digitalization and how to make these processes more inclusive. Within this framework, they supervise Mariana Fried’s phD project “Beyond the Silicon Valley story: An ethnographic approach to digital workers' discursive production of smart cities”

Intensifying the dialogue

When striving for social justice, creating societal impact is a necessary outcome. Isabel explains her view on creating impact: “I think making an impact is always present in socially engaged scholarship and committed teaching. That said, I am happy that we are reflecting more on the how and why of the impact of our work and that we are developing new tools to increase our work’s social relevance. In our theme, this involves extending and intensifying the dialogue with community organizations to have a better sense of what our contribution should look like.”  

Biography Isabel Awad Cherit

The underlying concern of her teaching and research is an understanding of the conditions for democratic communication and social justice against a backdrop of social inequality. Much of her work focuses on how the (news) media contribute to the inclusion/exclusion of marginalized social groups and on the efforts of specific actors (journalists, activists, ordinary citizens) to navigate creatively within hegemonic media environments. Isabel is theme lead (on Diversity and Inclusion) within the Vital Cities and Citizens Erasmus Initiative. A native from Chile, Isabel obtained her PhD in Communication from Stanford University (USA) in 2007. She is the academic coordinator of the Media, Culture and Society Master program

Associate professor
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Vital Cities and Citizens

With the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens, Erasmus University Rotterdam wants to help improve the quality of life in cities. In vital cities, the population can achieve their life goals through education, useful work and participation in public life. The vital city is a platform for creativity and diversity, a safe meeting place for different social groups. The researchers involved focus on one of the four sub-themes:

•    Inclusive Cities and Diversity
•    Resilient Cities and People
•    Smart Cities and Communities 
•    Sustainable and Just Cities

VCC is a collaboration between Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) and International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).

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