This month, my organisation Catalyst Lab alongside a bunch of entrepreneurial students launched a digital campaign ‘DIVERSIFY’ on what diversity means to students. The idea is to see how we can go beyond the usual stereotypes, the unboxing of ourselves and others.
Three boxes, three groups of students – Dutch, European and non-European. A student stands in the middle, armed with questions – Who has lived in another country for more than a year? Who has been in an intercultural relationship? Who has tattoos? Students are told to move to the middle if they resonate with the question. They do.
This warm up paves the way for more thought provoking questions. Who considers themselves religious? Quite a few students move to the centre. This is interesting because, as we discovered in a 2018 PEW report, on average only 19 percent of young adults in Europe said that religion was very important in their lives.
Things get serious. Students respond with astonishing honesty. The atmosphere is raw with emotion.
Who here has never been racist? Nobody moves.
Who has experienced sexually inappropriate behaviour? Many female students move to the centre, without flinching.
Who has felt lonely? Everybody moves. This seems counterintuitive as young people more than any age group appear to have ample opportunities to meet and engage with other people. Our students are not an anomaly it seems. The BBC revealed that young people more than any other age group suffer when it comes to feeling lonely. The Guardian calls this “a silent plague that is hurting young people most.”
Have you ever felt uncomfortable about your body? Everybody but two young men stay behind. Body image has become one of the top concerns affecting our young people, because a negative body image is a “precursor of serious social, medical and mental health issues including anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, stigmatisation and, potentially, eating disorders.” This affects both sexes. There is a growing pattern of young men worrying about bulking up or ‘reverse anorexia’, while young women are obsessed with losing weight.
The last heavy hitting question freezes all students in their place but for one – How many of you believe you have an equal chance? After the financial and economic crisis in 2007, the European Commission reported growing pessimism across different countries. However, in recent years, young Europeans are expressing more optimism, believing they will be better off than their parents. So what is it that keeps our students from riding this optimistic wave? What holds them back? Do they feel that their future is out of their control?
So many questions remain unanswered. I hope such digital campaigns trigger reflection and dialogue among our young people, as they have clearly shown great courage in sharing something which often remains hidden and silent.
Payal Arora is an Associate Professor at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication