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Alumnus Shivan Shazad: 'I would like to have been a member of a diversity and inclusion committee'

It was his thesis supervisor during his master's in Film and Photographic Studies who encouraged Shivan Shazad to pursue a second master's in diversity policy at Ghent. He is now Manager of Diversity and Inclusion at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Your CV includes a bachelor’s and two master’s. With so many studies behind you, you must have loved studying and your student days?

'That's actually a bit disappointing. I've known for a year now that I have a mild form of ADD. I think that's why I didn't quite come into my own during my studies: for instance, I always found it difficult to stay focused during exams. Also, my creative perspectives in theses were not always well understood. Moreover, only my father had done a university study, and that was in Germany. At the start, studying was therefore stranger for me than for children of two Dutch-educated parents: I never felt completely at home in the academic world. Eventually I did find my way, but I think I would have liked it if there had been a diversity and inclusion committee back then, also to experience the commonality you have in a corps, for example.'

Was it that personal experience that made you get involved with diversity professionally?

'At the end of my Leiden master's I wrote a thesis on performance art and identity. Then, for the first time, I really drew the conclusion that I wanted to continue in this field, but of course my personal experience also has to do with that. I was born in Iran, but during the Iranian revolution we had to leave the country and start over in South Limburg, where my mother is from. As a child, I noticed how difficult it was for my father to get a job because he didn't speak the language and dialect. That made me very aware of inequality in the job market.

At the end of my Leiden master's I drew the conclusion that I wanted to continue in this field.

Later, it was reinforced by the fact that I belong to the LGBT community. I moved to the Randstad because I felt freer here and met more like-minded people. I got to know people of all identities who got along well despite their differences. I found that inspiring.'

How did you end up at the Rijksmuseum?

'I had a part-time job as a public employee at the museum. I was also a member of the diversity committee there and was on the application committee when they were looking for a diversity manager in 2019. I remember thinking then: this is a really cool position, but I'm not ready for it yet. A few years later, the position became available again. Long story short: I applied and ended up getting the job.'

Why does a museum need a manager of Diversity and Inclusion?

'Exhibitions have for a long time consisted of paintings by white male artists or stories created by white educated men who had studied European history or art history. But cultural institutions are increasingly coming to understand that our national history can be told from different perspectives. To tell those more nuanced stories, you need multiple perspectives. So you want to have staff with different fields of study, competences and mindsets. On the other hand, you want staff working on this to feel comfortable and safe in the organisation so that they ultimately work better together, learn from each other's perspectives and so are able to grow. In addition, you want to be able to attract new partners who might fit in better with your renewed values.

To tell those more nuanced stories, you need multiple perspectives.

For our museum, I am the connecting link in this. I work together with our ambassadors of diversity and inclusion, to raise awareness and support for change. This involves such things as organising annual activities such as Pride, Keti Koti or 5 May. Strategically, I advise a steering committee of department heads with whom I make medium-term strategic plans in terms of programmes, staff, partners and audiences. Where do we want to go as a museum? I really like that shift between shop floor level and strategic level, because it requires different skills and roles.'

What do you ultimately want to achieve with the museum?

'It is always assumed, if someone has a different skin colour or cultural identity from the dominant group, that they automatically bring with them different norms and values, but of course that doesn't have to be the case at all. Identity is more than someone's skin colour, cultural identity or gender. Identity is multiple, contextual and dynamic and is only expressed in relationships, so you can’t say that someone always experiences inclusion or exclusion. I often miss this complexity and stratification in the diversity debate.

Moreover, policies aimed at certain underrepresented groups are simply paternalistic: "We'll give you a chance". Many organisations don’t further investigate whether this is how these groups want to be brought in. That approach sometimes also covers up the structural problems that may be at play in organisations, such as socio-economic differences or different contract forms.

If you really want to select on the basis of skills, talents and competences, you may have to recalibrate what you as an organisation see as 'quality'.

In this role, I think it’s important to make our organisation aware of the opportunities and risks that certain policy choices entail and also to raise awareness that you really need to select on the basis of skills, talents and competences. But that also means that you may have to recalibrate what you as an organisation see as "quality" and that you have to redesign the selection process. That takes time.

Shivan Shazad took a propaedeutic year in music production at Utrecht School of the Arts, a bachelor's degree in Cultural Sociology and a minor in Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, a master's degree in Film and Photographic Studies in Leiden and a master's degree in Gender and Diversity in Ghent. He currently works for the Rijksmuseum as Diversity and Inclusion Manager.

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