I recently had the opportunity to participate in the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) Forum in Doha, Qatar. I was invited as a representative of the Diversity Collegium think tank. It was a great honor to represent the Collegium, an extraordinary group of thought leaders and practitioners in diversity and inclusion work, along with Lynda White. As representatives we were asked to serve on international panels examining multi-sector and multinational efforts at diversity leadership.
The Forum included heads of state, former heads of state, and other high level government officials. There were corporate CEO’s and Chief Diversity Officers (CDO’s), leaders of NGO’s and universities, and other thought leaders in intercultural affairs. It was truly an impressive gathering. It was also very much a UN event, complete with translation headsets, exhilarating multilateral dialogue, and jam-packed sessions.
For our part, Lynda and I served on two panels. Lynda’s session focused on corporate innovations in diversity and inclusion, and mine on cross-sector collaboration. The panel on which I served provided a wide range of perspectives from government, corporate, NGO and university representatives. It was moderated by Jean-Christophe Bas (UNAOC Senior Advisor for Strategic Development and Partnerships) and included the CDO from Weyerhaeuser, a Director of the Diversity Council Australia, foreign ministers from Turkey and China, and a university director from the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies among others including myself.
Our remarks were focused on work done by the nations and organizations which we represent, and our experiences with cross-sector diversity and intercultural relations work. I spoke about the work of the Diversity Collegium, and my experience at the University of Malawi developing curricula in partnership with government, NGO and sponsor partners and the potential impact of such partnerships. I cautioned that traditional partnerships, which too often tend to include university representatives as researchers or grant recipients rather than partners in thought leadership and practice, are problematic in that they tend to put educators in subservient roles guided ultimately by government or corporate interests. Having said that, I did my best to emphasize the potential for social, cultural and cross-cultural impact when schools and universities are included as partners with government, NGO, and corporate partners with interests in access, equity and social justice.
More interesting, to me, was the dialogue which followed our remarks. Questions, comments and challenges from those attending our panel session were very lively. The challenge to acknowledge poor corporate citizenship and participation in efforts that were counter to our stated goals of diversity, inclusion and intercultural dialogue was the most emphatic challenge put to the panelists. Other critical issues that were brought up were the inclusion of youth in decision making, the importance of partnering with small and often ignored nations, and a challenge to engage politically rather than attempt to produce non-political dialogue were among the most remarkable.
Perhaps most telling was that following our session, the majority of attendees and panelists stayed in the room, continued the dialogue and discussed future collaborations. Collectively the two panels which Lynda and I served on spurred ongoing dialogues, including the likely formation of a UNAOC working group to examine existing cross-sector diversity and inclusion efforts and propose a way forward to further collaboration and cooperation. We’ll see where this dialogue takes us; so often it ends there. In this case I am more optimistic than usual. The UNAOC is providing real space for continued dialogue and planning. We will stay intentionally engaged in the process and hopefully see constructive impact in the years to come.
As always, it was the discussions that happened between sessions and after the days’ events which were most interesting and provided the most potential for continued dialogue and collaboration. I had great conversation with colleagues and friends, old and new. I had the chance to spend time with Lynda in a new setting; meet and start to get to know Effenus Henderson, the CDO at Weyerhaeuser; spend time getting to know Katriina Tahka from the Diversity Council of Australia; and connect with George Martinez, the founder of the Global Block Foundation and Hip Hop Ambassador for the US to Latin America.
I had interesting conversations with Dr. Bernadette Dean, the Principal (President) of St. Joseph’s College for Women in Pakistan; Fakhrinur Huseynli, a project manager for the Institute for Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding from Azerbaijan; Peter Gorgievski, the CEO of the Global Dialogue Foundation; Jesse Hawkes, the Executive Director of Global Youth Connect; and Scot Osterweil, the Creative Director of The Education Arcade at MIT. I’m not a big fan of name-dropping, but man, these were some interesting folks. And there were so many more, it was a jam packed experience. In particular I remember a couple of interesting conversations with a reporter living in Doha, who grew up in Dubai, and whose family is from the US – I wish I’d gotten his card.
In addition to our sessions, the Forum included many interesting panels and dialogues. Most memorable and impactful for me were a couple of plenary sessions which included the highest levels of government, corporate and NGO representatives. It wasn’t so much that what was said was profound or earthshaking or even innovative. It was the simple fact that these national and international leaders were well versed on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion and that they were very publicly promoting salient ideas for change which could have global impact.
From Ban Ki Moon (UN) to Gordon Brown (UK), Jorge Sampaio (Portugal) to Michel Temer (Brasil), Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser (Qatar) to Bingu Wa Mutharika (Malawi), it was a very interesting dialogue at very high levels. From my perspective, it was even more important that there were also folks engaged in the dialogue who are practitioners and youth who are directly affected by the issues being discussed and the results of such dialogues.
Having been a part of many forums and conferences over the years, with lots of great dialogue and promise, I noticed the shortcomings and recognize the unlikeliness of follow-up and follow-through. Experience has also taught me that events such as this are just that, events. Anything of substance to come from this experience is up to those who participated to continue to build relationships, develop goals and plans, and ultimately to follow-through on what was learned and connections made. Again, I’m more optimistic than usual. Maybe it’s jet lag or the new year, or that awesome look of hope and excitement that I see in my daughters eyes. Whatever it is, I am hopeful and more importantly I am committed to staying engaged with the working group between now and early 2013 when the next Forum will be held in Vienna, Austria.
Finally, it was an interesting experience to visit Qatar. It was my first visit to the Middle East, and my first experience in a nation ruled by a monarchy. Sheikha Moza, the second of three wives of the Emir of Qatar and Ambassador to the UNAOC, served as the host of the Forum. She attended the plenary sessions everyday, and was treated with great deference. Doha was a very diverse and multicultural city, full of new and over-the-top construction. The national convention center, where the forum was held, was very impressive with it’s many fully teched out halls and beautiful architecture including the two intertwining Sidra trees that make up the façade. Just across from the center was Education City, which isn’t quite as ready for their closeup as is portrayed on the website. It does sound promising though, with multiple international universities represented on what is essentially one campus. I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on that project.
During the short time that I had outside the Forum I was able to meet some folks, visit the market, and take in a bit of the scenery. Nothing too out of the ordinary, folks were pleasant and the food was great. It was interesting that the vast majority of the population, something like three quarters, are immigrants and most of the population of Qatar are not of Arab descent. It is certainly an interesting place, and I hope to return one day and have more opportunities for an out of conference experience.