Iulian Stoian is the Head of the Public Policies Department within the National Agency for the Roma, under the Government of Romania. He is a committed human rights activist who has volunteered for various NGOs advocating for vulnerable groups, including the LGBT and Roma minorities. In this interview, we had the opportunity to engage in a thought-provoking discussion with him, exploring topics such as intersectionality and his ongoing efforts to foster a more inclusive society.
This interview was first published in Diversity Management in Romanian Organisations, 2nd edition, June 2023, Bucharest.
Mr Stoian, what excites you about a new day?
The fact that we live in an open, imperfect, yet still perfectible democratic society, where we could bring a minor change. In a few words: to put some bricks to an acceptant society’s edifice!
As a supporter and advocate of disadvantaged groups, including LGBTIQ+ and Roma minority, what does your effort look like in practice and what are the hardest walls you need to face?
My current position of civil servant is directing me to focus mostly on specialised training or mentorship for youth activists and other stakeholders, be they LGBTIQ+ and/or Roma or not. I also act as a volunteer in helping community-led organisations in their strategic planning and disseminating funding opportunities that are suitable for them. Most of my time, as anyone else, I take the opportunity to spread human rights-related messages, campaigns, initiatives, in short, I act as a multiplier of inclusion messages in social media. This is aimed at creating an alternative discourse, inclusive and respectful with the difference, to the widespread stereotypical and prejudicial public speech about minorities. These are the toughest walls we need to break every day, and this will require an entire ‘army’ of dedicated activists to combat the existing waves of hate…
How would you explain intersectionality to someone who’s not familiar with the term and how are Roma people, and in particular the young, coping with it? Do you know any good practices or programmes that support them?
The concept of intersectionality is easy to explain while comparing someone’s identity with… an onion! We all have layers of identity – from gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, citizenship, ethnicity(ies), to mother tongue, religious beliefs, disability, visible or not, political or civic affiliation, or level of education, age, personal backgrounds, residence etc. This sum of attributes might be expressed simultaneously or can influence us in very personal ways. Even musical tastes might place us in a particular category which is intersecting with other grounds, and such intersections might place us in a vulnerable group or other, or might predispose us to become victims of discrimination (multiple, intersectional), hate speech, or worse, hate crime motivated by stereotypes and prejudices. From this perspective, anyone is vulnerable, because the stereotypes and prejudices are feeding the hate mechanisms in ways we cannot predict. Even the perceived affiliation with a minority group might place one in the position of victim of hate.
Most of the time, the coping mechanisms are related to the self-hate, or the hate of the self minority group someone is belonging to, in an effort to be accepted by the majority. This is visible, for example, in the case of Roma students accessing the affirmative action measures in education, which are finally denying their ethnicity, in an attempt to blend with the majority students.
Why is it important to consider intersectionality in the context of D&I efforts?
In today’s society, when the concept of “dictatorship of political correctness” is widespread, we all need to learn and spread the simple definition: political correctness = respect for the other, as any of us are individuals with multiple identities. “You’re against political correctness? You’re against the concept of respecting the other!” This is a simple attitude that should be present in interpersonal communication, when interacting with those spreading or relativizing the hate while using the political correctness argument!
Can you share some examples of how individuals’ intersecting identities can impact their experiences in the workplace, and how organisations can address these challenges?
Hate in the workplace is widespread and it is not affecting only the members of the vulnerable groups. For example, the moral harassment of women for not being in relationships, or women with challenges imposed by the standards of beauty, weight, or those with minority political views. Imagine a lesbian co-worker in a traditional-oriented team, which creates psychological pressure to attend the company’s event with the “significant other”, while all assume that this one is/should be a “he”. All the frustrations she accumulates while deciding to come out or not in front of a team that informally expressed homophobic comments. That is why we all need to cultivate a culture of respect for diversity in order to create safe spaces for all. And this is not possible only with the company’s set of values and statues that is adopted formally, but it comes with a community of practice. Creating safe spaces for all minorities or for diversity in all its forms is paramount for a successful working place.
How can companies move beyond a “one-size-fits-all” approach to diversity and inclusion to create a more inclusive environment that takes into account individuals’ intersecting identities?
Well, this could start with the adherence to a set of values, such as Diversity Charter, or enrolment of the company in global awareness raising campaigns, participating in thematic events; the job interview is another place where you can convey a message about the values a company are committed to; also, retreats where team members could be encouraged to show their hobbies, and share their interests and involve others! And encouraging the staff to attend events such as gay pride parades, sponsorship of such events, and informing the team we are supporting this event or another, and they are encouraged to attend.
In an older interview, you said that Roma people were and will continue to be the constant losers of the transition game as long as children are not exposed to multiculturalism, to a diverse and more tolerant society. What kind of steps do you think schools and parents can take to educate their children on these matters?
Indeed. The lack of exposure to diversity during the Communist regime is paying off nowadays. Children are as ‘sponges’, absorbing equally hate and respect, depending on the chance they have in their families. Let’s not forget that the discrimination is taught at home, replicated in school and the circle of friends, and ‘validated’ by the society. I met numerous members of the younger generation shamefully acknowledging their parents are racists or homophobic, but these are exceptions, as the Romanian school system is not ready to cultivate critical thinking in their students. We all will advance when we are learning, both in school and families, the simple lesson of respect for the other.
What do you think is the role of the youth in creating an inclusive society and what does it mean to you to be a responsible member of the community?
The younger generation is more connected to the “progressive ideas”, such as diversity, democratic principles, equity and equality and the fact they have access to the humanity knowledge at a click distance is encouraging. The multiplying effect of social media is welcomed, provided that the youth are taught to recognize the hate speech, the stereotypical and prejudicial discourse and will be able to confront it in a non-violent manner. I strongly believe that modern technology will be of great help in learning the values of respect for diversity for the future generations!
What is something you would like Romanian policy makers and practitioners to change about how they think about Roma issues?
Well, as a policy maker and practitioner in this field, I might dare to recommend for each and everyone of us:
Be more aware of your own stereotypes and prejudices and don’t let them influence your work or actions!
Confront prejudicial speech each and every time you are recognizing – be it in a document or in public discourse; even in your own discourse! Think critically!
Create a space for free expression for members of minority / vulnerable groups and do not ‘confiscate’/appropriate their speech! You are not an ally if you’re dressing as a Roma woman and posting on social media, for example, but rather when you’re offering your allocated time for speech! Be genuine!
You have an Akita dog, named Kara. What do you think dogs can teach us about love and acceptance?
Well, dogs with their loyal and affectionate nature are teaching us unconditional love, compassion and acceptance. They are standing by us when showing them a simple humane gesture. Dogs are helping humans to become better and are shaping the love and acceptance in our relationships with others.