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Why representation matters: diversity in networks and the RSA Fellowship

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  • Gender
  • Fellowship
  • Fellowship in Action
  • Social mobility

As a young, immigrant South Asian woman, I don’t always feel like I belong in the UK, even though I have every right to be here.

I still do come from a position of relative privilege – I was raised in a middle class, upper caste South Asian family – but I often find myself in a space where people don’t necessarily understand the unique problems accompanying my social location in this country.  

I have often wondered about the ways in which this both enables and constrains my appetite and ability to make a difference and work for social change. How I could develop my ideas, feel supported, and feel like I belong, if I had a network of people who looked a little bit more like me? 

Personal networks and unequal access to social capital  

The RSA Fellowship is a network of like-minded individuals working towards positive social change - this has been our mission for over 260 years. This network is a valuable source of social capital which enables our Fellows to achieve transformational change through their work. But what about extending this social capital to individuals and communities that have been systematically denied access to it?  

That class, gender, and race (among others) are determinants of inequality and often dictate access to resources is a well-accepted truth. We are also more likely to interact with individuals “like us”: people coming from similar communities and sharing demographic characteristics. As a result, our personal networks tend to be homogenous and defined by gender, occupation, education, religion, age, and most of all race and ethnicity. 

For example, people from higher socio-economic backgrounds tend to associate with other people from similar backgrounds. They occupy positions of power and authority in corporations, governments, charities and businesses, and through the power of social capital, their family and friends can gain access to powerful positions themselves.  

This is evident in statistics like the minimal representation of BAME women in leadership roles in the UK, and more disappointingly, the gross under-representation of ethnic minorities in the charity sector. A survey by ACEVO in early 2017 found that while UK charities have made progress on gender balance, racial representation is a glaring issue with just 3% of charity leaders from BAME backgrounds. We need to do better.  

A more recent survey by RSA Fellows highlights the disability pay-gap. Many disabled people find that gender and race take priority in within organisations looking to diversify, leading to an ‘invisibilisation’ of disability within these conversations.  

These are complex, intersecting issues, and solutions to them are never straightforward.  

Why Representation Matters 

So where am I going with this? I work with the RSA Fellowship, and we have always prided ourselves on the diversity of thought and innovation it represents. However, it is only if our Fellows come from a variety of backgrounds that we are able to support initiatives spanning the world and empower communities otherwise out of our reach.  

Moreover, having people that look like you, that have similar experiences as you do, and come from similar backgrounds can be a source of support in and of itself. Representation matters. It is tremendously important to have representatives from BAME backgrounds, international Fellows, people with disabilities, individuals from varied socio-economic backgrounds, members of the LGBTQIA community – and have them leading change in their own communities.  

Which brings me back to why I started writing this piece. Under-represented minority groups have never had the same access to resources and social capital as dominant groups. We’re not at the same dinner parties, we don’t have the same “family and friends” allowances, we don’t always fit smoothly into conversations and don’t always feel like we belong. Consequently, we don’t always have the same easy access to brilliant new ideas, we aren’t in conference rooms where decisions get made, and we don’t always hear about opportunities for support and collaboration.  

What does a diverse network look like, and how can we support you? 

The Fellowship is a ready-made network of connections, collaboration and support. We offer a platform for your ideas, a space for people to learn, grow and innovate.  

Our work with Fellows has included funding women farmers in Vietnam, encouraging conversations around disabled women and sexuality, and projects to strengthen migrant economiesThe Fellowship creates relationships across borders and introduces you to people who can help turn your ideas into reality.  

We want to continue to extend this network to those people and communities who have grown up without access to this kind of capital in the hope that it serves to alleviate inequalities in access to social – and by extension economic and cultural – capital.  

My hope is to build a diverse, thriving community of people, leading projects that they understand closely, challenging the dynamic of outsiders bringing change and development to “less developed” or “underprivileged” communities. My vision is of a Fellowship that is intersectional, inclusive and representative, so we can truly be a global community. 

Join me in creating a space for voices on the margins to be heard. Join me in building a network where more people look like me, where more people look like you.  


If you are interested in finding out more about the RSA’s work, and how being a Fellow can support you, get in touch with me directly on kavya.menon@rsa.org.uk, or sign up on the form above. 

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  • Dear Kavya,


    I am a young student in the United States. Although you’re in the UK, I believe that the situation is quite similar in the States. I believe that your piece makes a ton of great points! As a part of the second generation of Southeast Asian immigrants, I find myself resonating with your story. Though a school setting isn’t exactly the same as a work setting, I feel as if minority representation is needed in schools as well.


    When I was a child, I went to a predominantly white elementary school. I understand that I was only a kid, but I never felt like I truly belonged there. Of course, I bonded with many of my classmates and I loved my friends, but we had so many factors that separated us. The physical appearance and culture my classmates grew up in were so different from mine that I would often find myself feeling left out of the group. Even if I liked the same things they did, it would never change the fact that we looked different. 


    In the middle of elementary, my family and I moved to another state, which forced me into a new environment. I was still at a relatively predominantly white elementary school, but this time it was different. This time there was more racial and ethnic diversity. I had a diverse group of friends and eventually, I felt like I belonged. Because there were others who were also minorities, I felt like I belonged. Even if they weren’t exactly Southeast Asian or Asian in general, I felt like I belonged. It was just because we were different from the majority.


    In the present, I still have a diverse group of friends. I find that I love forming relationships with people of different ethnicities because I feel as if I learn so much more about cultures that I’m unfamiliar with. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, making these different connections helped me gain strength and grow as an individual. From my experience, I completely agree with your point that states that having people who are similar to you in terms of physical appearance, culture, and background really does provide support.


    Moving on, I really believe that minority representation is especially needed in the education system as well. After all, the youth, all who have the potential to achieve and become future leaders, are being raised by the education system. I know that Asians are stereotypically called the “smart cookies” of the class as the other groups are labeled as the “dumb ones” of the class. These labels are dangerous. From my knowledge, negative labels can become a part of someone’s personality. They start to believe it. The group being affected doesn’t even have to be someone from 


    For example, those in the “smart cookie” group might just rely on their “smartness” rather than hard work (I have experienced this myself). Those who happen to have the same physical characteristics of the “smart cookie” group, but aren’t “smart” are met with the pressure to meet that label (I have had a friend who experienced this feeling!). As for those who are called the “dumb ones”, they may begin to believe in their label and fall into a fixed mindset. I don’t have many friends who have experienced this, but I have witnessed it with many of the kids in my graduating class.


    Additionally, teachers may treat their students differently because of these labels. For example, teachers may expect more from the “smart cookie” group and push them harder, which nourishes their growth. Unfortunately, that would they would also risk neglecting the “dumb ones”. Most of this information is from a 1966 study led by Robert Rosenthal. The study was done on elementary students from grade one to six and focused splitting the students of each grade into two groups (the experimental group who were known as the “bloomers” and the control group) and analyzing how the expectations of the teachers would impact student IQ scores. There was a decline in the influence from the teacher’s expectations as the higher the grade was, but the earlier grades showed the eponym of the Rosenthal Effect (a very creative name, I know). This effect is essentially a phenomenon in which outside expectations has an influence on a person’s behavior. Though the higher grades showed a decline, I still believe that there is still influence. If not with their teachers, then perhaps with their peers. Either way, these simple titles change how students view themselves and others around them, which in turn changes how they behave and perform in school.


    I’m not very familiar with the Fellowship. In fact, I just found this on Google, but I really enjoyed reading your piece. It makes me feel enlightened. I hope that RSA continues on with speaking out and enriching minds because the world needs it.


    Cait


  • Thanks for your post Kavya. I'm a great believer in the value of diversity in all its forms, and the tremendous potential for diversity of thinking within the RSA Fellowship. 


    One question though. When you say:


    "Join me in creating a space for voices on the margins to be heard. Join me in building a network where more people look like me, where more people look like you".


    what does that mean in practice? 


    I often see articles & blog posts on the RSA website calling for Fellows to "join in" but it's rarely clear what that actually means in practice. 


    What deliberation & participation infrastructure is there (for those not living in London)? 

  • You make some excellent points, especially about the role that the RSA Fellowship can play in giving people access to networks and purposeful activity. 

    All this stuff should be second nature and I stand up and admit that I'm not always there to the second nature stage just yet. Even though I recognise the importance of diversity our Fellowship I sometimes find myself being drawn into the gravitational field of "people like me". I always regret it because I've missed out on some altogether more interesting conversations and potential collaborations.

    I would just pick up one point: I really don't need to meet more like-minded people, I need to meet people who come from a different starting point and who have different perspectives on the issues we are trying to tackle.

    I do appreciate your thoughts though and the many excellent points you make. I'm just starting work on helping the Fellowship Council find more effective ways for groups and networks to engage with younger Fellows and, in particular, those with child-care responsibilities for whom so many doors of opportunity are difficult to open.

  • Hi Kavya, thanks for a very interesting piece, one which resonates with my own feelings. I have been a single mum for almost 15 years and it has been at times a considerable challenge to integrate into workplace, especially after a break. For me it meant constantly compensating in all three worlds - as a mum, as a post grad student and as an employee. I totally agree with your statement: 'having people that look like you, that have similar experiences as you do, and come from similar backgrounds can be a source of support in and of itself.' I would very much hope to provide support in the future for others with similar issues, because I have a deep understanding informed by experience.

    I also look forward to future events on the subject, sorry I have missed the one with Sam Friedman, which Michaela wrote about in the previous comment. 

    • Hi Khrystyna, 


      Thank you for your comment - I was hoping my thoughts would resonate with a number of people who have had similar experiences. There are a number of events constantly ongoing at RSA House. Just keep an eye on the events page and I'm sure there will be something that catches your eye. We're also experimenting with different formats for Fellowship events, like this one, to make them more accessible to people who may not be able to attend the traditional evening events. 


      I'm always keen to hear more thoughts so do drop in an email if you'd like to continue the conversation! 


      Kavya

  • Hi Kavya, I really enjoyed reading your piece. I became a fellow in February and attended my first talk yesterday - Why it pays to be privileged - by Sam Friedman. It consolidated a lot of my thoughts and perceptions about fitting in and progressing in work and I learned some new useful terms such as ‘cultural matching’ and ‘studied informality’ that help explain how those with capital really do have a head start. Although the talk focused on class, intersectionality was also considered. Just reading your thoughts on why a diverse fellowship is crucial really echoes what was discussed yesterday and reinforces my conviction that joining the RSA is a good step for me. Many thanks, Michaela

    • Thanks Michaela, I'm glad you enjoyed reading this. There's a lot of work we're doing to help make spaces within the RSA more inclusive, and it's all with the help of our Fellows, and brilliant staff members. If you have ideas, thoughts and suggestions please feel free to email me - I'd be happy to have a coffee. 

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