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Why inclusion is about more than just access

12:32 07/10/2021
Why inclusion is about more than just access

Nina Kurlberg on why official responses to the murders of Sabina Nessa and Sarah Everard suggest we still have a lot to learn about inclusion

The news coverage in recent weeks surrounding the murders of Sabina Nessa and Sarah Everard has been harrowing for many of us, reopening old wounds to expose trauma that, though hidden, is always present.

At a societal level, inclusion and exclusion tend to be conceived of primarily in relation to access, although interpretations are sometimes nuanced to emphasize the importance of participation too. As evidenced by these murders, however, there is a need for both terms to be reconceptualized. While women today can arguably access many of the same spaces as men – much more so than in previous generations – and have the opportunity to participate meaningfully in these spaces, they are not yet able to do so on equal terms. What I find particularly disturbing about Sabina and Sarah’s stories is the everyday nature of the activities they were engaged in at the time of their murders – Sabina was walking to the pub to meet a friend, Sarah was walking home after spending the evening with a friend. Such violence against women is not limited to the acts of a few ‘rogue’ individuals, but is symptomatic of the deep-rooted exclusion of women within our societies.

While exclusion’s ultimate end point is death, its manifestation in everyday life is often much subtler than this. Focusing solely on access or participation – although these remain critical aspects of inclusion – increases the risk that these subtler forms of exclusion go unnoticed and unaddressed. A good case in point is the Met leadership’s much-criticized response to the fear expressed by women across the country in the wake of Sarah’s murder by a serving police officer. This included the absurd advice to consider knocking on doors or waving down buses if feeling threatened by an officer in plain clothes. Responses such as this epitomize exclusion. No attempt seems to have been made to genuinely listen to the fear and pain expressed with a view to affecting change; rather, the onus was once again placed on women to take the necessary steps to ensure their safety.

For inclusion to be a reality, deep-seated change is required on all fronts – attitudinal, systemic, structural, and so forth. The scope of conversations on inclusion must broaden from focusing solely on access and participation to emphasizing change.

This applies to other forms of diversity too. I can recall black friends and colleagues expressing their pain in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Many spoke of being taught from a young age how to interact with the police, for example, or explained how they had become so accustomed to code-switching in predominantly white spaces that it had become second nature to them. Compelling people to change in order to access and ensure their own safety in a space is not inclusion.

Inclusion and exclusion are rooted in societal attitudes towards difference, be that gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, class or caste. Inclusion requires us all to be willing to journey across divides or boundaries of all types to genuinely listen to voices and perspectives that we have either not wanted or not dared to hear, with an openness to being transformed in the process. It requires us all to acknowledge the legitimacy of difference and resist the temptation to fashion a world of people that are just like us. It requires us all to share the power we have rather than wield it over others.

The image of the wound is powerful for reflection on inclusion not only because it so accurately captures the deep pain of exclusion, but also because it signifies hope through the potential for healing – and not in a superficial way, but in a way that does justice to reality in all its messiness. In essence, the image of the wound draws pain, vulnerability and brokenness intimately together with the possibility of restoration.

But restoration is not possible if wounds are continually ignored. Drawing on this image, Mary McClintock Fulkerson (Places of Redemption 2007, pp. 13) has argued that wounds are a site for ‘theologies that matter’. It is this site that is the focal point of Theologies and Practices of Inclusion. While its particular area of focus is faith-based organizations working in international development, the questions at the heart of the book hold wider relevance: ‘What is inclusion, theologically and practically? How can it heal the wounds of exclusion? What should organizations and communities that desire to be inclusive be aiming towards?’ The book seeks to inspire readers to reflect on their own theologies and practices in this regard, in the hope that this will contribute towards healing in our communities.

Nina Kurlberg is Theology Development Officer at Tearfund, and co-editor (with Madleina Daehnhardt) of Theologies and Practices of Inclusion, which is published this month. More information on the book here.