A French girl (Julie) and a Filipina (Meg), two colleagues in fact, walk into a bar on a Friday night. After a round of beers, the regular chitchat about professional life and their latest adventures turns to the I, too, am Oxford initiative (http://itooamoxford.tumblr.com). Small vexations and larger frustrations, such as the ones revealed by University of Oxford students of colour in their photos, are not rare in a field where the extreme variety of cultures and backgrounds put clients in uncomfortable, if not dangerous positions in their adoptive society, where communication difficulties abound. After all, Finland has much in common with those prestigious universities, starting with the fact that both are historical strongholds of well-off pale people. A week on, and over sixty people are showing their mugs on a Tumblr account, speaking aloud about their experience of belonging to Finland, taking up papers and pens and spreading the word across social media platforms – and it’s only starting.
“The Oxford and Harvard examples are at the core about the experience of people of colour, but we wanted to do something a little different,” Julie explains. The original I, too, am Harvard photo series aim for black students to reclaim their campus, when faced with the assumption they don’t deserve their place there. “But the concept of micro-aggression, these often well-intended words or actions that subtly communicate negative slights toward people is also quite central in our own take with I, too, am Finland.”
“It is all about people expressing their sense of belonging in the society – that they do not have to be Finnish citizens or speak fluent Finnish for them to be able to claim that they, too, have a place in Finland,” says Meg.
The blog is welcoming contributions from any resident of the country, whether they are Finnish citizens or not and however well they speak the national language(s). The moderators try to keep the discussion as open as possible: “We encourage people to share their thoughts, ideas and experiences on living and being in Finland and at the same time, we want to show how diverse Finnish society is today. Whatever these thoughts are.”
User contributions have significantly reshaped and redefined the blog’s original approach, and its creators’ expectations: “We are working primarily with submissions, meaning we have very little control or influence on the participants’ messages, or how they are interpreting what belonging to Finland means.”
And it had unexpected results:
“We thought submissions would focus more on negative issues such as unemployment or discrimination, so we were a little bit concerned in the beginning. But no.”
“I’m actually surprised by how positive people have been in their submissions,” Julie says. Most participants smile through their pictures; the words “home”, “love” and “happiness” appear frequently, and lighthearted humour, more often than scathing irony, crops up time and again – altogether a hopeful and bright picture of today’s Finland. Open discussion also means the possibility of criticism, and some expressed reservations about the initiative.
“Fortunately, this is Finland, so people disagreeing with our approach are very polite about it, and put it as mildly as possible. We didn’t get any hate, but some immigrants questioned whether the blog wasn’t contributing to a climate where they are forced to justify and prove, again and again, that their presence in Finland is legitimate. They are exhausting their energy doing so, when they could use their talents productively, and contribute to this society” the creators explain. “But this kind of message too is something we want to have there.”
“The important is that these individual and diverse voices be heard. Belonging to Finland is not always problematic. The message does not need to be negative or desperate to induce a change in the system – it can also be done positively”, Meg adds. In the end, many contributions have a universal resonance. “Aren’t we all humans?”
The initiators of I, too, am Finland consider it as a small but significant step in facing the challenges posed by the increasing diversity of a society. And as they go back to the same bar, one week on, for another round of drinks, they know that thousands of people also feel that they, too, are Finland. The blog is welcoming contributions at itooamfinland.tumblr.com/submit.
About the initiators:
Julie Breton is a political scientist from France who moved to Study in Finland and now decided to live here permanently. She is now working as the association coordinator for Moniheli ry.
Meg Sakilayan-Latvala is a psychologist who moved to Finland for family reasons. She is a project worker for Qutomo, an EU funded integration project under Nicehearts of Vantaa, an organization that gives social assistance to women. [/symple_box]