#Human courage

#HumanCourage: Marcel Dela Haije

posted 01-11-2021

Marcel, also known as a ‘Stadsmarinier’ of Rotterdam, is trying to turn his hometown into a more inclusive hub. A mission that’s real, honest and extremely encouraging. As the youngest member of a large family, he always felt comfortable making genuine connections with others. So, he turned his strength into his work and now, together with the Rotterdammers (as we call them in Dutch), he tackles complex issues like racism and discrimination. 

Who are you without your business card?
I always introduce myself as a “Rotterdammer” who was born in the wrong place. Originally, I’m from Limburg but since I set foot in Rotterdam in 1991, I never left. I’m also a dad, a husband, the youngest of seven siblings, and a huge fan of music and film. I love meeting new people who have an interesting story or idea; those who also seek genuine connections. I like bringing together different people within my network.

Who are you in your job as Stadsmarinier?
I’m an advocate for bottom-up interventions. In the work I do, I try to bring different individuals and perspectives together to create an integral approach to the problem we’re tackling. Specifically, for anti-racism and discrimination I have had conversations with many Rotterdammers. Those who are willing to share their stories and experiences related to discrimination and exclusion within our society. Delving into these different experiences and perspectives clarified what was going on. I’m constantly reminded that discrimination and exclusion aren’t simply challenges that exist between people, they’re embedded in our systems, procedures, and institutions. That can only change if all people – and especially those in positions of power - become aware of their own privilege and prejudices. When people are more aware of the world outside of their bubble they will hear and feel the experiences and stories of others.

During your conversations with the Rotterdammers, what left a mark?
That discrimination and exclusion are not typically the product of intended racism. Much of it comes from a place of unconscious bias and prejudices. For instance, in one conversation someone told me that when he enters a cafe, people pull their personal belongings a little closer. He didn’t think they were racist, but their reaction is a product of prejudices that are intrinsically embedded in our culture and in their brain. We humans create categories and put people in boxes. In other words, our brains decide what belongs to which category and who belongs in which box. As a result, we develop stereotypes, have prejudices and biases, and involuntarily treat people differently.

It’s therefore important to be aware of these biases, to make sure that they aren’t guiding our actions. Creating awareness amongst all Rotterdammers, and specifically public servants, is my mission for the coming years. I want them to take a moment to think: are my thoughts and actions justified? Are they based on facts, knowledge or experience? Are they based on prejudices? If people can reflect on themselves and break these habits, we are one step closer to creating an inclusive society.

What does Rotterdam look like when you’ve achieved awareness with all Rotterdammers?
The city of Rotterdam strives for a society where everyone feels safe to be who they are. Where everyone feels at home. Regardless of cultural background, gender, sexual orientation, disability, education and so on. Where we speak about Rotterdammers in general, instead of unnecessarily categorising them and highlighting potential differences.

You mentioned your job as “Stadsmarinier” made you humble, how come?
When I look back at my life, I used to be proud of my achievements. Now I realise that the fact that I’m a heterosexual white male has undoubtedly made things easier. If I had had a disability or a different ethnic background, my journey would have been bumpier and I would have experienced obstacles most men like myself don’t experience. Many people with different ethnic backgrounds told me that they experience distrust and skepticism from the other side of the table when applying for a job, buying a house, or talking to a financial institution. So, I realise I’m privileged in many ways. And I certainly don’t ascribe to the meritocratic myth that anyone can achieve anything, if only they work a bit harder.

How does this realisation inspire you?
It’s important to look for and find that different perspective. We need to realise that our reality and lived experience isn’t the same as everyone else. To get to grips with these differences, we need to engage with people outside our own bubble. The municipality needs to engage with diverse Rotterdammers and take their voices seriously. There’s a small group of people benefitting and succeeding in the society that we’ve shaped thus far, and a much larger group we still need to cater to. My impression is that some public servants have the tendency to think they have the knowledge and resources to help “these poor people”. I think we should talk to our citizens, take them seriously, build relationships on mutual trust and listen to what they have to say before developing new policies. Because community-led initiatives are the way forward.


Curious how diverse or inclusive your inner circle is? Do this exercise and find out!

Step 1: Under each heading, write the name of the person who fits the description.

  • Doctor (current or most recent)

  • Person you are in love with (or have been)
  • Neighbour (current or most recent)
  • Best friend
  • Roommate (current or most recent)
  • Favourite teacher
  • Favourite colleague
  • Favourite actor or actress
  • Leading actor in most recent film you watched
  • Author of most recent book you have read (for pleasure)
  • Person who inspires you

Step 2: Take a moment to reflect; how diverse is this list regarding ethnicity, gender, religion, age, education, disability, etc?


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