Fluid identities & Inclusion

A person is not defined solely by their national origin. The latter represents but one of many different facets, just like their gender, their age, or their professional life. Interests and talents – like tennis, a passion for Italian sports cars, or an especially keen eye for good photos, for example – are also part of a person’s identity, with which they move through the world and enter into social relationships.

When people come to Germany, the first thing they are usually asked about is their origin: Where are you from? Since national identities are very often associated with personality traits, such as being punctual/unpunctual, chaotic/orderly, introvert/extrovert, these traits are directly assigned to the person.

The awareness that a person carries a lot of individual identities in them that may differ from – or even go against – national stereotypes can open many doors.

This is Dalia. She loves to drink tea in the morning and enjoys reading books about plants. She is from a Muslim family and is studying art.

In traditional work with the so-called “integration” approach, there is a strong focus on national origin and political status. Where are you from? Why are you here? Instead of seeking to acknowledge the power differences, maybe shift them to a certain extent and bring two persons closer to each other – maybe even having them contribute jointly towards the betterment of society, the focus is placed solely on the differences.

What if we changed that? What if, upon first encountering someone, we were to ask them what he or she loves spending time on? Or what their favorite park in the city is? What if, instead of only inquiring about differences, we tried to find out both what we have in common and where we (are) position(ed) (ourselves) differently?

What would it be like if we put the emphasis on individual needs and talents and stopped categorizing people as “helpers” and “those in need of help”?

We did not come up with this way of looking at things ourselves. The concept is called “transculturalism”. People who look at the world from a transcultural perspective understand the culture, identity, and belonging as fluid processes that cannot be pigeonholed into set categories.

For those who wish to delve deeper: Link

Questions to think about
The power of language

If we wish to bring people together as equals with our work, using the right language can be very helpful. The most important tricks? Awareness, empathy and creativity.


Words generate images in a person’s mind – and these can be both positive and negative. Do we wish to evoke images with positive connotations or maybe even challenge any existing assumptions? Then we must be aware of our choice of words and the images that these words create in the minds of our listeners.

Language as a weapon or a tool?

Beware of subconscious imagery! If we use terms that are already strongly loaded – e.g. as a result of media reports – the risk of reproducing such images increases. For example, take the term “refugee” – there is a high probability that using this term will evoke an association with suffering or the threat of being harmed. Was this our intention? If we were to use less loaded terms like, for example, “newly arrived persons”, the probability of negative associations can be reduced.


Every one of us has conscious and subconscious assumptions. To communicate successfully, we must ask ourselves: What do we wish to achieve with our message? What assumptions do our listeners already have, and do we wish to reinforce or challenge these assumptions with our choice of words? Consequently, our aim is to empathize with the recipients of our own words.


Our language is very steeped in customs and traditions. If you notice that a much-used term is loaded with negative associations, just think of a new one! Playing with words or coming up with new terms is a lot of fun. And, at the same time, it allows us to challenge existing assumptions and create new associations.

Internal and external communication: Language sensitivity is a powerful ally in all areas of life. The words and terms that we use in our internal project communication influence our own (conscious and subconscious) perception and the manner in which we work and interact with people. In external communication, our terms influence the external perception of our topic and our target group and are therefore decisive for the impact that we hope to achieve with our work.

Significance of the environment and why it is so important?

There are at least two types of environments: The environment in the literal sense (the physical environment) and the environment in the figurative sense (the perceived environment, i.e. the atmosphere). In inclusion, both types of environments play an important role!

If we assume that inclusion can take place only through the interaction of persons who are at the same eye level, then it is essential that these persons are at the same eye level not just in terms of the atmosphere, but also in terms of their physical environment.

If there is a mismatch between these two environments, this may result in a situation where the persons involved are unable or unwilling to trust each other – especially if there is an established hierarchy, which is unfortunately still common in the field of inclusion: I, as a native, get to decide where and how inclusion takes place.

The idea is very simple: All activities relating to integration usually take place in designated “integration environments”. Sounds quite logical, doesn’t it? However: Integration cafeterias, integration centers, inclusion offices are often not only rather uninviting, but also difficult to access, or they may even be off-putting merely because these offices are used only for integration work. Or, in other words, inclusion does not take place in the right “target group environment”. An inclusion environment on the fringes of society? – Let’s change that!

How can we make it better?

This contradiction can only be resolved by using meeting environments that are embedded in society and also popular with natives. This is the only way to credibly communicate to newly arrived persons that they are considered equal in our society: We want you to belong, and therefore you are welcome anywhere we are (i.e. we do not meet in an office that I would otherwise never go to and/or which I would never set up in this way for other functions).

We want you to belong, and therefore you are welcome anywhere we are.

So what places are suitable?

Example: Inclusion in the gardening association “Under the Linden Tree” offers the following advantages in comparison to the traditional “multi-cultural-integration cafeteria” integration cafeteria:

"Real places"
Newly arrived persons get to experience a “real” social place.
Regulars' table
The locals are already there and do not need an invitation.
Inspiring places
The place is associated with a specific subject that can be discussed, and it is also a place where personal interests can be explored and developed.
There is so much going on!

The place functions and is alive even without any reference to inclusion.

Questions to think about
Sustainable inclusion

The topic of inclusion has caused quite some frustration over the past few years. Some voices say that it has failed. However, what expectations hide behind this term? And whose expectations are these? If we wish to live in a society that enables the participation of every individual, it is worth taking a closer look: Does our approach to inclusion really create a situation where all sides are on equal footing or does it exacerbate the differences instead?

Newly arrived persons in volunteer work

For a more inclusive approach, we must enable both natives and newly arrived persons to interact on equal footing – or, as we call it, “sharing the power to co-create”. However, if people end up separated into groups, and especially into groups with power disparities (for example, two separate groups of those that help and those that need help) interaction at the same eye level becomes impossible.

If we wish to move away from the dynamic of inclusion as a one-way street and instead understand it as a process of social interaction, then natives must not be understood merely as supporters of inclusion, but also – just like the newly arrived – as a target group and active contributors in this process.

To reach and develop a long-term relationship with this target group, it would be helpful to acquaint ourselves with its needs. In particular, we should take into account its desires and talents. In most cases, however, local volunteers are not perceived as the main target group of a project.

Newly arrived persons can contribute just as much to society as natives. We are all human. We are all equally part of this society.

Inclusion is changing the lenses: from the actions and changes needed on the personal/individual level to the systemic level. As long as we talk about “helping refugees”, we will not get beyond seeing inclusion as just emergency aid. The people referred to will remain stuck in their assigned role of “people in need of help”. How do you interact on an equal footing from this position? It is impossible. What kind of space is needed to do so?

This is why we start with our understanding of inclusion:

Newly arrived persons are not always just ‘in need of help’.

However, if they are constantly assigned this role, this not only prevents their empowerment but also actively contributes towards their ‘disempowerment’. At the same time, this is a form of disenfranchisement.

Volunteers often get involved ‘on behalf of’ new newcomers, but

nobody knows the target group as well as the target group itself.”

Voluntary positions, for example in the form of participation in an association, have a special socio-cultural significance in some places in Germany. This is also the reason why inviting and enabling the participation of newly arrived persons has a very positive effect on promoting their access and inclusion at their new place of residence.

Natives in volunteer work

Introspection: Why do I get involved?

Personal involvement can be motivated by a variety of reasons. On the one hand, a lot of people believe it is simply a matter of common decency to volunteer their time and skills to help others and, on the other hand, it feels good to do good. Furthermore, volunteering usually allows you to meet new people with similar interests and even make new friends. It is often also a way to learn new skills. Consequently, voluntary involvement provides just as many benefits to those that get involved as to the target group of their involvement. In the context of inclusion, it often seems obvious that newly arrived persons are the target group and the natives get involved to help the target group. But we see all this in a more complex way.

Just because a person volunteers and is active in the field of inclusion does not necessarily mean that this person is a native. Both natives and newly arrived persons can be active in the field of inclusion as volunteers.

for example by giving language lessons, organizing cooking classes or sports activities. At the same time, both newcomers and natives/ locals can join these activities, which would make them both participants.

Inclusion can be successful only with the participation and co-creation of new structures and orders by and with both natives/ locals and newcomers if both have equal opportunities to participate in and shape the inclusion process. Quite often, this is even more difficult for natives/ locals, because they are not always aware of what they can do and what role they actually play in the process. Newcomers inevitably have to grapple with these questions. This is why it is particularly important that the activities are designed in such a way that they encourage both newcomers and natives/ locals to reflect on their own situation and to learn new things.

The simplest way to achieve this is by consistently treating natives/ locals as a target group. Hence, all activities should be designed for both newcomers and natives/ locals. What do both need? When would the activity be interesting for both of them? How can both be reached? What change would the activity bring about for both natives/ locals and newcomers?

It is the only consistent to completely remove the idea of ‘helping’ from inclusion work. There is always an unequal relationship – even if only temporarily – between those who help and those who receive help. Changing the societal or institutional structures and orders is not an aim in this exclusive, marginalizing thinking – which keeps the dynamics between “the helpers” – the dominant group in power – and “the helped ones” – the marginalized that’s faced with a “take-it-or-leave-it” offer. Learning from and with each other enables people to share resources, opportunities, power and interact as partners in co-creation based on – or starting at – finding out what hobbies, needs, experiences, etc. they have in common.

What does this approach accomplish?

When newcomers and natives/ locals perceive a certain activity as participants, this means that they are in the same role, they learn together, they jointly contribute towards something new – and this highlights the things that they have in common.

Natives & New Immigrants
At the same eye level

The same applies to personal involvement. Here, too, people meet as persons who are all committed to a good cause, and not in their roles – or limited by them – as ‘newcomers’ or ‘natives’ only. Overcoming this automatic assignment of roles takes a bit of practice. The more often you find yourself in situations where people of different nationalities, from different contexts, communities, and with different identities or power positions perform roles of similar importance and with the same commitment to making inclusion happen, the easier it gets.

Questions to think about

Impact’ is a very general term that describes the changes that occur when an activity influences an existing situation. In the field of inclusion, the impact is the success metric of each project, because the aim is to change something in society for the better. We can say that a specific project is successful only if the desired change – or impact – has been achieved.

Therefore, it is crucial to think carefully from the get-go about what changes you wish to bring about with your work.

Many projects in the field of inclusion aim to foster a society in which all – regardless of their origin or the origin of their families, their power positions or several aspects of their identities – have the same opportunities and live in harmony with each other.

Of course, this is a large and complex undertaking that no individual project can hope to accomplish on its own. However, the project can pursue smaller goals on the path to the final objective. The aim is usually to bring about changes in the lives of individual persons, in the way they think and behave, often in a clearly defined geographic area. For example, your particular objective could be to raise awareness for inclusion and promote inclusive behavior in your target groups. The persons who have changed thanks to your work will then contribute towards a more profound change at a societal level in the long run.

This is why we speak of two levels of impact: Impact at a societal level and impact at the level of the target groups.

What is an impact plan and why is it a helpful, necessary thing?

An impact plan is useful for visualizing the impact objectives of your project at the different levels and what is being done in the project to achieve these objectives. It is a type of individual master plan that specifies the desired changes and what resources will be used to bring about these changes.

How do we create such a plan?

An oft-employed structure for an impact plan is the so-called IOOI model. The name is derived from the initial letters of the words Input, Output, Outcome, Impact. You can find a manual on how to prepare an impact plan here: Impact plan.

It is recommended to involve the team members who will later work on implementing your impact plan in the process of its preparation. Having representatives of the target groups – usually both newcomers and natives/ locals – on board as experts, representatives, and partners in the design of your impact would also be very helpful.

You start preparing your impact plan “in reverse order”:


What social problem does the project aim to solve in the long term?

Impact tree


Which target groups do you work with directly and indirectly, and which other stakeholders are important?

Target group matrix


After that, you start formulating the specific impact objectives at the level of the target groups.

Impact lader


You describe the activities that have to be performed to achieve these impact objectives.


And, finally, you list the resources that you will need in order to implement the activities.


Analyzing and implementing your own inclusion project by focusing on the desired impact makes it possible to prioritize and use the available – and often limited – resources more effectively.

In projects that focus on the intended impact, it is also important to have an accurate knowledge of the target group's needs in order to improve the quality of the activities and to successfully reach the respective target groups. This approach also has a positive effect on the motivation of team members because they know at all times what objectives they are contributing towards with their work. The same applies to sponsors – they also know what their investment is used for and what impact it has.

Questions to think about