Emilia Roig

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2020
This description of Emilia Roig's work was prepared when Emilia Roig was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2020 .

Introduction

Emilia is transforming the way discrimination is understood and addressed in European societies, thereby promoting a more holistic and collaborative approach to anti-discrimination and equality work. In doing so, she is building the capacity of civil society groups and grassroot organizations across a range of disciplines and sectors to address inequalities and discrimination collectively, hold political actors accountable, and advance deep structural change.

The New Idea

Emilia understands that achieving inclusion and participation for all depends on institutions and organizations recognizing that people can and do seek protection from discrimination on more than one ground of their identity. Such recognition, however, is severely lacking at the EU and country levels. In Germany, for instance, there is no official policy statement or document which gives attention to the ways in which single grounds of discrimination add to one another, i.e. Black or minority women face gender and racial discrimination simultaneously.
Emilia offers a systemic and inclusive approach to anti-discrimination where all issues of discrimination are addressed collectively. She thereby promotes a new understanding of discrimination that refutes the prevalent assumptions within the anti-discrimination field that different forms of discrimination exist separate from each other. In doing so, she enables all actors in the field to move away from the competitive logic between axes of inequality and shows how more equitable and inclusive policies and practices leverage much larger systemic impact than one-off approaches. With the Center for Intersectional Justice (CIJ), she is pioneering collaborative approaches to infuse an intersectional perspective and action into the European field of anti-discrimination work. During the journey, she naturally built on from the grounds of intersectionality being rooted in the Black feminist movement, broadening it to including various shades of discrimination we want to overcome as society.
Apart from working with public, private and NGO sectors to update their approach towards inclusion, non-discrimination and diversity, the CIJ acts as an umbrella organization to effectively create ties and coalitions between diverse grassroot organizations and social movements across Europe. Unlike other actors in the field promoting single set of issues (e.g. women rights movements, anti-racism movements, disability right movements etc.), Emilia breaks down these silos and builds solidarity between traditionally divergent groups by helping them see how their struggles for justice are interconnected. The rapidly growing community has already cultivated powerful coalitions and creative alliances between formerly adverse groups that open the way to a stronger, more unified social movement, and more effective interventions.

The Problem

Equality and non-discrimination are core principles in international human rights law, and all members of the United Nations have legally binding obligations to promote these principles. However, even in countries that explicitly prohibit discrimination, substantial gaps in legal protections exist.
In direct contravention of EU principles such as the protection of minorities and the prohibition of discrimination, across Europe racial and ethnic minorities are amongst those most exposed to stigma and discrimination (61%); closely followed by sexual minority groups (51%) and disabled people (45%). The situation is compounded by the fact that many individuals face discrimination on more than one ground, creating cumulative disadvantages. Thus, ethnic minority women, older women, black women, and disabled women are among the most disadvantaged groups in many EU Member States. Similar multiple discrimination is experienced by gay or lesbian members of ethnic minorities; disabled black people; younger ethnic minority members or older disabled people.
For example, ethnic women minorities might experience disadvantage which is both shared with the majority women and intensified through racism and discrimination on grounds of ethnic origin. This is confirmed by a recent study showing that, in Europe, women from disadvantaged ethnic minorities are at greater risk of social exclusion and poverty, both when compared to the men of their communities and that of ethnic majority women. This is especially true in accessing employment, health, education, and social services. Like ethnic majority women, they experience labor market disadvantage and inequality, however, for them this intensified by stigma and stereotypes in the wider society, e.g. for wearing a headscarf, and by internal patriarchal traditions. The result is that ethnic minority women tend to be discriminated and marginalized within a given disadvantaged group. Due to the absence of political or other representation, their rights and interests are rendered invisible, creating cycles of disadvantages and further exclusion that limit opportunity and hamper social mobility.
Intersectionality provides an analytical framework for understanding the various layers of advantages and disadvantages everyone experiences based on societal and structural systems. Originally grounded in the U.S. Black feminist movement and coined by Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw, the concept has evolved into a cross-disciplinary and international discourse that recognizes the ways racism, sexism and other inequalities work together to produce multiple marginalization. It seeks to center the underlying systems of oppression in anti-discrimination.
In Europe, however, the mobilization of intersectionality remains challenging in a context that overemphasizes colorblindness and postracialism. The widespread reluctance to face the significance of race and the reality of racism is especially pronounced in Germany which rejects, for historical reasons of the Holocaust, collecting any demographic data on race and ethnicity in connection to crimes. The knowledge gaps arising from this hinder practical, holistic anti-discrimination and equality efforts.
The institutional architecture of the EU and national anti-discrimination and equality law provides further barriers to intersectional claims. These bodies have traditionally evolved to provide protection for discrimination in a manner that addresses different grounds such as gender, disability, and race separately and in isolation, and treats discriminated groups as all homogenous (e.g. all women). This one-dimensional approach is evident, for instance, in the EU directive on equal treatment, which does not take into account the gender and age dimension of racism and racial discrimination.
Another reason that has contributed to the invisibility of intersectional discrimination has to do with the way in which European civil society organizations and social groups, such as feminist movement and the anti-racism movement, and their agendas are formed. These groups have traditionally organized around single issue, promoting, and representing the interests of one certain group. They often operate in isolated silos fighting their own individual cases, though the issues they address – such as poverty, human rights or climate justice are profoundly interconnected. This fragmentation within and across these groups as well as competition over attention, visibility and resources undercuts organizational effectiveness, and their ability to leverage the power needed to create systemic change.
Moreover, experiences, concerns and interests that are particular to the subset of people within a group are often excluded from the agenda of these single-issue groups. It is often only such interest that affect all people in a certain group, or the majority of that group, that are recognized in the group agenda. This leads to a situation in which concerns and interest of those who are marginalized even within disadvantaged groups are overlooked in the consideration of problems that need to be addressed. Due to the absence of explicit legal provision for multiple claims and the lack of sufficient data collection on such cases, they are left without effective legal or political redress to challenge the discrimination they experience.
In Germany, for instance, there is no official policy statement which gives attention to the ways in which black or minority women face gender and racial discrimination simultaneously. The result is that black and minority women are rendered invisible in official strategies to combat gender inequality and racial discrimination, and they are rendered vulnerable to further discrimination.
The lack of an intersectional approach, i.e. maintaining structural barriers, also comes at a huge economic cost to society. A study by the European Parliament estimates that the quantifiable loss in economic terms, (i.e. in terms of GDP loss and loss in tax revenue) is as high as “€224–305 billion GDP and €88-110 billion respectively. These losses are in relation to ineffective national implementation of measures to further develop the grounds of discrimination in relation to sex to also include racial origin, religion, disability, age or sexual orientation respectively as regards employment and occupation.
Without an urgent focus on normalizing discrimination as an intersectional problem, societies all over the world lose out reaching those furthest behind, and thus fail their collective promise “to leave no one behind.”

The Strategy

Emilia built CIJ to bridge the gap in the European civil society landscape between scholarly research, policymaking and grassroots activism on the concrete implications and applications of an intersectional approach to social justice. With the Center Emilia is shifting the anti-discrimination framework towards one where intersectionality is eventually institutionalized as a standard concept to address discrimination.

She does so by (1) producing and disseminating accessible knowledge on the increased effectiveness of an intersectional approach and on the problems linked to a lack of intersectional analysis; (2) increasing the capacity of organizations and institutions to successfully change their framework and practice around anti-discrimination and equality work, and (3) building an inclusive community that works collectively towards social change.

The Center connects academics, lawyers, practitioners, social justice advocates, media partners as well as many other stakeholders in their work of dismantling structural inequality and engaging new ideas and perspectives to transform discourse and policy around anti-discrimination. She has built a global network of renowned experts and partner academic institutions to produce the practical knowledge and outside the box thinking needed to bridge the gap between academic discourse and practice. The high-quality research includes the evaluation and monitoring of existing law and serves as the entry point for key dialogues to address and change discriminatory policies in the European context. Through this content, Emilia highlights the relevance and actionable implication of an intersectional approach thus reducing the excuses of policymakers for not implementing the changes. The research gives not only the foundation for informed advocacy and policy-advice, but also provides affected groups with the missing data to substantiate their claims. This often serves as the basis for the identification of common ground among diverse stakeholders to align around (often unconsciously) shared goals. As one example, against the backdrop of a German state court’s ruling barring the wearing of overt religious symbols and clothing for state employees, Emilia provided in-depth analyses of the discriminatory effects of that law towards Muslim and ethnic minority women. This research provided the foundation of forming the coalition #AgainstOccupationalBan (Bündnis #GegenBerufsverbot) consisting of lawyers, experts, activists and organizations active in either anti-racism or feminist field. Under the umbrella of the CIJ, they develop legal, communications and alliance strategies not only support the ongoing litigation but the general call for the elimination of religious dress bans in Berlin, and by extension Germany.
The CIJ also develops open-source practical toolkits, such as factsheet and case studies, to provide institutions, civil society and others with an accessible breakdown of the concept and support its application in everyday practice. To amplify her message and change the public discourse around discrimination and racism in society, she counsels and partners with big mainstream media institutions, nationally and internationally.

Emilia understands that confrontational activism such as individual ‘blaming and shaming’ often results in anger, defensiveness and a closed posture to change. She manages, in a unique fashion, to establish a judgment-free environment, conducive to constructive dialogue and mutual understanding by approaching topics from a system-based and not identity-based perspective (i.e. focusing on specific groups: women, Black, trans minorities etc.). Reflecting on the processes of discrimination helps to identify limitations of current conceptualizations of discrimination, and to move toward greater attention to structures/systems of power. Within two years, she has been able to build a strong presence with German and European Union policymakers and participate in decision-making processes of usually “closed” policy arenas.
She also regularly joins consultation processes on new EU legislations, which allows her to directly feed her expertise and perspectives into the decision-making process. This also allows her to find new champions within these powerful institutions who could be potential allies to drive this idea forward.
The advocacy work is complemented with practical trainings and workshops targeting practitioners involved in the development of implementation of anti-discrimination and equal opportunity policies in governmental and non-governmental bodies. Together with public agencies and bodies, Emilia carries out in-depth analysis of existing legal frameworks to detect and correct hidden discriminatory effects. This has already led to the design of more inclusive and targeted policies.

The CIJ has also become a central resource for civil society organizations and activist groups to turn to for advice, connections and access to networks that help them scale their impact for achieving social change. During the trainings and workshops, these groups are equipped with the knowledge and skills to become more inclusive and responsive to their various constituent groups and build their agendas accordingly. This helps organizations not only to address internal divisions, but also promotes cross-issue collaboration as a way to include the voices of overlappingly-disadvantaged groups. Emilia has been working closely with key organizations in the field, such as the European Network Against Racism (membership organization of over 150 anti-racist NGOs in Europe), Human Rights Watch and Transgender Europe (network of 149 membership organization). These network organizations act as important multiplier as they pass on this knowledge and new approaches to their membership organizations. Overall, Emilia has already reached over 45 institutions and organizations, including the Canadian embassy to Germany, the German-American Fulbright Commission, Open Society Foundation and the Ariadne Network (European Funders’ Network for Social Change and Human) in London.

For Emilia, working intersectional means working in solidarity across different experiences and identities. In order to break down the silo mentality of the European civil society landscape, she strategically builds and empowers an inclusive community of grassroot groups across Europe. During community events and meet-ups, she brings together activists and community leaders from various social justice movements and grassroots organisations that are separately working on different issues, such gender equality, LGBTQI+ rights, labor rights, disability rights, climate justice and racial justice. Through the CIJ, Emilia provides a safe space where they can connect around shared experiences of discrimination and marginalization, explore common ground for political action and, ultimately, develop more effective and impactful strategies through collaboration. This has initiated and advanced powerful coalitions between formerly adverse groups, such as the first Black, Indigenous and People of colour (BIPoC) climate justice collective in Germany that highlight perspectives from BIPoC communities around the world regarding sustainability and the climate crisis; or an alliance, consisting of an anti-racist grassroot group and the umbrella organization for Muslim women groups who together developed an advocacy and communications strategy for the elimination of religious dress bans in Berlin. As these groups start to realize the common narratives in their work, they begin to identify ways of using the collective power to drive policy change, behavior change and make a larger impact.

This core community consisting of 200 active members is embedded in a larger network of diverse stakeholders from the European anti-discrimination field, which Emilia constantly seeks to strengthen and enlarge. Through a series of cross-sectoral events, she brings together policymakers, lawmakers, civil society groups, grant-making organizations and academic experts to foster exchange, build mutual understanding and create and refine innovative and meaningful solutions that truly include everyone. It is also becoming crucial for Emilia to build relationships with public policy universities and academic institutions to influence the next generation of policy-makers and current research. Over the past year, she has already established close working relationship with the Hertie School of Governance, the main public policy university in Germany, where she designed and implemented a pilot course on intersectional policymaking that can later be replicated to other universities.

Emilia’s overarching vision is to put an end to all forms of discrimination and disadvantage, and in particular to those cases that have hitherto been left unnoticed and thus unaddressed. To solve this, policy and practice need to better account for the complex contextual realities and structures that have contributed to such discrimination. Necessary steps for Emilia to achieve this ambitious vision is to further build, deepen and foster the working relationship with those in positions of decision-making power throughout all sectors, public and private bodies, NGOs and media institutions to increase knowledge and awareness of the phenomenon. With the growing demand for expertise and practical guidance, it becomes crucial for Emilia to invest in the targeted education of multipliers.

The Person

As a Queer Jewish Women of Color born in France to parents born in (former) French colonies, Emilia is passionate about intersectionality because her identity and experience are multi-faceted and characterized by various intersections and in-between positions, which reflect much larger societal structures. This lived experience provides a valuable source of reflection and helps her constantly put in perspective the political work she is doing with her real-life situation.

After studying political science and international law in France and Germany, Emilia started working extensively on human rights issues.
During her PhD, she finally found an analytical framework to understand and articulate the social issues that she had felt but could not pinpoint until then. It was clear to her immediately that she would not stay in academia but use her knowledge to fill the gap that she had identified across all layers in European society. She understood that if we truly want to improve the lives of disadvantaged and oppressed groups, we need to fight discrimination within discrimination, protect those who constitute minorities within minority groups and tackle inequalities within inequalities. For her, intersectionality is exactly this, it ensures that no one is left behind in the fight for justice and equality and that communities and movements embrace difference and diversity, while working together towards systemic change.

At a conference in Paris, she managed to convince Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw of her vision and won her over as the president of the yet to be founded Center which she would establish. Despite several and severe personal pushbacks during the founding period of the organization (separating from her partner and losing her second child) in less than three years it has become the central voice and go-to-organization for expertise and networks on intersectional policy within Germany and Europe.

The unique combination of insights gained through her previous work in the academic field, in policymaking spheres as well as grassroot circles provides her with the skills to build bridges of understanding and communication. Her own personal encounter with structural racism, sexual discrimination and homophobia on grounds of her sexual orientation connects her with those impacted by similar or other forms of discrimination and lends her the necessary authenticity to make their voices heard through her work.