Esmah Lahlah

Esmah Lahlah prefers unanimous decisions over majority ones

Character 5min. Tineke Bennema

Four years ago, while working as a lecturer in victimology and developmental psychology at TLS, Esmah Lahla received a call: would she consider serving on the Municipal Executive as an alderperson for the Social Domain? Limited administrative experience no object. Three weeks later she was in government. Last month, Binnenlands Bestuur proclaimed her Best Local Administrator in the Netherlands. And following a career in research and administration, she takes the plunge yet again: going into politics as the leading candidate of the Green Left (GroenLinks) in Tilburg. Esmah Lahlah graduated and completed a PhD at Tilburg University. Her deepest wish: “Creating a real society, where all can reach their full potential and all are seen and heard.”

As an employee of Tilburg University, she has been officially granted four years of “political leave”. Lahlah, hailing from Helmond, graduated in developmental psychology at Tilburg University, and at Intervict she completed a PhD on how violent childhood experiences impact on Moroccan-Dutch young adult offenders. In Tilburg and Groningen she lectured on child abuse and neglect. “I loved working at the university and as a lector in Groningen: exploring one topic in depth, and peeling back the layers of complex issues. Universities today are much more in tune with society than they used to be, but in public administration the energy of achieving things together is positively palpable. On any given day, I could meet a variety of organizations, citizens, and the Minister; in administration no two days are the same.”

Esmah Lahlah

I’m not sure whether science or governance is closest to my heart. I’ve gone all out for both.

Esmah Lahlah

Photo: Dolph Cantrijn

Has science been useful to your work as an administrator?

‘Science taught me the value of research and the importance of looking at a subject from different angles. It is necessary for an administrator to be surrounded by people who are critical thinkers, who keep you on your toes and remind you to do justice to all perspectives. And the data-driven approach is also something I picked up in academia. Getting your facts rights. People who address the municipality for help, especially in my portfolio, are talented but frequently also vulnerable. You do not want to fight political battles over their heads. The difference between governance and science is that, in science, you can reflect until you have thought the problem through. That is what I’d prefer to do in governance, but it is not always possible: sometimes you need to take decisions quickly, based on sound background information, of course. As an officer in the Municipal Excutive, you also have an impact: you indicate the direction and set the political agenda. I’m not sure whether science or governance is closest to my heart. I’ve gone all out for both.’

Unanimous decisions rather than majority ones

Lahlah talks rapidly and at length. Smiling: ‘My spokesman Tom always says: ‘Here comes Motormouth’!” She had never been to a council meeting before, but she clicked immediately with both the municipality and the Council. Lahlah is praised for her openness and empathy. She was given the space for some pioneering and to master the municipal mores. Her portfolio: Labor Participation, Social Security, Integrated Approach to Asylum and Civic Integration, and Global Awareness. In the Council, she took up a special position as an independent, ‘party-rich’ alderwomen. ‘You are in fact everybody’s candidate,” she adds, “I prefer unanimous decisions over majority ones, a broadly supported joint policy, like the new policy in the field of labor participation, ‘Tilburg Investeert in Perspectief’. The first results have shown that people manage to get off welfare faster, that is wonderful. But it is even more important that they feel they are seen and heard, that their health has improved and that they feel more confident and relaxed. The fact that our policy has turned out so well, and these positive stories of the people concerned, that is such good news.’

This new policy was founded on a number of experiments, incidentally, including the Trust Experiment, which attracted interest from across the country. The purpose of this experiment was to study the effect of trust and a welfare system with a minimum of rules on people, in terms of work, health and well-being.

Besides all these successes, you also had some tough issues to handle, including Covid and Chromium-6.

‘The pandemic has been really difficult. Everyone was in the same boat but the storm affected every boat differently. These corona times have brought us much but have also cost us a lot. I would have liked us to have achieved more with our new policy of trust, proximity, and tailored solutions. But if you can no longer visit people in their homes, especially the most vulnerable people with whom you want to be connected, and video calls are the only alternative, that policy is less likely to come to fruition.’

A highly controversial issue was Chromium-6, a toxic substance in paint that was used for a long time even though it was known that it was dangerous: ‘The investigation was concluded when I had only been on the Executive for a short time. A painful matter for everyone involved.’ Lahlah was very concerned about the victims. ‘We have worked to the best of our ability to secure the best possible arrangement and optimal compensation. But you just wish it had never happened to these people. There is so much pain. And I imagined my father or mother sitting in the Council Chamber in the front row, listening to the political debate going on about them.’ She falls silent for a moment.

You made the news with your month on welfare. What did you want to achieve when you started?

‘I wanted to feel what it was like and also find out if I could learn from the experience. I saw what it was like to grow up in an environment where people are out of work and education and studying is not considered a priority. There was a moment that I didn’t have enough money to offer a visitor coffee and a biscuit. I always knew exactly how much I had in the bank. The worries of making ends meet was constantly on my mind. And it is precisely these people that we demand so much from in our contacts. Every time they have to fill in a pile of forms, they have to put all their misfortunes on the table. If people are in a dependency relationship, things may give the wrong impression. It is important to always realize what it must be like for people to be in a dependent position. In the last three days, I hardly knew how to keep me and my children going. I was barely surviving. And I had the luxury of knowing that it would all be over after one month.’

Will you be working in a different way now you have opted for politics?

‘Some people have tried to guess what my political affinity was. The guesses ranged from VVD to GroenLinks. I take that as a compliment. I was welcome everywhere, but I didn’t belong anywhere. That felt lonely sometimes. Even though I now have a GroenLinks label, I haven’t changed. I can only be myself. The climate and the social domain are urgent future themes and I want to give them my undivided attention. The climate is warming up and the people are getting poorer. I have therefore opted to work together and to find solutions in an environment where I feel at home. I want to continue to work bearing different perspectives in mind. It is such a shame that society focuses so much on the differences rather than on the similarities. I am very pleased with the things that I have started while serving on the Municipal Executive and I really hope to be able to take them further.’

The researcher, the administrator, and the politician: what drives the person behind those different positions?

There is no hesitation. “In our society, we can afford to accommodate different perspectives and nurture a wide range of talents. But I also see people who feel they are unable or not welcome to join in, and as a result they no longer want to join in: people with a particular sexual orientation, for example, or who are poor, or who have a migration background. What drives me is the challenge of ensuring we create a real society, where all can reach their full potential and all are seen and heard.

What I wish for is the complete irrelevance of our parents’ educational background, where we were born, or what social environment we live in. I myself would not be where I am today if it hadn't  been for people having my back at crucial moments in my life. My parents, my Moroccan father and my Dutch mother, do not have university degrees, but they wanted what was best for me. Some less fortunate people need the government to have their backs. I will not rest content until society is truly inclusive and all participate. That’s what I want to help achieve and that’s what energizes me.”


Photo at top of page: Dolph Cantrijn