P!oneers: art and culture as an agent for change

By: Eva Kelder

While world leaders are gathering at the G20 summit in London to tackle the world’s financial crisis Felix Meritis plunged into its own international conference. Yesterday Felix Meritis, Humanity in Action and NY400.nl welcomed forty pioneers from both New York and Amsterdam to a three day session of debate, discussions, workshops and of course networking. The current economic and social crisis calls for innovative solutions and partnerships. What binds these cutting edge thinkers from various walks of life and what inspired them to explore new ways of active citizenship?

The shared history of New York and Amsterdam inspired the organisation to bring together young innovative thinkers. Ranging from musicians, producers, internet entrepreneurs, consultants to artists, political bloggers and ‘troublemakers for corporate America’, they all emphasize that active citizenship means bridging the gap between old and new traditions and institutions. Whether in the field of media, internet, social engineering or entrepreneurship, the pioneers all share an eagerness to as one of the participants put it: ‘make the world a happier place.’

The kick-off of the programme was a lecture by Ann Morning, Assistant Professor of sociology at New York University, who argues that despite what people often tend to believe, Americans still think of race as a matter of intrinsic, biological differences between members of distinct races. Morning starts of by emphasizing that slavery is part of a shared Dutch American history. She goes on to explain that race is an European concept that was imported to the United States. ‘After the second World War Europeans no longer believed in the concept of race but it is a way of thinking that still has a place in European and American society. How do everyday people think about race?’ According to Morning people have persistent working models about race. There are three ways of thinking about race that can be defended:

  • An essential thinking about race: races are naturally-occurring biological groupings.
  • A constructivist concept of race which classifies races as socially determined groupings.
  • An anti-essentialist concept of race: races are not biological groupings.

Morning interviewed a number of college students in the United States about their perceptions of race differences. She expected the students to express a constructivist view on race: race is culture. It turned out that two third of the students classified race in terms of physical differences. The concept of race as a social construct was not taught to the majority of students or they did not find it helpful. The students who perceived race to be a cultural concept were mainly anthropology students. Morning also conducted a series of interviews with college professors. Forty percent of the professors defined race as a biological matter while sixty percent dismissed this concept. When racial classification is concerned academics are far from some kind of consensus.

Morning concludes her speech by stating that biological thinking about race is not on its way out in the United States nor in Europe. During a passionate discussion between the Pioneers and Ann Morning several Amsterdam based pioneers express their growing concern about the increasing xenophobia in Dutch society. Their American counterparts are not witnessing a similar development in the States but one of them does stress that people shouldn’t get carried away by the Obama euphoria. ‘American society is by no means a post-racial society.’

After the debate it is time to look at an example of social engineering in Amsterdam. What better way to explore Amsterdam than by boat? While admiring the canals and asking the inevitable questions (does everyone own a bike in Amsterdam?!) the pioneers are invited to one of the epitomes of social entrepreneurship in Amsterdam. In this Dutch branch of his restaurant chain Fifteen British chef and health food guru Jamie Oliver trains and inspires youngsters from underprivileged urban areas to be chefs. In this environment of culinary and social pioneering political motivator, activist and journalist Jeff Johnson shares his views on active citizenship with the Pioneers. He captures the audience when he sets out how hip hop can be utilised as a tool of empowerment. By engaging young people from within the hip hop community he calls for a political and social infrastructure not based on exclusion but on inclusion. He calls upon the pioneers to create out of the box partnerships in order to bridge the gap between various youth subcultures in Amsterdam.

One of the participants expresses accurately what P!ioneers embodies in his opinion: connecting people. It will be fascinating to watch and witness what this transatlantic community will create these upcoming days and which future projects will emerge out of this event.
Photography: Jamon Johnson

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