Who or what makes Europe? Major research project seeks more inclusive continent

Powerful cooperation between academic institutions and civil society organisations

The future is Europe: street art on Rue de la Loi, Brussels
The future is Europe: street art in Brussels (CC2.0, Jeremy Segrott)

How can we produce better knowledge about the many “othered” populations that have shaped Europe for centuries? How can we make the image of who and what Europe is correspond to everyday reality? And how can Europe overcome its colonial past to become a truly diverse and inclusive continent? With a grant of 4.9 million euros from the Dutch Research Agenda, an interdisciplinary consortium led by cultural historian Rachel Gillett (Utrecht University) can tackle these questions. In the project Re/Presenting Europe: Popular Representations of Diversity and Belonging, education and research from postcolonial and globalising perspectives play a major role. Through a grassroots approach, with close collaboration between scholars and community-based organisations, the project endeavours to make knowledge within major academic and cultural institutions more inclusive.

Dutch hip hop dancer Marthe Weijers (Creative Commons CCO)
Dutch hiphop dancer Marthe Weijers (Creative Commons CCO)

Popular culture

The interdisciplinary consortium looks at positive examples of belonging, such as in popular sports like football. But also art and culture in metropolitan society, such as hip-hop. In other words: who are the new heroes and how do they ensure that younger generations also feel at home in Europe? "Not only are we researching current performances, but also forging new ones with our social partners," Gillett says. "We are reintroducing European diversity in all kinds of expressions, ranging from theatre plays to graphic novels, books, exhibitions, youth programmes, documentaries and training programmes for teachers."

For example, podcasts and a documentary will be made about the origins and impact of rap, hip-hop and graffiti in the Netherlands over the past 40 years, in collaboration with the artists involved, Sound and Vision, and the Black Archives, among others. Moreover, an urban arts and hip-hop archive will be established, which will contribute to greater acknowledgement of these art forms in the definitions of culture used by established academic and cultural institutions. Another example is a study of sports heroes and the influence of stereotypes: sociologists, anthropologists and historians will be working together with Feyenoord and others on this project, and the findings will be incorporated into a theater performance, among other things.

Foto van Rachel Gillett
Dr Rachel Gillett

Diversity leads to solidarity

"Ultimately, we want to create a more inclusive understanding of Europe and the Netherlands in particular," Gillett explains. "This redefinition of European society acknowledges the long presence of super-diverse groups of 'others'. By harnessing the creative energy of diversity, solidarity becomes visible and repair from colonial trauma can occur."

Our ultimate goal is to strengthen Europe's resilience and social cohesion.

Shared journey

“Our ultimate goal is to strengthen Europe's resilience and social cohesion,” says Gillett. “The strength of the project lies in the cooperation within and outside academic walls, as was already apparent from the extensive discussions that took place within the project about the concept of ‘Black presence.’ This concept initially united us: we went in wanting to study the Black presence in Europe and the Netherlands. The initial team proposed examining how Afro-diasporic and othered groups had contributed to Europe's history and culture. But as we built our network and team, it became more and more apparent that there varying definitions of ‘Black’ and ‘Other.’ Some people felt the term Black reinforced racial categories that had done harm, whereas others felt there was a strength and a truth in it because of its reference to processes that had racialised people and led to differential treatment and exclusion. The lack of consensus in fact became a strength of the project: the paradox is that breaking through this category brings us together in this shared journey. It shows the potential of our focus on connection and 'belonging' for the five-year duration of this project.”

As part of the project, a glossary will also be developed that provides insight into the terms we use to define our identity and the effects of those terms. This requires comparing academic and everyday understandings of terms like Black, Other, European, Black Europe, Afro-Dutch, Of Migration background, etc.

Groundbreaking collaboration

The strength of the consortium is the truly ground-breaking level of cooperation between academic research institutions and community-based organisations that represent and reflect the diversity of European society. This team investigates links between the Dutch identity and Europe, including the postcolonial and transatlantic connections. 

As LKCA we find it essential that the research takes place with people from the field and is given back to the field, for example by means of theatre performances, podcasts and dialogue sessions. Only then can we bring about change."

Cooperation between science and society

Utrecht University (Rachel Gillett, Jaap Verheul en Brianna Kennedy) will collaborate with a large number of universities (Erasmus University Rotterdam, Radboud University Nijmegen, Leiden University, University of Amsterdam, VU Amsterdam), universities of applied sciences (Hanzehogeschool Groningen, Utrecht University of Applied Sciences and Reinwardt Academy), KITLV and many social and knowledge organisations (National Knowledge Institute for Culture Education and Amateur Art LKCA, Mulier Institute, National Museum of World Cultures, the Participation Federation, Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, Cultuur Oost, House of Urban Arts, Stichting de Sportwereld, Feyenoord, Erfgoed Brabant, Keti Koti Tafel, Future Me, Foundation Amsterdam HipHop Academy, Stichting Fundashon Bon Intenshon, Literatuurmuseum, Zwart Archief, Stichting Ocan, Noordstaat, De Rijdende Popschool, Groninger Museum, Stichting Nowhere, FunX, FARE).

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