Letter from New York, Paris, London, and Amsterdam, Part Two
Catching up with TCDS Alumni in Europe
The final stop on my trip was a three-day visit to Amsterdam. This was my first time in Amsterdam and the first Thanksgiving I would miss since moving to the United States in the late 1980s. I quickly forgot about turkey as I experienced multi-cultural Amsterdam; by the time I left I had eaten Ethiopian, Surinamese, and Indonesian food.
Over these delicious meals I had the opportunity to interview TCDS alum (Cape Town 2005) and good friend, Alana Proctor. Alana graduated from Eugene Lang College in 2006. While students, we both worked as tour guides and admission’s interviewers for the Lang admissions office. After graduating from Lang, Alana promptly earned her master’s from The New School for Social Research in 2007, then left New York to return to her native Holland and continue her studies. In 2007 she received her master’s in Public Health from Maastricht University and is currently a PhD candidate and researcher there.
In our conversations I found out that Alana has carved out a nice niche for herself in Holland. The return home has brought her closer to friends, family and her academic and professional work. In her first year at Maastricht as a graduate student, she lived in Maastricht itself, a small city about 200 kilometers from Amsterdam. However, she quickly missed the diversity and noise of a larger city and eventually moved back to Amsterdam. As a doctoral researcher, she teaches several courses to graduate students in the MSc in Global Health program, commuting from Amsterdam via train three hours each way, twice a week!
In addition to working on her research and teaching, Alana is involved with an organization based in Amsterdam called NiNsee (National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy), with whom she took a summer course in 2010. NiNsee’s aims are to educate the Dutch public about their national past through exhibitions and lectures.
During my visit, Alana presented her own research on racialized ethnic classifications in health research in the Netherlands at an event sponsored by NiNsee. She looked at eighteen months of medical research to find out how ethnicity is conceptualized and operationalized in research. In the Netherlands the word race,, ras, in Dutch, is generally avoided. Instead ethnicity and country of origin are used. Alana argues that although race is not discussed publicly or explicitly, the concept is nevertheless utilized in medical research.
She uncovered that in close to 50 percent of medical studies individuals are categorized by general racial terms (black, white Dutch) as opposed to ethnicity. In some studies ethnicities were not defined at all; nor was there consistency from study to study. This is troubling because politicians and organizations use medical studies for funding and public assistance. Alana used her ability to challenge the status quo, a skill she developed at The New School.
During the next phase of her research, she plans to interview the scientists and researchers who conducted these studies. She believes that their intentions were not purposefully harmful but wants to emphasize the importance of educating scientists on race and the ways in which it permeates Dutch consciousness. She will continue to look at race and ethnicity in the Dutch medical system while finishing her PhD. She does not know what will be the next chapter of her pursuits, but it will be academic in nature.
As my visit came to an end, the cold weather began to set in Europe. After almost two weeks I was looking forward to returning home. As we left for the airport I planned my appointments in New York for the next two weeks on my smartphone. There were a few weeks left in the semester and I would be busy. However I was relieved that I finished my readings on the trip and launched a website for a client in Los Angeles. I considered the trip to Paris, London, and Amsterdam a success.
Before we went our separate ways, I asked Alana what she missed most about New York. She replied with a smile, the cookies at City Bakery., I tried to imagine what it would be like to miss something from New York. At that moment I could not think of anything. But, sitting in Los Angeles a few weeks later, I have an answer to the question: pizza and public transportation.
For now I have to settle for the sun.
Photos and text by Piotr Kuczynski, TCDS Associate, Democracy & Diversity Krakow alumnus