Can Can City

In order for a democratic community to function, all its members need to feel worthy of being seen. For this to happen, we need all to feel that we can chip in – that we are contributors. Amsterdam has managed to create a culture and youth policy with this ambition. They call it talent development.

It was just another afternoon in a Bijlmer school in the South-East part of Amsterdam. Bijlmer is known as one of the poorest parts of the city. Over 80 percent of the people living in De Bijlmer have a migrant background, mostly from Surinam, Turkey and Morocco.

In front of the class a professional horn player stood on a podium. He blowed in his horn and the 30-some kids repeated the tune. They sat in a symphony orchestra formation, a ´U´ around the teacher. We saw kids with violins, flutes and trumpets. As the class progressed, some kids got in front to play the tune that the others repeated. In the second part of the class they opened their notes and started playing together, as a group. I wonder if the kids knew that the cheerful tune was most familiar to the public from a strip tease performance at Moulin Rouge: Can Can.

Leerorkest in practice.

Leerorkest in practice.

The song is a perfect fit to describe the main finding of our trip to Amsterdam. But I will get to that later.

Last week a delegation of Helsinki politicians and civil servants visited the canal city. The reason for the trip was that we see a development in Helsinki where our neighbourhoods are so different from each other that they could be in different countries. Whilst on one side of town a teenager is prevented from coming to a skateboarding hall because of a  public transport ticket costing 2,50€, in another neighbourhood a kid gets 250 € a week for snacks. We have youth clubs where over 90 % of our visitors have a migrant background. In another part of town they see a migrant teenager once in a full moon. We wished to understand and benchmark how you work with young people in a city as diverse as Amsterdam. Over 50% of Amsterdam´s teenagers have a non-Western origin.

Helsinki delegation at youth club Nowhere.

Helsinki delegation at youth club Nowhere.

So how are Amsterdam´s young people doing? The extensive State of the Youth (2013) report provides interesting facts on how joint experience it is to grow up in Amsterdam. The report looks at health, growing up safely, criminality, education, work and income and lastly participation in society. For every theme area, the report (unfortunately only in Dutch) looks both at objective indicators as well as young people´s personal experiences. The report sets a good benchmark for the annual report we in Helsinki are preparing with Helsinki´s Urban Facts Centre. In Helsinki our report will feature much of the same data but use Martha Nussbaum´s list of capabilities as a theoretical context.

Amsterdam has done successful work in reducing the number of poorly performing schools only in a couple of years from 33 to 5. Still, in most measures, two neighbourhoods stand out as areas in need of massive improvement: Nieuw West and Zuid Oost. These were just the neighbourhoods we visited.

Overall, there is still a lot to do. Just like in all metropolitan regions. According to the report, every third teenager has felt unsafe in the city. This experience is more common in the above mentioned neighbourhoods and especially common amongst people under 24 years of age. This is easy to understand as young people spend more time in public space than other age groups.

Maarten works as a teacher in Herstelling, a programme for juvenile delinquents. He fits his teaching methods to the needs of the boys.

Maarten works as a teacher in Herstelling, a programme for juvenile delinquents. He fits his teaching methods to the needs of the boys.

Young people live and at the same time do not live in the same Amsterdam. Only 29 % of teenagers live in highly multicultural neighbourhoods. At the same time 80 percent say they have a multicultural group of friends. In many ways talking about migrants gives the wrong impression. Most “migrant youth” are born and educated in the Netherlands. This is more and more the case also for their parents.

Badr works as a youth worker in the Transvaalbuurt.

Badr works as a youth worker in the Transvaalbuurt.

Young people seem to love their neighbourhoods and their city. An astonishing 86 percent like living in Amsterdam. The report  gives me extra encouragement to give more power to neighbourhood-level actions in Helsinki. In Amsterdam especially non-Western young people have a stronger bond to their neighbourhood than to their city.

When heading to Amsterdam, we wanted to learn more about the ways that young people in Amsterdam take part in changing their surroundings. In that light, it is interesting to find out that 6 % of young people in Amsterdam have taken part improving their neighbourhood. Leaving school participation out, I believe that we are on similar percentages in Helsinki.

Some things we really can pick up from Amsterdam are the three goals for their democratic work with young people. According to the State of Youth report, the city has set up three main goals:

  1. Young people can develop their active interests and talents.
  2. Young people learn to contribute their share to the society.
  3. Young people come in contact with other cultures.

Just as a comparison, Helsinki´s goals for its Ruuti youth participation programme are:

  1. Every young person has a positive experience of participation.
  2. Young people´s views and opinions are taken seriously.
  3. Young people are heard in issues affecting them.
  4. Young people´s actions change the city.

The goals set the frame for the actions taken. In Helsinki we have come relatively far with involving young people in planning parks, schools, skate parks, sports parks and youth clubs. We took a big step last year by letting young people in two neighbourhoods decide on our budget and actions for the following year. We have managed to develop a good concept for meetings between politicians, young people and civil servants.

We can definitely pick up two things from Amsterdam. First, Amsterdam gives us a good reminder that in order for democracy to work, we need to share a sense of community. That requires that we have possibilities to look at things from other people´s point of view and can mediate and negotiate differences. I am convinced that we need to bring diversity as one of the key themes for Ruuti.

The second, maybe even more crucial, is the issue of skills. It was interesting to notice how strongly all the people we met talked about fostering and strengthening talent. In a Nordic mindset, talking about talent and skills easily stirs negative connotations – especially when talking about people in need. Talent is easily associated to competition – to the idea that in order for something to be good, something else needs to less skilled.

But this is where Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen´s capability approach comes to the rescue. In essence capabilities approach means that our job as a democratic society is to make sure that the members of our community have the needed skills to run their own lives and make a meaningful impact to the the lives of others. Nussbaum and Sen stress the importance of freedom to make choices. This is what we saw in Amsterdam. In the Amsterdam policy it seemed that skills and talent are understood correctly: as a bridge to becoming a full member of the community. In order for this to happen, we cannot park people endlessly into a role of a helpless creature dependent on someone else showing the road. In order for democracy to function, all members of the community need to genuinely feel that they have something valuable to contribute to the wellbeing of the community. This is what skills are about. The demand is not that we all need to be great in everything or that we all need to be great at the same thing. It puts forward an idea of good life that has been well formulated by Helsinki´s Deaconess Institute and its Development Director Liisa Björklund: good life happens when you can use your capabilities and skills to the benefit of the community you belong to.

There were several superb examples of cultural talent development with a strong democratic undertone. In Amsterdam´s Indische Buurt, cultural youth centre Nowhere runs a workshop programme ranging from modern art groups, poetry circles, dance classes and so forth. Its workshop coordinator Thomas Nijhuis had run a brilliant project called I just love in a local school where the teenagers got to show and do things they are passionate about. This changed how the students and teachers saw the pupils as motivated, skilled and enthusiastic.

Thomas Nijhuis (left) is Nowhere´s workshop coordinator. Tobias is a graphic designer who facilitates partiartcollective, a contemporary arts group of young women.

Thomas Nijhuis (left) is Nowhere´s workshop coordinator. Tobias is a graphic designer who facilitates partiartcollective, a contemporary arts group of young women.

Marco de Souza´s Leerorkest (Pupils´ Orchestra) allows 6–12-year-old kids in very diverse and low-income areas to learn to play a symphony orchestra instrument. The kids get to take the valuable instruments home and practice as much as they want. According to de Souza, many parents tell him how transformative an experience it is for the whole family to realise that their children are worth the same appreciation and skills as the ones who can pay for music education. Last year, over 2 500 kids in Amsterdam participated in Leerorkest. It is no wonder that de Souza was last year selected as the Amsterdammer of the Year.

What´s excellent in Amsterdam´s cultural talent development is that young people get to work with arts and culture professionals. We met successful graphic designers who run modern art classes for girls. We met an actor and a director who run a community theatre with high societal commitment and high artistic integrity. We met people from the Poetry Circle Nowhere where well-known hip hop artists and poets run master classes. At Imagine IC in Amsterdam Zuidoost a distinguished sports photographer worked with young people to cover street soccer. Working with cultural professionals young people also learn that even the best of professionals need to keep on working on their skills and to push their limits.

Imagine IC in de Bijlmer has collected stories on street soccer. After the exhibition, the material is handed to city archives for further use.

Imagine IC in de Bijlmer has collected stories on street soccer. After the exhibition, the material is handed to city archives for further use.

What gets me excited is that the necessity of skills does not seem to be limited only to cultural youth work. The mindset could be identified in employment services and in social work. In Nieuw West´s Werkpunt (Work Point), project manager Adil Belhajey told us how through easy municipal jobs people slowly build up the confidence “to be seen by others”. The city works with private companies so that finally the formerly unemployable people are seen as skilled and motivated workers.

The same starting point we heard from Christine Pollman who runs Amsterdam´s youth care. She has started with family group conferences where the family in need has a joint meeting with all the professionals working on their issues. Together they work out a plan for going forward. The meetings have been proven to the family that they can build up the family capabilities to take more responsibility. The meetings have also demonstrated a sense that even people in need can be trusted and seen as competent. According to Pollman, the first years have showed annual savings on potential care costs of 10 million euros per year. As the law on youth work is now changing, a judge can even order a family group conference before ruling. As Pollman puts it:”It is a model that has a long tradition with the Maoris in New Zealand. It is pretty simple really. People have always sat around a campfire to see how to go forward.” Whilst the meetings are also in use in Helsinki, I was impressed how they fitted well to the same skills narrative.

Yes We Can was the slogan that inspired millions and put Barack Obama in the Oval Office. The notion of skills was behind education pioneer Michael Young´s work in establishing an Open University in Britain. Both communicate that we are able to change our lives together if we make sure that we all have the skills to be free.

Amsterdam convinces me that we need to reframe the skills debate in Finland. Skills and talent are not the same as qualifications and educational institutions. Largely it is a way of thinking that needs to be backed up by peer and institutional actions. Just like the kids of Leerorkest played in unison, Amsterdam seems to be a city of can-can.


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