Hoe je naar iemand kijkt, welke ‘bril’ je opzet, bepaalt wat je ziet. En wat je ziet, beïnvloed hoe je interactie met elkaar is. En dat heeft dan weer impact op hoe wij onze samenleving met elkaar vormgeven. In ons werk met Jimmy’s valt het ons op dat de bril waarmee wij naar jongeren kijken, een bril is die spannend is om op te zetten. Een bril waarbij gekeken wordt vanuit vertrouwen en mogelijkheden, talenten en de visie dat iedereen iets positiefs kan bijdragen aan de samenleving. Makkelijk? Zeker niet. Naief? Misschien, maar onze ervaring leert ons iedere dag weer opnieuw dat het masteren van the art of being professional naive echt impact op jongeren heeft. Hoe? Dat vertelt Fanny in deze talk voor TEDx Arnhem.
‘The art of being professionally naive
I’d like to take you to a street corner. There’s a group of youths. Boys with baseball caps leaning against a wall. Music, laughter, and once every few minutes one of them shouts something rude…… A lot of people cross the street to avoid this bunch, and most parents would warn their teenage offspring to keep away them.
I used to work with the local youth center and our aim was to create a peer support community for youths. We decided that it would only work if all youths would feel welcome to join. A community based on trust. We had a good start: the group we worked with increased and became more and more involved every week. But we also had a hard time trying to keep this street corner gang separate from our new community. We wanted to provide a safe environment, and this group of problematic youths represented the opposite of ‘safe’.
At one point one of our interns decided to speak up. He said: “why are we preventing this group from joining? Don’t these youths deserve a second chance?” Hmm… we couldn’t agree more, obviously. But it wasn’t easy finding a way for them to join our daily events, while at the same time we had to provide a safe environment for the others.
One day we were talking about the youth centre, when one of the members of the problematic group volunteered to refurbish the youth centre during the holidays.
This was the worst plan ever. No one trusted him or his friends, some of them were even suspects in theft and robbery cases. So, how could we give them a key to the youth center when none of us would be there to keep an eye on them? What if they robbed the whole place empty? But we couldn’t reject him either. You either decide to build a community based on trust, or you don’t. You can’t have it both ways. So we decided to take the leap. And after our holiday everything looked… bright and shiny as if it were new! Sounds like a Hollywood movie doesn’t it? ‘Criminal gang members now volunteers of the year’. All you need is a little faith…
It didn’t actually work out that way. Even though they did a really nice job upgrading the youth center, most of the gang are still involved in shady practices. But then again… From that week onward, to us they became more than petty criminals. They turned out to be quite skilled. Helpful. Friendly, even. At least, when spending time with us.
I want to talk to you about how we see people and how that influences our interaction with them.
I first realized that people are more than just the problems they have or the bad behaviour they demonstrate during my internship in France. I worked with Dutch kids whose life – in many cases – was messed up back home. They were sent to France to improve their behaviour and think about their future.
Their files described extreme behavioural issues and their living circumstances were often quite disturbing. But I discovered those files said nothing about their personalities, their talents or their eagerness to create a better future for themselves.
Back in the Netherlands I couldn’t let it go. Why was the Dutch youth care system so problem-centered? Why are there hardly any places where young people can go, to develop their talents?
Well – to keep a long story short- we decided to ask the youths themselves about what they thought was needed in order to provide a healthy and happy environment to grow up in. We asked them where they wanted to turn to when life was tough on them, and how they would like to improve their own lives and the lives of others. And slowly but surely we started creating Jimmy’s in collaboration with them. It resulted in a peer support community where young people help each other in dealing with their problems, and where they can develop their talents. A community where everyone is welcome to join.
When we set up Jimmy’s we discovered pretty soon that it would only work out if the youths themselves would run the business. Of course it was a challenge. Both for us, for the professionals, as well as for the youths. We had to become a team in which we would all be equals, regardless of our roles, backgrounds, expertise and our earlier experiences. We had to trust each other and share responsibilities. It turned out to be a lot easier for the young people than it was for the professionals, I must confess… It was a real mind shift in regard to our approach to young people. Because ownership and working on a base of trust means you have to do it all the time. And with everyone who wants to join. So it meant we needed more than one key for our Jimmy’s locations. It meant that the closet we kept our Ipads in was always open. You could call us professionally naive. And still… It works. Even though former addicts or convicted thieves are involved.
The reason it works, is because Jimmy’s is as much their place as it is ours. They already have access. So why would they steal anything or wreck the place? Obviously a thief won’t steal from his own house.
But it isn’t a walk in the park either. In the real world we have – and want – to work together with the local government, with youth care and welfare organisations. And a lot of the social professionals we encounter find it much harder to really grasp this mindset of trust than young people. The policies, methods and cultures of the organisations they work in, more often than not, are focused on supervising vulnerable kids and solving their problems, instead of creating opportunities and increasing their strengths and talents. So… what you see is what you get. Most professionals only focus on the vulnerability of youths with problems, and interact accordingly.
So even though all the professionals we meet are highly motivated to make a positive impact on the lives of the teenagers they work with, the system and their own worldview prevent them from fully seeing the quality these teenagers have to offer.
So yes… all the youths who visit us are special and talented in their own way. And no… most of them don’t transform from troublemaker into an angel overnight. But a lot of youths with a troubled background do learn that there are places that can motivate them to try something new. That there are people who will assume you have good intentions and that you can be trusted, even though they don’t know you at all. They discover that it’s up to them to make choices about where and with whom they want to spend their time, and which aspects of themselves they want to improve.
The youths at Jimmy’s taught me that behaviour and reliability is circumstantial. And that trust is a key in creating those circumstances. It isn’t always easy to interact fearlessly and full of trust, but I know now it’s always worth it.