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30 years of youth social work in 3 Belgian cities

With over thirty years’ experience supporting youth social work in three cities in Belgium, JES has developed an interesting portfolio of innovative projects aimed at supporting young people to overcome many of the challenges they face. Here Nihad Ahmed of Nesta interviews JES's Communications Lead, Nele Hoste, about the urban laboratory's evolution and on working to make an impact on the youth policy agenda in Belgium.


JES was founded 30 years ago. Can you tell us about the organisation’s history and mission, and what you think has been the key to it operating in Belgium for over three decades?

JES was founded by the government to support Flemish youth work in Brussels. Soon our work went further than purely youth work. We felt young people were longing for these kinds of projects. Working on urban challenges to improve the lives of young people has always been our core business and our work has become more relevant ever since, because of developments such as high youth unemployment, significant school dropout, migration, increasing pressure on public spaces. As an urban laboratory we detected needs and urban challenges and we translated them into innovative, experimental projects. For example, we built a sailing ship and a fully functioning youth hostel with unemployed youngsters. The projects we began to develop combined several domains; not only youth work but also employment, education and welfare. We also expanded our work to two other big cities in Belgium: Ghent and Antwerp. Our main goal has always been to empower young people and make cities better for them.  


JES is headquartered in Molenbeek, Brussels. What are the main challenges facing the municipality that JES is working to address?

Molenbeek is a growing, densely populated area with significant school dropout and relatively high unemployment rates. Young people in the municipality face considerable challenges. Some of them have lost perspective about their future and we try to create some perspective by talking to them, helping them to discover their competences and talents, and empowering them to take control of their lives.

This isn’t the full picture however, there are also many talented young people growing up in Molenbeek. Canadian Professor Jamil Jivani came to Molenbeek to discover what’s behind the headlines related to the terrorist attacks. He wrote a very interesting blog about his experience, stating that "It has been a privilege to get to know the youth of Molenbeek beyond the scope of the radicalization issue and see how the vast majority of young people here who have absolutely nothing to do with radicalization and extremism. I have seen their dreams and hopes, their intelligence, their talent, their work ethic and their need to have fun like youth from anywhere else. […] There are many talented young leaders in Molenbeek who are learning, growing and engaging with youth-serving organizations in this community. If they are given the opportunities they need to live up to this potential, Molenbeek can play an important role in leading Europe to further prosperity and equality".

Like this, we see similar challenges and opportunities in the other areas and cities that we work in, such as Antwerp and Ghent. In these big cities we’ve encountered challenges such as high youth unemployment rates and school attrition. This target group of young people, who have sometimes lost their belief in public institutions like schools and police, is very hard to reach. We set up some projects aimed at supporting this specific group of young people when other institutions aren’t able to build positive relationships with them. We develop those projects because we feel there is a strong need for these kind of projects in society.


Can you tell us what’s unique about JES’s approach to innovation and youth work?

At JES, we keep our finger on the pulse of urban communities and we are constantly looking for new solutions to respond more efficiently to the needs of young people. That’s also why we consider ourselves to be an urban laboratory. What makes us quite unique in the field is also our integrated approach. We break down the walls between youth work, leisure time, education, employment and welfare. This enables us to bring together different areas and understand each young person in his or her totality, while looking at their talents and ambitions in different areas. Instead of waiting for young people to approach us, we go to spots where they hang out. We are then able to encourage them to pursue their aspirations in their own familiar surroundings. At our Youth Competence Centres in Antwerp, we have several coaches that support young people in developing their skills through voluntary work, offering opportunities for them to organise events and participate in leadership courses. Through our work, we believe we can make a difference to the livelihoods of young people in the long term.

JES has also made use of digital technologies to amplify the impact of our work. An example of this is Lomap: Lomap is the first interactive smartphone application aimed at supporting Flemish youth work. Anyone working with young people in the city or has an opinion to express about their neighbourhood can use the app. Lomap can be used as a participatory tool to engage young people and can be a way to teach them media skills (media literacy) or how to research their social environment. It can also be a way to map cultural hotspots in a neighbourhood, and address environmental or traffic issues in a certain neighbourhood.


What are some of the challenges JES faces as an organisation and how are they overcome?

In times of (financial) crisis and tighter budgetary constraints, it is a challenge to keep innovating and to create space and time for employees to work on innovation. Innovation takes time. It requires time to incubate, to develop, for ideas to grow. We have to continually defend that free incubation time to policymakers and sponsors. Policymakers often tend to look for short-term solutions, especially in times of crisis, for example in times of terrorism. We tend to focus on the long term. Our approach with young people takes time to build a relationship of trust. The result of that might not be directly visible, but it certainly has an impact in the long term. For instance, in Borgerhout, Antwerp, it’s been observed that JES youth workers have engaged many generations of residents in order to create social networks that help fill the voids of public institutions there.


How important is it for you to partner with other public sector and civil society organisations, and what kind of difference do these partnerships make to JES’s work?

We strongly believe that great impact can be made by working together with several partners and uniting the strengths of similarly-minded organisations who share a common goal: to build better cities for young people. When working on innovative projects, we also believe it’s interesting to partner with other organisations or schools, because multiple perspectives can lead to more creative, better solutions. We also work together with partners to broaden our networks and deepen our understanding of the difference we make. For instance, we recently partnered with the University of Brussels (VUB) to develop impact frameworks to measure our work.


JES sets out to have a big impact on the youth policy agenda. Could you tell us how the organisation does this?

JES has sought to ensure that young people’s voices are heard by bringing them together with policymakers to have discussions where both parties can speak their minds. These meetings are instrumental in giving policymakers an insight into young people’s needs and their wider social environment, and providing young people with opportunities to put forward questions and consider the perspectives of policymakers.

We have sought to influence the youth policy agenda by sharing our expertise developed over the last 30 years through organising seminars, speaking at conferences and participating in focus groups. Our aim is to grow into a centre of expertise where we share our knowledge about how to deal with young people in big cities, and ground our experiences on the field with data and research. So still lots of plans for the future. Let’s add another 30 years to our existence.