11. Potes en Ciel – Children’s Café
11.1. Short description
The children café, Potes en Ciel, is a welcoming and open place for children aged 0-16 years as well as their parents living in the neighbourhood and nearby or wishing to meet other families and share experiences. The café is a meeting place that promotes children’s well-being, good parent-child relationships, socialisation and mutual aid between families and generations by developing free creative and participatory learning activities. Educational and recreational actions are organised, such as parent-child workshops (music, visual arts, etc.), creative and cultural exchanges, book loans and festive and neighbourhood events. On the café side, non-alcoholic refreshments and snacks are served.
The Potes en Ciel café was set up by 10 founding members in 2006 in a working-class neighbourhood of Lille named Fives. This non-for-profit initiative was inspired by the pioneering and similar experience of Café Zoïde, set up in Paris in 1999. Potes en Ciel is therefore also part of the dissemination process of the children’s café concept within several large cities in France (Lyon, Nantes, etc.) but also in other European countries. A national then European network was created in 2011 with a common charter based on shared values such as affirmation of children’s rights, learning citizenship, mutual aid and cooperation, the fight against discrimination and rejection of violence.
The Potes en Ciel café is not a traditional child-care service in the sense that professionals do not have to manage access and availability of places according to criteria defined by local child-care institutions and funders. The main objective is not to facilitate work and care conciliation of working parents, as the activities provided suppose a co-presence of the child with the parent. The café is open over the weekend, which is also perceived as innovative in terms of opening hours considering that most child-care facilities and municipal recreational centres tend to be closed.
11.2. Types of services and ways of addressing users
The children’s café had a membership of 356 in 2012 and registered 4,366 visits per year (27 people a day on average). After a strong progression over the first 4 years, the number of members has slightly decreased and has now stabilised. About 30 volunteers have participated in the project. The composition of users is important and subject to debate because the social mix of families is one of the stated objectives of the Potes en Ciel café. We can distinguish different motivations and profiles among the parents. A first group is composed of young parents who have recently moved to the Fives neighbourhood. The café is viewed as a place for socialisation, a friendly way to meet other parents and establish good neighbourly relations. For some parents, going to the café fits with educational preferences or work and care balance choices. It is in line with parents’ choice to spend time with their young children in a creative and user-friendly atmosphere.
For parents, the café also corresponds to an educational approach perceived by some parents as more adapted to children’s rhythm and development than a traditional pre-school framework. Parents and children reproduce the creative activities they share in the café at home. In this sense, visual arts and children’s singing workshops are also a learning process for both parents and children. The educational motivation can also be identified through the high number of users coming from other Lille Metropolis districts. More than 50 per cent of users come from outside the neighbourhood on Wednesday or during the weekend. The café is seen as a unique place in the region in terms of sharing creative activities and parent-children participation. An interesting point is also the way the café can support divorced and separated parents, in particular fathers who have custody of children at the weekend. For them, the café helps to build a qualitative relationship between the children and their fathers, which improves their care and educational capabilities. Finally, child-minders are another group of users who come during the week. For them, the café is a collective place that provides a socialisation space with other children and leisure activities that they cannot provide at home.
The social mix of users was one of the initial objectives behind setting up the café in a working-class neighbourhood. However, the diversity of users’ social origins has not yet met the board’s initial expectations. The cultural barriers to knowledge of the café, such as parental participation, could partially explain this situation. In order to avoid the risk of social homogenisation, volunteers and professionals have decided over recent years to adopt a proactive approach by building partnerships with a young single mothers centre and non-for-profit organisations such ATD Fourth-World. Parents and professionals organise activities out of the café and meet parents in other places in the neighbourhood. The choice has been made to welcome families in difficulties with the assistance of social workers as a first step during the time needed for parents to gain confidence and autonomy before trying to come on their own. Although the cost, 1 euro per child, is cheap compared to private and for-profit leisure activities for young children, access to the café is now free for very low-income families.
11.3. Internal organisation and mode of working
Whereas the types of activities and forms of parental participation are clearly innovative, the working methods are also interesting, though sometimes problematic. In addition to their participation in creative and leisure activities, parents are involved as volunteers in the working organisation with tasks such as opening the café in the morning, welcoming new parents and children, serving at the bar, developing the website and so on. Volunteers and staff work together on reception functions and welcoming parents to the café, which is presented as fundamental. Volunteers are not always parents and users but also people from the neighbourhood who support the project. Professionals, parents and representatives of institutions regard this strong involvement of volunteers and users as innovative in comparison with traditional child-care facilities, where professionals tend to keep parents at a distance. In addition, the participation of parents fosters flexibility and adjustments to activities according to user demands. For instance, the staff organise picnic lunches as a convivial moment with parents for informal discussion of educational issues.
However, the close relationship between workers and users can sometimes be problematic and has still not been formally stabilised. Because parents are involved in running key activities proposed by the staff, some professionals are sometimes subject to harsh criticism by parents in the way they facilitate workshops. Because of the friendly and participative atmosphere, the respective responsibilities between professionals and users are sometimes unclear. Moreover, the staff have to manage specific demands from child-minders asking for personal advice or problematic situations with certain parents (from the Rom community, for instance). The special attention given to individual cases can cause tensions with the collective dynamic.
With the almost complete renewal of the staff, the Potes en Ciel café is in the process of clarifying its working methods in line with the classical path taken by voluntary organisations. The first workers team, and in particular the manager, were among the founders of the project. This dual role (professional and promoter) was creative during the emergence phase of the project. It seems to have become problematic in the development phase when fundraising imperatives arose along with the first management tensions between staff, board and users. The personal involvement of the new generation of workers in the project is less pronounced. For many of them, working at the café is a job first and foremost. In addition, the insecure job status (fixed term contracts, subsidised jobs, etc.) that applies to some young workers does not facilitate long-term investment.
This development has led to a process of clarification and formalisation of the respective roles and statutes of board members, users and workers. The new coordinator was recruited to manage the professional staff without which the café could no longer operate. There has been a major turnover of staff over recent years. The café is staffed by a significant number of temporary workers, trainees and students, making it complicated to create a stable professional team. Partially offset by the involvement of volunteers, human resources management is actually the weakest part of this initiative.
11.4. Embeddedness of the project in the local welfare system
The role played by the Potes en Ciel café in local governance is interesting. As with many innovative projects, integration within the local welfare system has not been immediate and met some resistance at the beginning. Potes en Ciel is not a municipal initiative and does not lie within the traditional scope of community skills. Also, recognition by the political and administrative sphere has been progressive and a little controversial. Initially supported by the elected municipal representative (Green party) for the SSE, the project met with scepticism from the elected official (Communist party) from the Fives district and civil servants in charge of urban community development. They were reluctant to invest in an initiative perceived as a boho concept, targeting middle class newcomers and contributing to the gentrification process of a working-class neighbourhood. This partly explains the difficulties of finding a role for the café. In addition, as already underlined, the café is neither a traditional child-care facility nor a leisure activity, in view of the co-presence of parents and children. It therefore takes time to convince municipalities and local institutions to find the corresponding budget lines for financial support.