20. Neighbourhood Mothers
20.1. Short description
The project Neighbourhood Mothers bridges gaps within a multicultural but fragmented society, both pragmatically and symbolically. Based on blueprints from the Netherlands and other German cities, the innovative approach is strictly resource-oriented and neighbourhood-related. Basically, the project developed further the idea of intercultural mediators and mentors helping immigrant families with educational and also family-related issues. Kreuzberg’s Neighbourhood Mothers, mostly immigrants that completed a special qualification phase, deal with a wide range of topics such as health promotion, language support and child protection. By pursuing a two-way approach, Neighbourhood Mothers make existing support structures better known and accessible and also translate their clients’ needs and concerns in order to improve district authorities’ awareness towards them. Being a low-threshold service in practice – Neighbourhood Mothers are easily identifiable by a red scarf in order to get directly addressed on the street – the project attempts to establish informal support networks and trust by building bridges among (multicultural) communities and authorities. If requested, Neighbourhood Mothers give advise to families through regular home visits free of charge.
The project, which has received several awards for successful integration work, may also be a springboard to the labour market: neighbourhood mothers can combine their voluntary work (a small monthly allowance is paid) with a professional training in order to become a social assistant for intercultural family care. However, this real job perspective makes it difficult for the management of the project (the Diakonisches Werk) to provide continuity as it requests a steady recruitment of new neighbourhood mothers. Hence, non-bureaucratic support by the job agency and the responsible district council department are preconditions for future success of the project.
20.2. Conceptions and ways of addressing users
Neighbourhood Mothers offer a bundle of outreach services for migrant families. Families using the offer are addressed as neighbours and community members – instead of bearers of multiple (social) problems. In contrast to local authorities, pursuing a rather directive style of user interaction, Neighbourhood Mothers strengthen families in a friendly and cooperative manner. As multipliers of knowledge and mentors, Neighbourhood Mothers’ services are “family-minded”, including not only individual users but also people with links to their families and community networks. However, it is worth noting that in practice it is mostly mothers who accept support by the project, while fathers (despite first attempts to establish neighbourhood fathers too) are difficult to reach. Moreover, acute problems and conflicts are rarely the reason of contacting Neighbourhood Mothers who build up trust with families via informal meetings, e.g. at the family café of the Diakonisches Werk, on the playground or chatting in the street. “First of all, we are helping companions for daily life matters rather than being experts for severe family problems”, states a neighbourhood mother who migrated with her parents from Turkey 30 years ago.
The range of daily life matters where Neighbourhood Mothers offer support and consultancy is rather broad, comprising issues such as basic knowledge on children’s development and needs, basic competences on health promotion, nutrition and sports, linguistic development, the German child care and educational systems and problems in family networks (e.g. drug abuse, divorce, violence). What differentiates Neighbourhood Mothers most from professional services concerning these issues is its peer-to-peer approach. Most of the neighbourhood mothers went through similar situations as the families they care for. They have a better understanding of feelings of alienation and particular needs than professionals, literally speaking “another language”. Therefore, Neighbourhood Mothers take “real problems” (e.g. missing knowledge about the German school system) as starting points for support – instead of adapting their services to the structures of silo-like service departments.
20.3. Internal organisation and modes of working
Neighbourhood Mothers pass a 6-month qualification course before working with clients. For instance, Kreuzberg’s first generation of neighbourhood mothers (30 women) has been trained with a curriculum comprising of 10 modules such as children rights, health promotion and transition from kindergarten to school. The comprehensive qualification has two important effects: on the one hand, it facilitates identification and team building among neighbourhood mothers; on the other hand, Neighbourhood Mothers gather various contacts with local institutions during this introductory phase through visits at the job agency, district authorities (e.g. child and youth welfare aid) or birth houses which are valuable resources for their later work. After the qualification, quality management takes place once a week via exchange and reflections about work experiences. “Recurrent issues in those meetings are for example families’ problems to subscribe their children to preferred schools”, states a neighbourhood mother, appreciating especially the opportunity to simulate courses of conversation with clients before going into practice. Furthermore, during reflection rounds neighbourhood mothers learn “what is going on elsewhere in the district”. Being informed about other projects, e.g. sewing courses for immigrant women or mother-child language courses provided by family centres (see below), is central for neighbourhood mothers who also function as switchboards for various learning and leisure time offers. The project is coordinated and further developed by two managers of the Diakonisches Werk, responsible for recruiting, qualifying and accompanying neighbourhood mothers. In addition both managers are in regular contact with similar projects in Berlin in order to cultivate professional exchange and evaluation. The project managers established strong links between Neighbourhood Mothers and other services provided by the Diakonisches Werk. Thereby sustainability concerning the work with families may be strengthened, as Ulrike Koch, one of the two managers, hopes: “The Diakonisches Werk has been providing social work in Kreuzberg for more than 30 years. Due to its temporary financing scheme, the future of Neighbourhood Mothers remains future uncertain. Families cannot count on them alone.”
20.4. Interaction with the local welfare system
Similar to the Princesses Gardens, Neighbourhood Mothers are a publicly recognised and well-known social innovation in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. After a good degree of initial scepticism and profound reservations on behalf of established welfare institutions and services providers, Neighbourhood Mothers is now welcomed as an early protection intervention against severe social problems of immigrant families that are hard to reach. In this respect, Neighbourhood Mothers’ excellent public relations work paid off, especially in relation to kindergartens and schools but also to the job agency. According to the coalition agreement of Berlin’s government of Social and Christian democrats, Neighbourhood Mothers should be financed on a regular basis. So far, however, this political intention and the large amount of public recognition have not spilled over into a secure future of the project. Started as a test run in 2008, the project has been financed by different sources: the job agency, the local youth welfare office and ESF. “We are constantly re-calculating our budget and make provisional solutions instead of far-reaching plans”, complains Ms Koch.
After 5 years of existence, the project is in an odd situation. Practically, Neighbourhood Mothers are part of the local welfare system and there is no doubt that their services for families are very much needed. On the other hand, the project is still far away of being a regular offer, at eye-to-eye level with established services providers, even if some local partners have a strong interest in the maintenance of its contributions to local welfare. For instance, the local youth welfare office in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg has already created five part-time positions for neighbourhood mothers who additionally passed a professional training to become a social assistant for intercultural family care. Other institutions and local employers may follow this example. Therefore, project managers keep repeating demands of regular funding, in particular to cover the costly qualification of neighbourhood mothers.