37.1. Short description
Neighbourhood Stores for Education, Research, and Talent Development (Buurtwinkels voor Onderzoek, Onderwijs en Talentontwikkeling, or BOOT) are an initiative of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (Hogeschool van Amsterdam, or HvA). The Community Development Programme (“wijkaanpak”), which started in 2007, raised the question about how the HvA – the largest institute for higher professional education in Amsterdam – could connect the knowledge and the competences of its students, teachers, researchers and network to the “problem areas” (“aandachtswijken”) in Amsterdam, in such a way as to contribute to the socio-economic development of these neighbourhoods. At the core of the wijkaanpak lies an intensified collaboration between governmental, for-profit and non-profit organisations. Meanwhile, the University of Applied Sciences aspired to be the university of Amsterdam, for Amsterdam. After discussion with the municipal Service for Societal Development (Dienst Maatschappelijke Ontwikkeling, or DMO), the HvA came up with the BOOT concept, where students, under supervision of teachers and professionals, would provide certain services and activities for the residents in “problem areas”. In this manner, students would have the opportunity to develop practical skills and to apply the knowledge they acquired at the university, and they would do so in a way that would also benefit the residents in the neighbourhoods, either directly by offering services/assistance to them, or indirectly by offering services/ assistance to partnering (welfare) organisations.
The first BOOT was opened in 2008,
and we did that together with housing corporations. They gave us a premise so that we could really be in those neighbourhoods with the students. Because we also could have chosen to do it from here, outreaching projects, from the University itself. But we deliberately chose to let those students actually live in those neighbourhoods as much as possible. […] And the programme that they offer, that is decided by the residents themselves, and by the organisations that are in that neighbourhood . That can be the library, the ABN-AMRO, banks, medium-small businesses, but especially social organisations, like social councillors (sociaal raadslieden), social work (maatschappelijk werk), business one-stop shops (ondernemersloket). So it’s not only focused on social work, but also on urban development […] and on starting companies, on the guidance of medium-small businesses. So the range of services that we offer in BOOTs is very diverse. […] But they have to be concrete services that benefit the residents themselves. Or the organisations in that neighbourhood that work with residents – that it works indirectly like that. That’s actually the most important criterion that we have.
By now there are four BOOTs in four different districts (West, Oost, Zuid-Oost and Nieuw-West) and a headquarters that is located within the university in the centre of the city. Various programmes of different domains of the university give their students the opportunity to do an internship for a minimum of 5 months and a maximum of 10 months, 4–5 days a week, at one of the BOOTs. These domains include, for instance, the Domain of Economics and Management (Domein Economie en Management, or DEM), the Domain of Technique (Domein Techniek), and the Domain of Society and Law (Domein Maatschappij en Recht, or DMR). Accordingly, various services are offered at BOOTs. The “standard” set of services that are provided in all the BOOTs comprises financial, legal and social consultation hours (and in most cases also a nutritional consultation hour), homework support for 6–10-year-olds, and an atelier for urban renewal. In addition, depending on the needs of the neighbourhood/residents/organisations, the BOOTs may also engage in different activities.
37.2. Conceptions and ways of addressing users
In reality, there are different kinds of “users” of the BOOTs. From the perspective of the university, the main users are the students – BOOTs are set up and supported by the HvA so that their students can gain practical experience and so that their teachers are more in contact with their work field. Ultimately, for the university, what matters the most is that through the BOOTs, they are able to educate better social workers for the future. At the same time, the students at BOOTs are also “used” by city districts and local (welfare) organisations to conduct research projects and/or to help them in their provision of services. Last, but certainly not least, BOOTs are meant to provide services to residents – in terms of knowledge/advice as well as activities/hands-on manpower. The fact that there are different kinds of users is perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of the BOOTs, but, as the following quotes indicate, it is also what makes it particularly challenging, since it is not always easy to combine different interests:
You are there with students, your purpose is to bring in assignments for students in higher education. And the neighbourhood and the partners quickly tend to see students as “welcome hands”. On that very practical level. And every time you have to explain that you are looking for assignments that are of a certain level for the students. And that those hands are also there – because I understand that the neighbourhood also wants to see those hands – but it’s not volunteering that those students are doing. They do it all within the framework of their studies. There are points/credits involved. And it is difficult to always find a balance in that.
See, students have to be guided by people who can give knowledge. Residents definitely have a lot of knowledge too, but they don’t always have that academic character that is necessary for an assignment for the university. Thus, you have to find an organisation that fits with that, that is coupled to that. So you really want to introduce students into the world of residents’ initiatives, and you want them to support that, but there has to be a professional framework on top of it for the student in order to guarantee the quality of the assignment. And that is a bit difficult sometimes.
For the WILCO target group – i.e. the residents of disadvantaged neighbourhoods to which students in the BOOTs are offering their services so as to improve their living conditions – BOOTs appear to be an easily accessible point of information and assistance. While some residents, for one reason or another, may be more hesitant to approach “formal” services that are provided by more traditional (municipal) welfare organisations, they seem to be less hesitant to approach the (students in the) BOOTs for help. Moreover, residents who resort to BOOTs value the fact that students take their time to figure things out for them and that they try to offer more personalised assistance than that offered in other existing welfare organisations/associations.
As one of the users mentioned:
I noticed they try to make an extra effort on offering you information, but also on gathering information for themselves. You know, because it is different the approach when you work as a professional and it’s different when you work as an apprentice. […] The mind setting. Your mind is different. Because in one you feel: “Oh, I’ve done this. I’ve been through this. Oh, I’ve been through much worse scenarios than these”. And when you are learning you try to avoid trouble, so you try to learn it properly so you won’t advise wrongly in the future. […] Because I think the previous time – when I was asking for advice on this kind of things – was with the Juridische Loket (another organisation that provides legal advice for free). […] And it’s the approach that you have to them, it’s like…I went only to the centre of Amsterdam, and the way that they are covered in a cage, that gives you another approach. They don’t offer you any coffee, you just pick a number…
In fact, that on average 350 to 500 residents visit the various BOOT locations every week clearly indicates that residents of disadvantaged neighbourhoods appreciate the existence of a BOOT in their vicinity.
What I find most surprising is how many residents still make use of the services. Because in the beginning something may be interesting, or a hype, or that you want something different than social councillors that are in the office of the city district because you have a certain relationship, a certain history with them. But that now, 5 years later, there are still people coming to BOOT West to have their tax form filled in by students there – I never expected so many people to systematically come back every week. New people, the same people, we also have ninety children in every BOOT that come back every week. Some children have been coming for 4 years now, and for 2.5 hours per week they get help with reading, writing, and they get courses about eating healthy, about bullying, about professions… You don’t know this on forehand. At the time I did think: students will learn something either way. Even if you put them in front of a window in one of those neighbourhoods, next to a mosque, a Turkish coffeehouse, in front of a square that is being renovated…well, they’ve learnt more in half a year of looking out the window than they probably would have learnt at school. But that residents also would see the added value of it – that was a very big surprise.
On the whole, so far, BOOTs are focusing more on “simply helping” the residents than on “actually empowering” them by teaching them new skills. The most “empowering” approach that is applied in the BOOTs is perhaps the homework assistance that they provide to young children, as this will, in the long run, enable these children to perform better in school and thereby also later on in life. During the consultation hours though, residents are mainly perceived as “clients” that come with specific questions that need to be answered, by the students. However, BOOTs too realise that the “new style of welfare provision” tries to encourage people to come up with solutions themselves and/or in their own networks. Although (students working in) BOOTs do attempt to stress this idea of “self-reliance”, it is something that is not always very easy to accomplish in practice.
Students of social work and service provision also learn during their studies about the “new style of welfare“ and self-reliance and all that, and it’s all woven into the consultation hours. And we’ll be training them for that more and more throughout the year so they pay extra attention to it – that they look at the background of a person and what kind of network there is around them. How is that network and can people make use of that? But it’s not always that easy. Or it is not easy to organise. With some people yes, but there are also a lot of exceptions.
We now also have consultation hours that are based more on giving people a fish than on teaching people how to fish. So people come with their forms, and we try to explain them to them, but in the end they are filled in with someone else. Then that person leaves and thinks “oh that was nice”. Next letter they get, well, that letter also comes to us. So we are looking for other ways of providing services, to be innovative in that too, in order to break that “revolving door” effect. Primarily by providing information, by giving courses… Migrants for instance often have their own network – migrant organisations. If we train people there who are in charge or who have a good relationship with a certain group of people, then they can explain how to fill in a tax form. So then you are building more of a kind of circulation of knowledge, rather than just having students do the work. Which can sometimes be like mopping with an open tap. […] It’s not like everybody has to do everything themselves always, but as much as they can yes. Not just because it is cheaper, but also because people really like to understand things themselves. In the end it is just nice – people gain a lot confidence when they start to understand the letters themselves.
37.3. Internal organisation and modes of working
The way in which the BOOTs are internally organised is mainly decided by the HvA. The HvA delivers most of the staff for the BOOTs (be they students, teachers or mentors), it supplies the bulk of the funding (most of the participating “domains” at the university contribute a certain amount of money to be able to pay for the staff and the necessary equipment), and its academic schedule decides the timeframe of the activities that are carried out in the BOOTs.
City districts gave us the Neighbourhood Implementation Plans (Buurtuitvoeringsplannen) – the BUPs – and those are actually the plans that were made when they got the extra money from Minister Vogelaar (for the “wijkaanpak”). And with their regular occupancy they did not really have the means to implement those plans. So that’s what we mainly started working with. So we got input concerning content. But the concept itself, and the organisation, and moving students and teachers from the University to there, that has been a very internal process within the HvA.
However, in most cases housing corporations provide the location, and the city districts pay the fixed costs such as gas, electricity, water and Internet. In some cases BOOTs have set up a so-called “neighbourhood partner agreement” (wijkpartnerovereenkomst), which is an agreement between the BOOT and partnering organisations, in which BOOT promises to provide certain services in return for a location/compensation of the fixed costs. In other cases it is the city district itself that asked for a BOOT to be set up, and thus also provides a location for them. By now all BOOTs have a “standard” set of services that they provide, but they also carry out additional services/activities depending on the specific needs and desires of residents and organisations in the neighbourhood: “It’s a bit like a menu, where you can choose: I want a BOOT with the standard set of services. But if you want BOOT to carry out extra projects on top of those, for which other people need to be hired, then that is also financed separately” (Manager, BOOT).
The modes of working, though – in terms of the services that a BOOT offers – are very much based on the needs of the neighbourhood in which a BOOT is located. In fact, BOOTs seek to fill the gaps in welfare provision that are left by other (municipal) welfare organisations that are already active in the neighbourhood – either by offering specific types of services, or by targeting specific groups of residents. To be able to fill this gap and to adjust the services that are offered by BOOTs to those that are provided by other organisations, close collaboration with existing (welfare) organisations in the neighbourhood is crucial.
The students actually offer extra services, in addition to the existing offer. We discuss it very well also so that they do not do the same thing just around the corner. That there are not more office windows than there already are, but that we look at things that “Vluchtelingenwerk” (an association for refugees) is dealing with, or what the “sociaal raadslieden” (social councillors) are dealing with, the “Formulierenbrigade” (a brigade that helps people understand/fill in forms)… And then, in consultation with those organisations we make a programme, so that they (i.e. the students) offer supplementary services. A lot of times the professionals come to BOOT to guide the students. That is the whole idea – that we do it together, with the residents and with the professionals of the neighbourhood.
We now have very steady collaborations with organisations, so by now half of the clients come through other organisations, because their waiting rooms are full, and we are a reliable partner. So we share their caseload. But the existing contacts, how we built those up during the first year – because then we had much less direct working relationships with other organisations – that just happened with trust that came via via.
37.4. Interaction with the local welfare system
As BOOTs focus on providing welfare services that are not yet being offered (enough) in a particular neighbourhood, there is a strong interaction with the local welfare system in the different neighbourhoods in which they are located.
You try to collaborate a lot with existing organisations that already do a lot of work, to see: how can we work together, and especially, how can we support you in your work? If you were to start a BOOT and you provide a financial consultation hour, for instance, it could be that a welfare organisation thinks: “Hey, what are they doing here? […] Are they our competitors?” So you try to look for that collaboration as much as possible. That you say: “No, we are doing something different than you, and we support you as much as we can by sending people to the right organisations”. The clients that we help, those questions are actually very practical, material questions. And when the questions become deeper and more complex, then we want to redirect them to our partners in the neighbourhood. So the collaboration with existing initiatives – both of residents and of organisations – is very important.
In fact, the most innovative aspect of BOOTs is the binding role that an educational facility like the HvA – as a “fresh” and more “neutral” actor in the field of welfare provision – plays between different (welfare) organisations that are operating within the same territorial boundaries, yet not necessarily cooperating much. When BOOTs first started, for many welfare organisations that were already in those neighbourhoods, this was a difficult transition to make, as they had been used to providing a particular service in a particular way and they were generally very much focused towards the inside – on their own activities/organisation. BOOTs bring many of these different, so far disconnected, actors together, which not only provides a clearer overview of the facilities/services that are present in a certain neighbourhood and of those that are lacking, but it also stimulates all partnering organisations to have a more “outward look”.
The most important is that we chose not to – even though we had those Neighbourhood Implementation Plans – fill in the Neighbourhood Store with “ok this is what we are going to do”. […] We invited a lot of organisations that, at first, didn’t understand what…because it was all a little…when it’s an offer you can’t refuse, when it is too good to be true – that makes people uncomfortable. So when you ask community workers: “well, just tell us what you want us to do”, and not just a little project, but structurally, long-term, fulltime students…well, they thought: “what is this?!”. They were a bit afraid that we were stealing the bread out of their mouths, like they were going to become redundant. So you have to give it a lot of time to build up a trusting relationship. And, the most important – and in that you can educate other organisations a bit too – is that you put the residents at the centre of it all. Because it’s actually a bit weird that you would see this as competition… You have been put there with money from the government to carry out services for the residents. So if you can do that better with someone else’s help, it is a bit weird if you wouldn’t want to do that. But well, that is something that with the Community Development Programme (“wijkaanpak”) was… a cultural process also. Organisations were very much turned towards themselves, and well, they had to start working more result-driven. They were very busy with that internally, like “Oh, we have to start registering. Or registering more. Counting heads. And how many people do we have to talk to in one hour?”… While, the point of the “wijkaanpak” was that you would bring your forces together to solve societal problems. […] And I think that we…because we were there, and we were independent – so we were not part of the municipality, or of housing corporations, or welfare organisations – we tried to get everybody to turn a bit more towards the outside. Yea, they were kind of forced to collaborate more. And, well, that’s still going very well now actually
37.5. Development and dynamics
BOOT tries to bring together all the various actors that are active within a neighbourhood and maintain a closely cooperating network of partners. Not only it takes time and effort to gain the trust of local (welfare) organisations but, as the following quote underlines, it is also a necessary to convince the HvA and the city districts to “think outside of the box”. In practice, a constant challenge for a BOOT, which seeks to reflect the dynamics of (fast-changing) neighbourhoods, is that its functionality requires a certain degree of flexibility.
Both the university and city districts are bureaucratic environments. And they are very much framed in what they do. So you have to try to lure them to step out of those frames. And with a bit of steering and willingness, persuade them that collaboration is always possible somewhere. […] Sometimes I meet people who are too much into those frames and who only see impossibilities in terms of collaboration. And I try to challenge them during a conversation – with somebody from the city district or with a teacher. […] And that sometimes requires quite a bit of creativity.
Flexibility is required not only from all the partnering organisations, but it is also required within the BOOTs, as they are reliant on the funding of these partnering organisations. In fact, the entire BOOT concept is based on non-profit-making growth-model, which may be difficult to maintain in a future where all partners are facing budget cuts. Hence, BOOTs too are constantly looking for ways to innovate themselves, so they can still somehow offer their services in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
The difficult thing is that there are so many different parties involved – which is our starting point, and we are very proud of that – but every party also has its own interest, a different agenda, and they typically think short-term. Not that they have a short-term vision, but they can only make plans for a year, because the availability of money is decided on a yearly basis. So that means that I am very dependent on that, and my team has to react to that very flexibly and dynamically. […] I can’t tell these people: “I am going to invest in you for the next 10 years, and this is going to be our growing model, and if you just do your jobs well, then it will all be fine”, because other people decide over our destiny. But that is because we are there where there is a need for it. And if that need is no longer there, or if people are no longer able to invest in that, yea, then you should leave actually. […] So that support is very important.
At some point the city district is going to pull itself back more, simply because they are not getting any money for this anymore. And then you have to look at how you can, with certain projects, creatively… how you can keep this going, without costing more money, but that you still grow. In reality it is a very weird growing model, because the better we perform, the higher the cost because we have no income. So the more people come, the more it costs, rather than the more income you have, which is how it normally works. […] So you have to look how you can create an exchange system with existing partners, so they can keep their costs low by using students. So that you do bring that innovative influence of students in that organisation, in that neighbourhood. So that, eventually, what we are doing now, that it can stay. It will change a bit. Now of course we have a very anonymous, neutral attitude. And if we are going to be linked more and more to other organisations you lose that a bit. But well, you also have to look how you can survive. And we are especially busy with looking how residents – because there is of course a lot of knowledge also with residents, and time, unfortunately these days also with people who are highly qualified, but that are unemployed – to look how they can guide the students for a part. And then all we need is a location. But that would be great, matching the trend that residents themselves are looking for themselves how to organise things.