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Elite involved in neighbourhood

3 February 2009 – In seven districts, think tanks consisting of successful neighbourhood residents who engage in social initiatives have been created. The approach is successful, but sometimes creates tensions with social work and community organisations. An evaluation is due for publication.

Mercedes Zandwijken was responsible for subsidising immigrants’ organisations at the Oost District, when Theo van Gogh was murdered right in front of the district office on 2 November 2004. The murder posed a threat to social cohesion, she thought, but might also present an opportunity.

However, she was convinced that it would not be possible to seize that opportunity with the existing structure of social work, immigrants’ organisations and residents’ associations. “These are often people who have been active for twenty years and who do not have the capabilities to deal with today’s problems”.

“The immigrants’ organisations have frequent meetings, but subsequently nothing happens. The social work and residents’ associations haven’t been anymore successful at accessing new networks. They have a bit of a token role, allowing the government to say: we have consulted with residents”.

Meanwhile, she noticed, all kinds of people live in the district who take their bicycle in the morning to do interesting things elsewhere. People like author Pieter Hilhorst and screen writer Maria Goos. “They leave us here in misery. I wondered, why couldn’t they put in a few hours as a volunteer over here? We need the best talents”.

It turned out that many people are enthusiastic when asked to do something for the neighbourhood. A Social Cohesion Think Tank was created in Oost, and other districts followed suit.

The think tanks consist of about ten successful residents. Mellouki Cadat, advisor with Movisie and about to become a former member of the think tank in Zeeburg: “We all live in Zeeburg, but in different neighbourhoods, with different professions, from different social groups. I found this diversity enriching”.

When well-known people are associated with an initiative, this will attract other residents, including those who ‘wouldn’t be seen dead’ at a traditional neighbourhood meeting. For example, some six hundred people in Slotervaart participated in a walk around the Sloterplas, an initiative supported by people like VVD politician Geert Dales, paediatrician Nordine Dahhan and PvdA chairwoman Lilianne Ploumen.

In de Baarsjes, about one hundred people participated in MHT9, an initiative to present highbrow art in an accessible manner. In Zeeburg, the Timorplein Community was created, which is a network of 120 entrepreneurs who in turn started to support existing neighbourhood initiatives.

In principle, membership of a think tank should not to be too time-consuming. In this respect, artist and philosopher Joke Hermsen, who was chairwoman of the think tank in de Baarsjes, is an exception. “For a year, I spent some twenty hours per week on it, but that’s just because I think Mercedes is great”.

In principle, people join a think tank for a one-year period; subsequently, new members are recruited. Since the standards are pretty high, one might wonder whether the project might run out of potential candidates at some point.

John Schuster, who teaches Cultural Anthropology at the VU and who is a member of the Slotervaart think tank: “We’ll have to see in the future. During the past year, another three members spontaneously presented themselves. So we haven’t run out of candidates yet”.

The way in which the think tanks operate sometimes causes creates tensions with volunteer organisations and social work. “You have to be careful not to step on someone’s toes”, Hermsen said. “There may be as many as thirty volunteer organisations in the district. They feel overwhelmed. You have to be careful not to stir up ill-feeling”.

In Slotervaart, the think tank is organising a meeting with immigrants’ organisations, in order to let them use the social network of the members of the think tank. “For the social work, such a thing is unnecessary, they can look after themselves”, Schuster said.

In Zeeburg, the relation with the social work was somewhat difficult at first. “When the think tank organised a neighbourhood meeting, Civic also organised a neighbourhood meeting”, Cadat said. “But that’s all right. By now, we have a concrete arrangement not to organise competing activities but to support each other”.

People who find the status quo comfortable sometimes perceive the think tanks as a threat, Zandwijken said. This applies not just to social work and community organisations, but also the government. For it requires some nerve to deal with residents who can influence public opinion. So far, nothing negative has occurred in any of the districts. The relation between think tanks and administrators has been good, Zandwijken said.

Still, she thinks that it should be investigated whether the think tanks could be co-owned by other parties that are active in the districts (businesses, housing corporations or the trade union). If only in order to achieve continuity in the funding of activities. On the other hand, it is important for the government to be involved. “It helps if you can tell the director of the Jewish Historical Museum: “Job is asking you. Or Boes or Verbeet is asking you”.

By Job, she means Mayor Job Cohen; by Boes, District Alderman Henk Boes of Zuideramstel and by Verbeet, District Mayor Martin Verbeet of Oost.

The think tanks are sometimes criticised for being elitist. Cadat says that they are based on meritocratic principles. “I think I was about the only member of our think tank who’s not a director. You ask the elite to take responsibility for the neighbourhood. Life has given you a lot, so what do you want to give back”.

Zandwijken: “We look for people who have proven that they can achieve something. That might well be someone who successfully runs a chain of barber shops. Among the members of one of the think tanks, there are two medical specialists at the AMC; they can arrange work placements at the hospital. What you want is to tap influential networks and proven creativity ”.

The criticism that think tanks would be elitist sometimes causes irritation among the members, she says. “They say: why shouldn’t I be allowed to be involved in my neighbourhood?”

Some people resent the think tanks for the money they receive. In order to fund initiatives of the think tanks, districts can use urban renewal funds (‘Vogelaargelden’) as well as money from the Amsterdam anti-radicalisation fund.

On the other hand, think tank members contribute their own money. An example is entrepreneur Amos Frank, who invested 50,000 euro in a fund for business start-ups, called Stichting Suikeroom (Rich Uncle Foundation). By now, this private fund has more than a million euro at its disposal. In addition to funding, it provides entrepreneurs with connections.

The way in which the think tanks operate is apolitical. They mainly organise activities to connect different groups in society and they are unlikely to organise protests against the demolition of social housing or against subsidised workers being laid off. Zandwijken: “As a think tank, you shouldn’t bite off more than you can chew”.

Meanwhile, the idea of the think tanks is spreading. The cities of Utrecht and Almere have shown interest. In Amsterdam, think tanks are now being created at the street level as well. In Geuzenveld a resident single-handedly created a think tank, and Zandwijken has created one in her street in Amsterdam Oost.

Social Cohesion Think Tanks. Image: meeting of the Timorplein Community (photo Ditta van Middendorp)


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