B.R.I.G.H.T.N.E.S.S. stands for Learn Every Lesson That Has A Reason And Ignore Foolishness (H.E.L.D.E.R.H.E.I.D. in Dutch: Hoor Elke Les Die Een Reden Heeft En Ignoreer Dwaasheid), which is the nickname of 25-year old rapper Breyten Muskiet, who lived in Feijenoord in Rotterdam and suddenly died from a heart attack in 2004. After his death and in his name, B.R.I.G.H.T.N.E.S.S. became a Feijenoord-based movement of young people who encourage youth in Rotterdam South to develop their talents and participate in society through education and (paid or unpaid) work. B.R.I.G.H.T.N.E.S.S. is also a platform for local youth to raise their voice and to share experiences. This is done through the use of music, dialogues and other creative activities. The movement is initiated and coordinated by the mother of the deceased rapper: Joany Muskiet.
The initiative is aimed at all young people in Rotterdam South who “are neglected [by society], live in the streets, are school drop-outs, use drugs, smoke [marihuana], are anti-social” [Mrs. Muskiet] and who want to enable their talents and improve their socio-economic status in society. According to Mrs. Muskiet, many participants feel dissociated from and are angry with society and grew up in unstable, single-parent families, in which they did not receive enough attention and love. Participants have diverse ethnic backgrounds (e.g. Surinamese, Antilleans, Cape Verdeans and Moroccans) and religions (e.g. Muslims, Christians and non-believers). Many have experienced racism during job applications. Most participants live in Feijenoord.
The main goal of the initiative is to increase the social mobility of the target group. The initiative achieves this by: providing space for the target group to meet; welcoming them to the movement, regardless of their (criminal) background; listening to and acknowledging their experiences, interests and needs; providing a safe and caring environment (e.g. sharing meals); encouraging them to discover and develop their talents; coaching them to become more self-confident, social and supportive; letting more experienced and successful participants act as coaches and role models for other participants; facilitating work experiences and courses in e.g. catering, music and management; and using the social networks of participants for new socio-economic opportunities.
The activities that the movement organises include a yearly ‘B.R.I.G.H.T.N.E.S.S. bowl’ for the best rap talent in Rotterdam South, football tournaments, music workshops with youths e.g. at local schools, in penitentiaries and at Another Chance and weekly informal get-togethers with food and an open mic. In 2010, the City named a square in Feijenoord ‘B.R.I.G.H.T.N.E.S.S.’ to memorise Breyten Muskiet and to acknowledge (the positive contribution of the movement for) youths in Rotterdam South (Van Wamelen, 2012). The square was restructured through a joint-collaboration of professionals and participants of B.R.I.G.H.T.N.E.S.S.
Joany Muskiet cooks for, listens to and coaches the youngsters. She also “encourages the youths to express their stories in a positive way, without using bad words”. According to Mrs. Muskiet, participants have internalised this message and remind each other of it continuously. A team of 5 to 10 volunteers support Mrs. Muskiet with the financial administration, acquisition, organisation of activities and spaces, coaching, promotion and external communication. The team coordinates various working groups in which the youths participate. Depending on the event, 50 to 250 young people participate in activities of H.E.L.D.E.R.H.E.I.D, a volunteer explains. The initiative has a budget of € 25,000 per year including € 10,000 for the organisation of the ‘B.R.I.G.H.T.N.E.S.S. bowl’. The initiative is funded by multiple and altering private and public parties. In addition, a local school and a multinational design firm support the movement with free spaces. The initiative collaborates with various other public, private and non-profit organisations in the area, including a record studio that was set up by one of B.R.I.G.H.T.N.E.S.S.’s main team members.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
According to Mrs. Muskiet, B.R.I.G.H.T.N.E.S.S. communicates that diversity, particularly among young people in Rotterdam South, is a quality. We find that it does so in three ways. First, the initiative literally and symbolically provides space for a group of young people within the diverse city of Rotterdam who are in need of support, but who are often excluded from regular institutions in the city. Second, the initiative is open to all young people who experience exclusion and who want to improve their social position in society, regardless of their age, ethnicity, experiences, gender, housing situation, interests, religion and talents. Indeed, participants are diverse regarding most of these aspects. Yet, the majority of participants are men, even though the initiative is home to and open to women too. Third, the initiative celebrates and encourages participants to develop and carry out their diverse skills and talents, e.g. regarding music, management and education.
Main factors influencing success or failure
The movement is still growing. Participants develop themselves personally (e.g. by becoming aware of their qualities) and socio-economically (e.g. by enriching their social networks). Several youths have for instance managed to start their own businesses. Several factors contribute to the success of the initiative. First, the initiative addresses a niche in urban policy in Rotterdam: it supports a group of young people who experience complex social problems that withheld them from developing themselves. Its inclusive, individual approach enables B.R.I.G.H.T.N.E.S.S. to reach this group. The unconventional approach of listening, acknowledging, caring and coaching by Mrs. Muskiet also fills a gap in the local institutional climate for these youths. Second, the participants share both the feeling of exclusion and the loss of Breyten Muskiet, which enables them to connect with one another, even when they are diverse in many other respects. Mrs. Muskiet explains that participants call each other and welcome newcomers as “brothers”. Third, educating participants and letting them educate other participants like a flywheel mechanism, provides an educational environment for both newcomers and more experienced participants that is relatively inexpensive. Also, as participants share the experience of exclusion, participants who have been involved for a longer period of time are able to understand and address the barriers which newcomers experience to social mobility more effectively than outsiders. Fourth, the initiative actively counteracts exclusion by acknowledging the target group and providing space for them to develop their talents such as making rap music and graffiti, even though these are often not recognised as such by more powerful actors in society. Finally, according to Mrs. Muskiet, the movement reaches its goals because she and her team communicate with participants in a transparent way and keep their promises.
A main difficulty the initiative faces is to find sufficient, appropriate and affordable meeting space. Over the years, the home of Mrs. Muskiet has become a communal area and a storage space. Fortunately, a multinational firm with a local office has recently offered the initiative space to settle. In addition, the movement is dependent of Mrs. Muskiet, practically and emotionally. This can be a weakness of the initiative in the long-term.
Although B.R.I.G.H.T.N.E.S.S. has arisen under unique conditions, we can draw some important lessons from the initiative. It has managed to lift a group of young people with multiple social problems, whom regular social institutions often fail to reach. Its accessible, inclusive, caring and educational climate contributes to this success. The shared feeling of exclusion among participants enables them to connect. Rather than focussing on how the target group affects the city negatively, the initiative recognises their values for society. Hereby, the movement justifies participants’ existence and encourages them to participate in the city’s economy.