Let’s Go Urban! (LGU) is a socio-cultural project that offers youngsters between 6 and 30 years old a yearlong training programme in urban dance, sports, music and choir in the cities of Antwerp, Boom and Hasselt. Observing that the conventional school system was not adapted to the needs and interests of the urban youth, Sihame El Kaouakibi, an elementary school teacher of Moroccan parentage, launched in 2009 this urban arts and street culture school. The primary goal of LGU is not just to offer recreational pastimes, but also to employ these activities as tools of youth empowerment. Through activities that are popular among young people, LGU aims to help urban youngsters of diverse backgrounds to take control of their lives and to develop their talents. With more than 30 weekly workshops on five locations, LGU is training around 800 participants every week. Moreover, LGU has gained a high visibility in the media through the participation of its dancers in spectacles like Night of the Proms and the Flemish Opera, and through the many awards its founder Sihame El Kaouakibi received from public institutions.
LGU aims to be not just an urban arts school but also a community that supports youngsters in their personal lives. Although LGU is not targeting disadvantaged youth in particular, the organisation takes care of school dropouts and youngsters with problems at school and at home. The identification of youngsters with the urban culture scene is used as a lever to create a community and to encourage the youngsters to build up social capital and networks. By making the youngsters feel part of a family that believes in them, LGU aims at fostering social cohesion. Through this community, the LGU team wants to transmit not only artistic skills and techniques but also social values like punctuality, discipline and responsibility. These attitudes are considered important with regards to the social mobility of the youngsters in school and in the labour market.
With an initial subsidy of € 20,000 from the Antwerp Municipal Department of Youth, Sihame El Kaouakibi launched in April 2009 a series of dance workshops that soon attracted 184 participants in one year time. In order to keep up with this success, Sihame needed extra instructors. The unique strategy that Sihame used was to train the best participants within the LGU community to become teachers themselves. While more than a hundred young people joined the first workshops, a dozen of them were selected to become instructors themselves and to give workshops to a next group of apprentices. This way, LGU not only stimulated the social cohesion but also the social mobility of the youngsters. The most talented youngsters have been prepared for a professional career as instructors or performers. Since 2013, LGU receives an annual subsidy of € 145,000 from the Antwerp city council. This allows the organisation to have three salaried employees. Around them, there is a core group of 30 semi-professional volunteers, mostly alumni, who offer every week workshops. Besides this, there are even more volunteers who prepare and organise repetitions, performances and productions.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
Through urban youth culture, LGU attracts a very diverse audience between 6 and 30 years old. Due to the low tuition fees, LGU is also accessible to young people of all socio-economic backgrounds. The founder, Sihame El Kaoukibi, stated:
‘We are not here for a certain class, ethnic group, gender or colour, but we are open to everyone. We bring together people around passion’ (Coussens, 2012).
According to the President of the LGU Board, “the international origins of urban culture make it attractive for people of diverse ethnic backgrounds”. Despite the socio-economic, ethnic and linguistic diversity of the participants in the workshops, urban culture provides a common point of identification, a common lifestyle, a common language that brings youngsters together without any conflicts. In this sense, urban culture is not just a subculture, but also a lifestyle that can attract people from all layers of society. LGU proves this by successfully by introducing hip-hop dancers in classical music venues. As urban culture is more than hip-hop, LGU offers other dance styles. Regarding urban policies, Sihame El Kaoukibi argued during her TEDx Flanders lecture ‘De Kracht van Verschil’ on 21 May 2012 in Antwerp:
“I don’t believe diversity can be the responsibility of one person, one councillor, one department. I believe it has to be the responsibility of the whole city council and all the organisations that are subsidised for this”.
In this sense, LGU shows that diversity is not limited to one specialised sector, but an omnipresent part of urban culture.
Main factors influencing success or failure
LGU’s success is evident from the rapidly growing number of participants and the many awards that its founder has received. External factors like the media attention for the LGU dancers during spectacles and the public recognition given to the founder certainly contributed to the initial success of the project. We can also identify several internal success factors. LGU successfully mobilised urban culture in order to attract young people. Sihame stated:
“In the first place, we have a programme that appeals directly to young people. Secondly, we can count on a successful marketing, which is largely based on word-of-mouth advertising. Last but not least, our team believes in what we do, we all stand for more than 100% behind our approach” (Cited in: Vanderstraeten, 2012).
The fact that LGU offers its students the possibility of becoming instructors increases their motivation and makes them loyal. According to the President of the LGU Board, “the power of the organisation is that we always work with our own people”. Former students do not simply disappear, but remain loyal to the LGU community. They safeguard the values of the community and pass on their experiences to the next generation.
An internal factor that might negatively impact on the LGU project is the dispersal of the workshops over five locations, mainly rented from youth centres. As this dispersal hinders the accessibility and the communication of the organisation, the LGU Board is actively looking to centralise their activities into one single Urban Arts Centre. An external barrier is the fragmentation of subsidies among the municipal departments of youth, culture, sports and social affairs, each led by a different politician. This division complicates the way an urban project like LGU has to ask for funding as LGU cannot be reduced to one of these departments. Even if LGU did not suffer yet from budget cuts by the municipality, the organisation does not want to depend too much on public subsidies. Therefore, LGU is actively looking for private sponsors, also in their quest for a single location to establish their Urban Arts Centre. Finally, another internal problem is that the organisation depends too much on the founder Sihame El Kaoukibi. If she disappears, the future of the project will likely become uncertain.
LGU is an urban arts school that stimulates social cohesion and social mobility by bringing together youngsters of diverse backgrounds and by teaching them not only dance, music and sports skills, but also social values like punctuality, discipline and responsibility that are required in school as well as in the labour market. The innovative potential of this project lies in its empowering system in which participants can become tutors, leading to a growing community that remains connected over time. Another innovative aspect is the multidisciplinary offer of urban arts workshops that appeals to young people of diverse origins.
Website: Lets Go Urban