The Flywheel is a social network centre for and by women who live in the Rotterdam area of Feijenoord. The centre provides (free) meeting spaces and a variety of activities. The Flywheel was initiated by the district government in 2009, in response to high levels of unemployment among women in the area. It is funded and managed by the district government. The Flywheel targets all local women who do not participate in paid or unpaid work, e.g. due to language barriers. According to a manager at the Flywheel, activities are attended by ‘individual’ local women of diverse ethnic minority groups, including Afghans, Brazilians, Moroccans, Pakistanis, Poles, Surinamese, Turks and Antilleans with diverse Dutch language proficiencies.
The main goal of the Flywheel is to increase the social mobility of the target group. The concept of social mobility is defined loosely, as ‘personal growth’. The Flywheel uses two main approaches to achieve its goal. First, the centre organises activities and courses in e.g. budgeting, catering, crafts, health, hospitality and philosophy, and encourages local women to participate in them. Second, women are encouraged to organise activities in which they share their knowledge and skills with other local women. They can for instance teach a cooking class or a Dutch language course. Sometimes, external professionals are asked to teach a course at the centre (for a small sum of money). Participants who have followed such a course are then stimulated to teach the course to new participants. By following and carrying out workshops, the centre is thought to act as a ‘flywheel’ for personal development.
The Flywheel is run by 20-25 volunteers who both teach or assist with courses, or help maintain the building and follow courses themselves. At present, the Flywheel offers about 20 short and medium-term activities and courses which women can attend on a voluntary basis. Women pay a small contribution: about € 1 – € 5 per class, depending on the activity. Volunteers get a 50 per cent discount. Activities are organised by two managers and carried out by volunteers. The Flywheel collaborates with various local non-profit organisations to carry out the activities. Every year, the centre is visited 30,000 times by 600 individual women (including 20-25 volunteers), of which 8 succeeded in moving into more highly qualified (paid) work. The district government provides € 70,000 a year for (the organisation of) activities. Also, three civil servants are employed at the centre: one full-time secretary and two part-time managers. The budget has not changed significantly in recent years.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
Diversity is explicitly addressed in the management of and activities at the Flywheel. The initiative recognises that its target groups are diverse, e.g. regarding age, culture, ethnicity, lifestyles, (mental) health, skills, socio-economic status, work experiences, interests and needs. The two managers promote inclusiveness by offering activities that collectively and individually fit the interests and needs of diverse groups; by stimulating participants to use one language (Dutch) to counteract exclusion; and by encouraging participants to treat one another with respect and regard one another as equals. Some activities at the Flywheel also explicitly address social diversity. For example, a weekly discussion group gives participants the opportunity to encounter different opinions on homosexuality, parenting, politics and relationships. Also, in a weekly cooking club, participants become familiar with diverse cuisines and food traditions.
Main factors influencing success and failure
The Flywheel manages to attract a diverse group of local women, who develop themselves considerably. The following factors contribute to this success. First, the management of the centre acknowledges the diverse starting points, interests and needs of the target group. It promotes inclusive practices during activities, for instance by stimulating participants to communicate in the same language. Furthermore, by facilitating dialogues between people with diverse ages, ethnic backgrounds, family situations, lifestyles, opinions, etc. in its activities the centre stimulates positive understandings of differences and connections between women with diverse backgrounds as well. Second, the management seeks to provide a personalised programme for participants as it recognises that they have different needs.
“When we have a new activity we ask the volunteers [or other participants]: would you like to [participate]? With some women we [say]: that would be good for you” [Manager].
Also, progress meetings are held with volunteers. Third, the centre uses an outreaching approach to get to the target group by not only approaching (potential) participants in the centre itself, but also providing information about the Flywheel on local markets and through flyers at people’s homes. Fourth, according to an interviewed manager, the disinterested and external position of the management (not being part of the target group) contributes significantly to an inclusive social climate. The management deliberately does not practice a particular religion in the centre, sets up rules that promote equality and respect among participants, maintains the rules and stimulates positive interactions between participants. It is in the interest of the managers to prevent dominant group formation. Fifth, the managers use their social networks to stimulate social mobility among participants. An interviewed manager discusses how she and her colleague actively look for and finds (paid) work for participants at businesses and organisations in her personal network.
The Flywheel also faces challenges. First, the centre excludes men as well as women who do not feel comfortable to take part in diverse social groups. Local men point out that there is a need for activities for them as well. Also, some women drop out because they prefer to participate within a group which they are familiar with, for instance a solely Turkish Community Centre. Second, although the management introduces this as a success factor, supposedly because it makes activities more special, asking a financial contribution for activities can exclude women from participation. Third, relatedly, the management sometimes does not know when to allow or discourage the formation of social groups within the centre. Distinctive social groups can help one another, but they can also exclude and even dictate other participants in the centre, the managers have experienced. Fourth, the centre would like to welcome more participants. Yet, they experience difficulties motivating more local women to join. Fifth, the centre would like to monitor how women do after they moved into more highly qualified (paid) work but has not yet been able to do so. Sixth, the budget of the centre is not enough to achieve as much social mobility as some participants and the managers wish for. Women want to obtain formal degrees, which the centre cannot pay for. The low budget also affects the quality of the activities of which all are carried out by (semi-)volunteers. Finally, the recent municipal budget cuts, particularly in the budgets for community organisations, threaten the existence of the Flywheel.
The Flywheel effectively uses diversity as a strategy to achieve social mobility, by providing courses and encouraging local women without (paid) work to share skills and talents with other participants. Hereby, the initiative empowers local women in Feijenoord with limited social capitals and communicates a positive understanding of diversity. Rather than problematising the target group, it highlights the qualities of the group for society. The varied and accessible activities, personalised and outreaching approach, independent position and the use of professional networks of the centre’s management enable the initiative to cater for the diverse needs and interests of the target group. With a better evaluation of its results and more budgets the centre could improve the quality and inclusiveness of activities.