The Working Committee Youth (AK Jugend) is an area-based network of professionals engaged in street work with deprived teenagers in the large housing estate Leipzig Grünau and thus aims at strengthening both social cohesion and social mobility. The working committee enables its members to network amongst each other in order to better accompany and support socially deprived teenagers by way of regular exchange (monthly meetings) and common projects and events. Once a year, a celebration for youngsters is organised. The committee has a network structure with a flat hierarchy; the legal status is a registered association. Members are different educational or street work related institutions dealing with Grünau’s deprived youth – only professional groups are allowed considering that assistance from lay persons is not possible. Membership is a matter of interest; new institutions or EU-funded projects are welcome to participate. A homepage was launched to inform the district’s youth about what the institutions offers.
The speaker of the group claims that the network works autonomously and in a direct democratic fashion, meaning that hierarchies do not exist and decisions are made collectively. Representatives of the city’s administration, who would automatically act both as professional colleagues and as public authority and commissioner, are allowed to participate in meetings on invitation only.
The association was founded in 1993 and thus represents a long-grown, stable body of cooperation among the researched governance arrangements in Leipzig. Street work in the area began in 1992; early problems were racist attacks carried out by right-wing oriented teenagers and neo-Nazi groups. Partnership among different educational and social work professionals was discovered to work most effectively: “Street work, mobile youth work can only flourish along with partners.“ (LG4). The network was formed and established in a time when organizational structures concerning the topic were still unstable and in transition after the political change of systems in 1989/90. The network survived budget cuts, difficult times and conflicts of interest. It also acted as a lobby group for stable working environments and against cuts in the budget of institutions working with deprived teenagers in the area. This fight against budget cuts produced a feeling of solidarity and community among the members.
Concerning resources, there are no extra resources for the network apart from financial support for events. The members have their own funds which come from mainly the city of Leipzig and other external funding (e.g. EU). This is where budget cuts occurred, induced from the state of Saxony. The network “lives on the time and energy of its members” (LG4). What is more, they share the scarce resources they have, e.g. a bus for mobile street work.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
Diversity is not an explicit issue of the network; it is primarily concerned with deprived youth. When asked about the composition of the target groups, a shift in age-groups was reported. Whereas in the 1990s, the target group were older teenagers, right-wing, neo-Nazi groups, later on drug-problems became a major issue. Today, it is actually kids under 14 years of age they deal with, some of them being in fact the children of their former clients. Thus, they report about intergenerational deepening of deprivation and poverty-carriers. A loss of social and emotional competencies is observed: “The younger they are, the less interest they have in anything” (LG4). The estate sees an influx of migrant families, but until now this does not seem to be an issue of concern.
Main factors influencing success or failure
Already, the long-time existence of the network (in a post-socialist context) is a sign of the success of this arrangement. The network has joined forces to support their target group, preserved their work in times of severe budget cuts, and mutually supported each other in a demanding field of social work: “If everyone would work on their own, we’d teeter on a knife edge” (LG4). Factors contributing to this are the stability of membership, the exclusion of hierarchies, and the long-term commitment of individuals. Interestingly, network structures around community issues in this district in general are rather strong and stable. There are several reasons for this. Interviewees mention the longevity of stakeholders’ and residents’ engagement with the district (“In Grünau, many colleagues have been engaged for a long time.” (LG4)). From a governance perspective, certainly the presence of a vital district management since 2007 with operational capacities is a factor for stability. The local district management provides open space for communication and management resources. Thus, the emergence of cooperation is partly due to (and dependent on) their work. Plus, the network has a reliable, long-term, engaged speaker who is the backbone of the network. Budgets are of course a crucial issue for street work. Cuts lead to a reduction in working hours which cut into the more strategic capacities of the network: “With 30 working hours left, it is hard to focus on conceptual issues like neglect or squalidness, no time for collaboration on concepts and trends” (LG4).
A second field of difficulties is the cooperation with the city administration. On the one hand, administrative partners are colleagues; on the other hand, they are the contracting body and the principal. Thus, it’s both a flat and hierarchical relation. For years, city administration was kept out of the network to avoid conflict of interests. A recent shift in the organisation is that the city administration established a new system in youth planning which enforces area-based cooperation in seven planning areas of the city, coordinated by the city. This new administrative network works parallel to the existing network, producing an extra work-load while still maintaining similar aims and goals. The difference however is that the level of trust is much lower in the new arrangement. Distrust in administrative structures was articulated. There is a high turnover rate in employees with young new-comers being in administrative positions of substantial responsibility without having much professional experience in the field: “The question is always: how sustainable is what is imposed top down?” (LG4). While this new network structure might be an improvement in places that had no such coordination and mutual support structures before, in this district it might destroy the existing structure due to simple matters of time restrictions and continuous work-overload. Again, budget cuts play a role here.
The further development of the Working Committee Youth in Grünau is very unclear. After years of stability, the parallel network structure installed by the city administration seems to develop into a risk for the further existence of the original network due to diminishing resources while tasks grow in difficulty and complexity. The members feel forced to save time and energy for their core work. The administrative network is obligatory, so the time can only be saved in the voluntary, older network. A crucial decision seems to emerge on the horizon.
The network appears rather traditional but very effective. The efforts can be combined quickly to work with specific teenagers and groups causing public attention. Institutions bring together knowledge and resources to work preventively and on urgent cases. The mode of exchange also has traditional form: meetings, trainings, exchange. The stability of the network has its roots in both the longevity of personal engagement and in leadership qualities. It profits form state programmes but is not dependent on them. Nevertheless, the network is vulnerable by long-term, incremental cuts in budgets. The (rather innovative) shift in planning structures of administrative youth work towards area-based networks might turn out to create a tipping point in work overload that endangers the existence of the network more than anything previously.