Children and young people as actors between network partners in social spaces

By Dr. Lars Schulhoff, Head of Department, Authority for Work, Social Affairs, Family and Integration, Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg
How can children and young people serve as a link between professional network actors, and even become network actors themselves in the construction described below?

Children and young people have an established place as members of society. They are represented in many areas of society, and themselves appear as social actors. Young people are visible in sports, in the cultural sphere, in associations and even in politics. Nevertheless, their voice is rarely heard within society, despite these activities.

In this regard, little has changed in recent years, although the issue of participation rights and opportunities for young people has drawn increasing attention. The coronavirus pandemic, along with its impact on our societies, has once again highlighted this phenomenon. Much is said about and decided for children and youth, with the young people themselves having little say in the outcome. What might explain this phenomenon, and how can it be counteracted?

Many years ago, Hamburg set out to define urban neighbourhoods as social spaces, and to strengthen them in specific targeted ways. As a city-state, Hamburg takes advantage of its municipal structure to view this issue from a cross-locational perspective. However, it is also able to direct the resources of its inner-city structures toward the particular challenges faced by social spaces in individual city neighbourhoods.

A variety of actors operate in these social spaces. In this brief essay, we focus particularly on the perspective of youth welfare services. Youth welfare services account for a high percentage of the overall social services workforce, yet most people have no contact with youth services organizations. Child protection issues are not widely discussed in society, either by adults or young people themselves. At first glance, it thus appears that children and young people who are in residential or non-residential educational programs can contribute little to strengthening the social spaces in which they reside, at least with respect to this particular role.

Alongside educational assistance, child and youth work is also an important component of youth welfare programmes. However, youth work has faced competition in recent years. Full-day school programmes, which consume a significant amount of time in young people’s schedules, is one such source of competition. The advancing march of digitalization in society is another source, as time spent online increasingly competes with the large repertoire of potential free-time activities offered by the city of Hamburg.

What does this have to do with children and youth as a link between social-space network partners?

Hamburg has set out to create deeper networks between the existing actors with whom children and youth spend time in the social space, both spatially and/or functionally. We mention three categories of actors specifically here: schools, sports clubs and youth-work organizations, all of which should continue to develop in the direction of youth media work. The Social City programme has helped raise awareness that active residents in a neighbourhood can help bring about a high degree of activation in their social space. Hamburg’s youth welfare programmes focus strongly on social spaces, with the goal of strengthening the ability of individual neighbourhoods to engage in self-activation. Such programmes create links between actors with the active young people serving as a bridge, and in so doing reach all social groups. In this regard, knowledge regarding other actors’ capabilities is emerging as a success factor.

A wide range of circumstances and motivations can provide both a reason for intensive cooperation between actors and a path toward solutions. These may include learning deficits, sports and physical activities, and young people’s own psychological problems or those of their parents; however, such motivations may also extend to efforts to provide safe interactions with media, integration into the social space due to out-of-home placement in residential care programmes or language barriers, or simply the desire to create healthy social space environments that are facilitative of a young person’s well-being thanks to a network of social contacts.

In each case, all actors share a common concern with the welfare of the same young person. This is where the needs of children and young people become visible. In the future, this population should also be given a more prominent voice through additional forms of participation. Once this step has been taken, children and young people will no longer be simply links in a network, and will instead become network actors in their own right.