The model of community research is new for Bremen, so we are quite enthusiastic to get to know and use this new form of knowledge production and collaboration between the university and the communities.
Following the team meeting in Lisbon at the end of May, we set about finalising the adverts for community researchers and distributing them to different institutions and individuals. The adverts were in German and in English. For the distribution we used various approaches including mailing the adverts to local institutions/organisations involved in community work in Bremen and to the Bremen Commission for Integration, personally distributing the adverts in shops, mosques, kindergarten, as well as pinning them on notice boards at the Technical University in Neustadt and at the library in Gröpelingen. We also attended local events, e.g. a monthly meeting of organisations and individuals doing community work in Gröpelingen, where we presented the project and asked those present to help us identify prospective community researchers. We further took advantage of the Gröpelingen Summer festival, which was held on the weekend of the 6th/7th of June. The festival is a popular meeting place for many residents of the neighbourhood and many organisations/institutions active in the neighbourhood (including self-help groups, religious organisation and political parties) have stands where they present their work. We looked out for organisations that could be of interest to us and requested them to display our advert in their institutions and also to actively approach persons they thought could be interested in working with us. We also took the opportunity to chat with residents.
The work we put into distributing the adverts paid off quite well and we received more than 20 applications. A total of 19 applicants (17 of whom were female) were invited for interviews. They were diverse regarding their age, marital status, educational background and nationality, respectively migrant background. The youngest was 21 and the oldest 64 years old. There were students, housewives and academics (including two with a PhD) among them. Three of them were born in the region in and around Bremen (one of them in Gröpelingen) and the rest came to the town at different ages and stages of their lives. The latter group originated from Bulgaria, Gambia, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, Senegal/Cameroon, Syria, Sudan, Turkey and Ukraine.
The discussions during the interviews made what some of the applicants had written in their application letters, what they had experienced up to now, more poignant. For instance, one of them told us briefly about how she had come to Germany as an unaccompanied minor. She didn’t need to say more than the fact that she had come by boat via Libya for us to picture what she must have gone through at the tender age of 15. I was struck by her strength and courage, both apparent in the fact that she quickly learnt German and has just completed her IB at the International School of Bremen. Another one who has a PhD in psychology told us that her counsellor at the employment centre had advised her to rather look for a job as a fork-lifter as she had better chances of getting a job there than as a psychologist (this, despite the fact that there is a need for multi-lingual psychologists). I find it difficult to put into words how I felt listening to such recounts: a mixture of disbelief, sadness, helplessness, and to some extent anger at the unfairness of it all.
The CVs of these women and men tell interesting stories about what they have done and achieved up to now. All except one had received education beyond high-school level: 13 had university degrees (including 2 with PhDs) and 2 were students. However, hardly any of them had ever been employed (full-time) in the field they had studied. It’s saddening to realise how difficult it is for some of them to find better paying employment with better conditions, even though they have the necessary skills and qualifications. Qualifications earned in other countries (especially outside the EU and western world) are more or less systematically devalued within the German job markets.
The employment market is not at its best at the moment, especially not in Bremen, the only federal state in Germany where the unemployment rate is not going down, but one can’t help feeling that some of these women and men could and should be more meaningfully and securely integrated in the working world. It’s not as if their services are not being used – almost all of them, including the students, are involved in community work at some level; either as trainers in sports clubs, organising city tours for the elderly and the disabled, or working with refugees or migrant families in need of support/advice. These services, works of care, commitment and communal support are not paid, often not even accorded the recognition/appreciation and acknowledgement they deserve.
We ourselves are faced with the dilemma that we are to some extent reinforcing the system we are criticising, as we can’t offer these people the job security they require and deserve. This will most likely lead to a number of dropouts over the course of the project, which is unfortunate for the continuity of the work.
The more we think and discuss about the forthcoming cooperation with the community researchers, the more we realise that we have to look for ways to motivate them and to keep up their interest in the project in the long run. Communicating at eye-level, openness and trust are bound to play an important role.