Expert article
Edit 20 March 2023
by Zsuzsanna Kravalik

How to empower young residents - interview with Paul Cornelissen

Paul Cornelissen is opening up the door of the workshop at Verdiplein in North Tilburg
I asked Paul Cornelissen, thematic project manager of ForwArt about his vision on youth empowerment and how is he turning it into reality within project implementation.

Paul is a former theatre director and he also worked previously in the fields of education, cultural financing and healthcare. Since 2019 he has his own small company from which he supports perfoming artists and other cultural projects.

ForwArt project aims to strengthen the social fabric in North Tilburg through engaging local youth in arts and culture, so that they can explore, build up and express their identity more freely and build up their self esteem and would become role models for others. With higher visibility of artistic activities and art projects, such as the mountable sculptures to be installed at Ypelarpark, the physical space would also encourage social interactions and a higher presence of everyday activities in the open spaces. This way the project would also have a positive impact on criminal activities in the neighbourhood, which are undermining the normal social structures.

ForwArt project is special because it is not focused on quantitative measures and numbers, but it wants to support role models, exceptional individuals who are working both within the public services, such as the police or the municipality, but also who could be found within the neighbourhood and would need support to fulfill her potentials. With Paul Cornelissen, one of the project managers of ForwArt we were discussing how he has been working on empowering local youth through the project.

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In the summer of 2020, just a few days after UIA got out the message that Tilburg got the subsidy, Ludo Hermans (retired urban planner at the municipality of Tilburg) rang my bell at home. Ludo and me we knew each other from some dance projects. He said he has a question for me if I have time in my agenda to become the project manager for ForwArt. Before I always worked for big companies, like theaters, and three years ago I decided that i want to work on my own, to work for projects, for artists, for smaller companies, individuals. Ludo said, "Maudy Kaulemans (responsible for the development process of ForwArt project within the city of Tilburg) from the municipality sent me out to find a project leader quickly. Last week we heard we got this money and we need somebody who knows the arts and who knows Tilburg. And i was thinking of you." And i replied yes, let's do it, because when Ludo asks something its always ok. It was a matter of trust both ways. Then i got the application form, that was my introduction to ForwArt.

What I got out is that it was a strange combination of partners in this consortium. Most of these partners i knew already from former work, arts companies, the police but also ROC the vocational training institute in Tilburg and the city of Tilburg of course. They were all familiar to me and thus I felt that this project is really about my city. Also I am living in the direction of Tilburg North, so i was used to visit Tilburg North already. Because most Tilburg citizens don't visit Tilburg North ever, if they dont live there. If you don't have to be there, you don't get there. But I do. The shopping center at Wagner plain is near our house and i like the atmosphere there. I didn't have to think twice about to apply for this job.

Getting to know the youth of Tilburg North I am very dependent on the partners of ForwArt. I don't think it is my task to get to know them personally, but I have to listen very carefully to the stories and experiments R-newt (the youth worker organisation in Tilburg North) does or Else (from Fashion Clash) working in the shop at Verdiplain for months. I don't pretend to know the youth of Tilburg North myself, that would be arrogant. But I listen.

North Tilburg housing estate

Mothers came into our project space asking: "What do you organise for youngsters, because my son of 14 is only laying on the couch and playing games and we hope that you bring activities. The boys are not going to R-newt because they are not boys with special needs. There is a big group of youth who doesn't see enough perspective in their daily life. Those who do not do sports, not engaged in theater or anything creative, they are just in between everything." I encountered this situation, but mainly through the mothers and not through the kids themselves. And through my talks with youth workers from R-newt, with the police, with the teachers of ROC. Actually they say the same: we don't know really the youth of Tilburg North, we only see a part. And no one knows the extent of the criminal activities and the exposure to criminal influences across North Tilburg. With Astrid from Trenzo (also partner in the project and responsible for monitoring activities) we searched for good surveys on Tilburg North and couldn't find data. There are numbers that 10% or 15% are exposted, but really  these are just estimations. There is no thorough research yet on the neighborhood.

The workshop interior

I had in total four interns, both from Tilburg North and also not from Tilburg North. This experiment taught me that the only way interns can be worth having if they are from Tilburg North itself. I had two interns who helped me to build and to maintain the shop and get activities done. They also did a survey for the first plans of art activities and for the role of space at Verdiplain. When I established it, it also functioned as a project office space. This survey affirmed the need for a space to do fashion workshops, and it initiated the transformation of the space into the workshop what it is now. Later we realised that other project partners also needed full-time interns, such as Els doing the parts of Fashion Clash  and Chiara from R-newt. So many ForwArt partners work with local interns to accomplish their activities.

One of the best example is Ashra, also from Tilburg North, a fashion designer who organised the Ypie festival. They had four interns, four black girls from Tilburg North studying at event organisation education at ROC. This is a perfect match and a great opportunity for the girls. That is a good development. So now I am rather promoting the involvement of youngsters within ForwArt partner organisations than working with youngsters myself.

Nissrine got a job out of it, at the theater company (HZT), she is being paid from the ForwArt project and this is her first job. However the younger interns are 18 or 19 years old and they have to go back to school after the internship, so we don't know what will happen to them. But since they are from Tilburg North, therefore the chance that they will come back to one of the projects or to one of the organisations is bigger than when they don't live in Tilburg.

Yes. But there are other ways. Another example is Chiara who is a professional from R-newt and she is also really, really young. I trust her and pushed her forward saying that "You have to become the spokesperson for Verdiplain. You have to lead the development." Because she knows all the youngsters and everybody knows Chiara. It is much more important that they know Chiara, than me. Because in 2-3 years i will be doing something else, and I do not really belong to the place. My role is to support the internal developments and to enlarge the possibilities, but the real work has to be done through the people who live in Tilburg North. That is my belief.

Being attentive to her struggles within her organisation to get enough time, to get assignments, to get paid enough. So i support her in this perspective. Also we talk weekly, what do we see, what do we expect, how do we deal with the expectations of the city, which groups of youngsters do we address, what groups we do not address, how to deal with the owner of the building where the workshop is running, how do we cope with these issues, what is the politics, what is the best strategy to follow. Chiara is experienced as a youth worker but these issues are relatively new to her. She is getting used to become a managing youth director. I have said to her boss: "Make her a manager! She is the manager of the future and lets have Verdiplain as an example, as a rehearsal of that development!"

Chiara and Paul having a lead at the partner meeting

The goals of ForwArt is to find role models in the neighborhood. The position of Chiara is one of the examples of key figures standing out. This role model is not within arts and culture but in management, in community development. But this is also great and this is the achievement of ForwArt. And she also represents female power of which we need more in our societies.

Female power for me is the strength that more ande more resisting women represent for me. I’m reading a lot of stuff on that topic now. (My tip for you all: read Miriam Toews latest novel “Fight Time”.) Female power is the force of women who say: “we’ll do it without men if we have to. History taught us that we can hardly rely on them, so let’s get forward without them. If they can adjust, they can join us. But the other way around, that’s over, that’s the past.”

It depends on the good will of actors in the project. Tanja, doing the financial and administrative management from the municipality and me, we are like a couple in this adventure and we have the same attitude, which is: You have to find the way to make possible what we want. Keep to rules if possible, if not we have to get around it. I couldn't imagine to be the leader of ForwArt if my counterpart at the Municipality of Tilburg did not have the same attitude. If Tanja were a strict person who would have said every day: cant be done! You can't hire an intern because you don't have a contract! Still we have some problems, but we have the trust to work it out within the rules.

And the city of Tilburg can learn a lot from this project, on getting things done, closing the gaps, being keen and smart to getting things done. They learn about the boundaries and restrictions and about needless slowing down of processes. Which is i think exists within every big organization. Do you know how long we are discussing to give money to mothers in Tilburg North to prepare the food for the project activities.? Tanja has to go around and find the responsible people and there is no-one who would say: We will solve this! They have a different attitude.

Another example is the costs of running the workshop at Verdiplain: it has many items, such as the wifi, monthly payments, cleaning the place, buying stuff, furniture. All these I have paid in advance from my own account. And monthly i make a payment schedule I put these costs towards the city of Tilburg and they pay it to me. And maybe next year i will have some questions from my own accountant, why did i have all these costs, but i don't care, it had to be done. Otherwise for every task we would had to have a contract. Two boys made the furniture in the shop, it costed 17 000 EURs and of course I started the procurement, but I needed the furniture in 2 weeks, because Els wanted to start the activities with Fashion Clash.

Well, I didn't have to convince project partners. They all agreed and said it is a good idea. They said: "We hope our work will be honored".  Also I talked to the youngsters in advance as well. They were mostly from the youth advisory group and from R-newt and I told them to be honest, but reasonable. This is not a game to win, those people at the stage are honest so I wanted them to be transparent and honest too.

One of the most critical moments was, when Helen from Corpo Maquina was questioned why are you in our gym? They felt that their ownership of the gym was taken over and Corpo Maquina was asking for exclusivity overy the gym. Afterwards it took us two months to solve the situation and now, local youth and Corpo Maquina are sharing the space. The city of Tilburg also made it clear to the youngsters and to the partners where there is space in North to do sports, and it seems there are more space than we knew. Also one football pitch has been renovated in the area. I think this is also an achievement. What I missed afterwards was another talk between the partners to see through the consequences of the critical remarks, how could we jointl improve our activities.

Local youth in charge at the partner meeting

This is the most difficult part, because when youngsters are in charge, our traditional way of being in charge, thus that we know the beginning, the process and maybe also the end of the process is questioned. However most youngsters I know they think about today, tomorrow, maybe the day after, but next week they might find something more interesting or more important or they have to work or something happens at home.

Uniform buildings hiding identity and individuality

I had one intern, she is studying social studies in Breda, she does an internship for MUA, even she is struggling with the combination of study, her job, her internship, personal life, love-life, mother who is ill. For a lot of youngsters it is too much to ask to have a continuing relationship, to promise that you will be there next week or next month. Because it is a day to day life struggle for them.

Having youngsters in a long-term relationship you only get the upper-class of youngsters, like the T-reporters (young citizen journalists from the neighbourhood reporting on events, issues of North Tilburg supported and taught by Omroep Tilburg, also partner of ForwArt). The really good T-reporters we have they are with us for more than a year and they keep coming back. But they have the luxury to maintain the long term relationship with projects. They have ease in their lives, have a certain relaxation. Our thinking of ownership is only possible to maintain with certain type of youngsters.

Indeed. The the group of youngsters who give voice to what is needed in Tilburg North , i promoted the concept of NOORDVOERDERS ("the northern spokespersons") very strongly, when they came up with the idea. This is a group of youngsters to give voice to what is needed in Tilburg North. Then Chiara came to me and said, if you want to make it a success we have to give them some money. Not an enormous amount, but they must be paid, because otherwise they cant do it. Even if it is 10 EURs per evening, that is ok. I had to talk a lot within the municipality to get that done, to get it through the administration.

Youngsters in the decisive Yes or No voting position

Yes, that is why people like Chiara are important, to guide them. For example the noordhooders, they have to have meetings, have to have a place where to gather, they need a plan. And thus Chiara needs to be backed up by her own organisation to promote and facilitate these projects. If you just hand over the money to the youngsters you know that it ends in a few week and than nothing remains. Real ownership takes time and careful management.

I can give you a little clue of how this could work. See the way how Ashraf and Nissrine are developing their own fashion label growing out of the workshop. The fashion label is called "raw love: It is strictly a Tilburg North fashion label, developed in the North. They are very active on Instagram and there is a very good urban feel to it. They are also organizing the Ypie! festival and they involve a lot of youngsters in design in fashion, in clothing. Ashraf who is the artistic leader was found by Els Petit within the Fashion Clash Second Skin program. Ashraf is very critical on ForwArt, she complained: "There are fashion designers from Amsterdam, Maastricht, London in the workshop, but there are fashion designers also here in Tilburg North and I am one of them, so why don't you turn over the project to us!" And Els replied that this is what they were indeed looking for, and welcomed her to be part of ForwArt. So the attention shifts from Fashion Clash and Els Petit to Nissrine and Ashraf. from Tilburg North. This is the process we want to foster.

Maybe this type of entrepreneurship, Ashraf and Nissrine can also be stimulated through the mountable sculptures. Because mountable sculptures can be the place in the future to try out new small businesses, hopefully artistic businesses, craftsmanship, women entrepreneurs, fashion is very appealing and food of course. This could be a place for experiments. And ownership maybe is not a thing of years, but can be only for one season. Ownership can be seasonal, which is an interesting concept. Nevertheless they would own the process.

Raw Love fashion label and talent development platform logo

Ashraf and Nisrrine with the fashion design label they say it is such a good thing that we can try to make it a success. and I said even if it is not a success, you have gone through the whole process of starting a fashion label and maybe it fails, maybe it will succeed, but the process is worth and worth the try. So you can give people experiences. Rehearsing with this process is the key to self esteem and future success.

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