The Chicago Area Project:

An Example of Good Practice for Integration

In September 2008, I had the privilege of participating in the “International Visitor Leadership Program” of the US Department of State on the topic of “Integration and the Management of Diversity with a Special Focus on Youth Work”. Having the opportunity of observing, discussing with and learning from people active in the field of migration and integration in one of the major traditional countries of immigration has been an invaluable experience for me at both the professional and the personal level.

In European countries, we are struggling to fi nd the „right way“ of integrating migrants into our societies. Emotional public debates sparked off in Europe after the apparent failure of the multicultural model of integration in the Netherlands as a result of the murder of fi lmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004. Debates have further been fuelled by the eruption of riots in the suburbs of Paris in November 2005 putting into question the effectiveness of the French approach to integration which aims at assimilating migrants into the French society. In Germany, despite of the fact that the country has been experiencing large infl uxes of migrants since the 1950s, it officially declared itself as a country of immigration as late as 1999. As a consequence, the difficult situation of migrants and in particular of their descendants has been overlooked and coherent approaches to integration have long been missed out.

Chicago Area Project
Tanja El-Cherkeh (1.v.r.) und weitere Programmteilnehmer/Innen besuchen das Chicago Area Project

As important as it is to be committed to integration at the national level (e.g. in terms of legal framework and/or allocation of funds), the majority of programmes and concepts are implemented at the local level of the cities/regions. Activities of communities are crucial since they can help to address specific needs of people in the communities and thus have an immediate impact on the life quality in the neighbourhood. The Chicago Area Project (CAP) represents an interesting concept of community self-organisation created as early as 1934 to prevent juvenile delinquency in some of the poorest areas of Chicago. In its philosophy, CAP stresses „the autonomy of the actual residents of the neighborhood in planning and operating the program … (…) and places great emphasis upon the training and utilization of neighborhood leaders as contrasted with the general practice in which dependence is largely placed upon professionally trained leaders recruited from sources outside of the local neighborhood … (…).“ As such it developed a bottom-up approach involving businesses, churches, parents and teachers, who organise themselves in boards of directors, and are thus able to address the community as a whole. As explained during our meeting with CAP, this community-based approach fosters networking and dialogue, and moreover helps to create a collective mind with the aim of improving the community environment. To take an example of a CAP programme (out of many CAP programmes), with the after-school programme „Open Book“ it is sought to encourage the reading, writing and critical thinking skills of adolescents. Daily arts instructions are carried out by artists thereby acting as mentors and role models. Moreover, a link is built to the schools through teachers who help to stabilise the skills and talents for a better performance in school.

In my views, such a programme could also be of great value to communities in Germany. Many children of migrant background encounter particular difficulties in school. As recent research in educational sciences with a special focus on multilingualism (conducted at the University of Hamburg) confirmed, this is not only due to a lack of German language proficiency, but also due to the fact that children often lack the command of the so-called „academic discourse“ (Bildungssprache). The academic discourse represents the way of how we analyse, structure and reproduce information. Therefore, the focus should not solely be put on improving their German, but especially on supporting the acquisition of the academic discourse which can be a cumbersome process for the children. If learning of the academic discourse would, however, be linked with art (in this case, literature or poetry), it would most certainly ease the learning process and may help to discover talents. As we all know, a talent that is cultivated – whether in sports, music or other forms of arts – triggers motivation, energy and eventually more self-esteem, and may thus have a beneficial spill-over effect on other activities (in school). To this end, the CAP programme „Open Book“ could also be an interesting approach for helping children with a migrant background in Germany in finding their way.

About the author:
Tanja El-Cherkeh is the head of the Migration Research Group at the Hamburg Institute of International Economics (HWWI). She is also a member of the new Integration Council of Hamburg.