From ‘book container’ to community centre

Lessons from Community Centre Gellerup

Libraries in disadvantaged neighbourhoods have redefined their role from serving as ‘containers for books’ to ac-ting as agents in community empowerment processes. Libraries engage in a wide range of activities from creating open learning centres for information technology to bridge ‘the digital divide’ to providing homework assistance for local children from ethnic minorities. In the process of repositioning themselves libraries can create empowering networks to local welfare institutions and voluntary associations, housing associations and citizens and sometimes invent new organizational forms. In shaping and adjusting their services in response to local needs and in close collaboration with citizens, libraries can be seen as examples of user-driven innovation worthy of interest way beyond the world of librarians. This article presents lessons from the empowerment evaluation of the project Community Centre Gellerup (CCG) under Aarhus Public Libraries (Andersen and Frandsen (eds.), 2007). The project was initiated by a local library branch in the disadvantaged neighbourhood of Gellerup with the aim of developing a new type of institution, a community centre uniting library services, health promotion, counseling service for ethnic minorities and voluntary social work.


Right now libraries are assuming a new role as players in community development. In an international context Chicago’s public libraries have i.a. been pioneers. But also in Denmark libraries in disadvantaged neighbourhoods are taking major steps to support enhancement of the life situation of the local community and ethnic minority groups. CCG is interesting for a variety of reasons. First of all as an example of user-driven innovation, where employees, volunteers and ordinary citizens have set themselves the task of developing the quality of not only a better public service, but also the democratic inclusion of citizens and voluntary organisations. Secondly, as a contribution to the development of integration and empowerment strategies in relation to vulnerable urban areas.

Empowerment and local community development Common to community empowerment strategies in marginalised urban areas is that one is working within a long-term perspective (typically 5-7 years). Citizen inclusion and a holistic and integrated orientation – typically a combination of physical town development and social, cultural and occupational development projects (Andersen et al., 2005) – are being addressed, and CCG has been able to draw on the collaboration between the public institutions in the area, which has been developed since the 1990s in the ‘Gellerup model’. The model entails that new employees in the area are introduced to common basic values and to the particular history of the area. Apart from that, regular meetings at management level are arranged between the institutions (schools, day-care institutions, social centre, crime prevention work etc.). CCG is thus part of a broader community empowerment strategy to provide a lift to integration, strengthen civic mobilisation and the capacity for action among public employees.

The philosophy behind empowerment strategy is that the combination of an integrated orientation, civic inclusion and a longer time perspective are seen as the most effective principles for a permanent change of the situation in deprived local areas. Community empowerment strategies are deliberate strategies for the strengthening of citizens’ involvement and positive affiliations to the local area. The most important methods are appreciative inquiry and empowerment. In the following we will be introducing the concept of empowerment.

The empowerment concept Empowerments are processes that enable people to counteract powerlessness and lack of control over their living conditions. (Andersen and Siim, 2004). In the 1970s Paulo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed introduced the concept worldwide. Freire defined empowerment as “learning to understand social, political and economic disparities and to act against these elements of reality.” More precisely, empowerment can be defined as processes of mobilisation and change, “that improve underprivileged individuals’ and social groups’ ability to create and handle mental, material, social, cultural and symbolic relevant resources” (Andersen et al. 2003: 7).

Mobilisation processes in social groups and local communities can be described as horizontal empowerment. It is a question of internal processes within the area where you confront enemy images, lack of confidence and respect internally between various groups – including distrust and hierarchy between ethnic groups. Vertical empowerment has to do with developing the impact upwards and outwardly in relation to important decision-making centres outside the local community. Sustainable empowerment strategies have therefore not only to do with getting the citizens involved from below. It is also a question of a positive interplay between government or municipal ‘top-down’ and local ‘bottomup’ policies. Empowerment strategies range from individual self-confidence to the ability – at (local)community level – to influence society’s developmental direction over a longer period of time.

This is by no means a truism as part of the ‘ghetto problem’ may i.a. have something to do with the fact that the professionals in the area do not work together properly (e.g. day-care institutions, schools and crime prevention work) and do not always see themselves as innovators in relation to trouble-shooting and as an important part of local community life. Before we take a further look at CCG we want briefly to describe the experiences from Chicago.

The lessons from Chicago The public libraries in Chicago have over the past decade turned an ominous development into a success story. The secret behind the success was the exploitation of the library’s potential as catalyst for social networks in the local community. A study from the Asset Based Community Development Institute (Urban Libraries Council 2005) also pointed to the fact that libraries can contribute with a wealth of resources: a ‘free’ meeting place, the most recent information technology, knowledge, a feeling of ownership among local citizens as well as a relationship of trust between people. On the basis of this study, the following recommendations to libraries were formulated:

1. Be investigative (outreach work). 2. Find the community leaders. A coordinated effort to find leaders and ‘community activists’ in the local community makes all the difference. 3. Be visionary in relation to what the library can do. 4. Highlight and contribute to the local
unique strengths and conditions. 5. Support local institutions and business life. 6. Turn the library building into a local community centre. 7. Create a local-community-orientated culture among staff and volunteers. 8. Investments in libraries can kickstart local community development.

The lessons from CCG

CCG is a partnership building on a vision of – through a holistic approach – facilitating empowerment of the citizen. CCG endeavours to break down institutional barriers and works towards the fulfilment of user needs. CCG started as a development project in 2005. During the past two years, employees have been focusing on common organisation- and staff development, which has resulted in the adoption of a common vision, set of values and collaboration models. In the project period CCG has been working on competence-, role-, and method development, where all employees have participated in joint courses (on appreciative inquiry, empowerment, conflict handling and learning) and in i.a. study tours to other local communities.

Public service and recruiting volunteers have also been on the agenda, as well as the role of facilitator. The strategy behind CCG has thus been a combination of: • Developing models and methods for cross-sectorial cooperation • Focusing on civic inclusion and civic involvement • Supporting local-community-based initiatives, projects and local trade and industry • Contributing to creating cohesion between the urban area of Gellerup and the city of Aarhus.

CCG exploits the competences and resources of different organisations and administrations in a regular collaboration and includes voluntary organisations, associations and citizens as partners in this. CCG builds on an organisational concept of knowledge and experience being shared, and where collaboration goes on across professional borderlines in order to solve specific tasks, such as cultural activities, information services and informal learning sequences. This might i.a. include language assistance, courses in IT, homework assistance, club activities, as well as individual, anonymous advice on e.g. health, housing, labour market and family matters. It might also include advice to parents on the parental role.

The approach in CCG to the development of libraries as well as other institutions and inclusion of citizens and volunteers has been appreciative inquiry and empowerment. In organisational terms CCG is a collaboration project between Gellerup Library, Health Centre and Public Information. These three institutions work closely together with voluntary organisations, associations and community activists.

Health Centre:

The Health Centre is a collaboration between a number of municipal corporations and Aarhus Midwifery Centre. Health visitors had been experiencing encouraging results from their home visits to families, but also for a long time been missing a place for the parents to visit for instruction and guidance. When new premises had to be found, Gellerup offered to make a corner of the library available. The Health Centre got a site which helped to support local anchorage and provided the chance to combine activities, e.g. theme days on health-related subjects.

Public information:

Public information handles open and anonymous advice to the citizens of Aarhus, but primarily citizens with an ethnic background other than Danish. Advice is available on social and labour market conditions, education, citizenship and residence permit, social services, housing allowance etc. Advice is also offered on communication with the authorities. Apart from that, members of staff in Public information act as bridge-builders and trouble shooters between users and the system. The anonymous advising is of great importance to the citizens of the area. An example: A woman approaches Public information to talk about her cash benefit in relation to a recently introduced piece of legislation stipulating that within one year one has to have worked a minimum of 300 hours to maintain one’s right to cash benefit. She is advised to go to the Job corner to look for feasible vacant jobs. The member of staff in the Job corner helps her to examine her resources and to find a job. The woman then prepares an application, which she can discuss with the adviser. The application is sent off, or the woman may be advised to take direct contact to the employer. If the woman gets the job, she can return to Public information to learn about the consequences in relation to her social benefits.

When establishing CCG, focus was centred on the development of useroriented activities. Courses in community comprehension and in the Danish language have been organised. There have been three theme days: a health day, IT-open learning, a day on folk high schools and continuation schools. There have been one-off arrangements such as ‘Break the fast’ (an evening on Ramadan), a day on ‘Khat and clans’ arranged by young Somalis, a clean-up day, ‘Clean Ghetto’, a concert against deliberate fires in the area, ‘Gellerup wake up’, debate evenings on Palestine, presentation of candidates for the Integration Council in Aarhus, sponsoring of jerseys for a football tournament, exhibition of library material on the theme days ‘Faith meets faith’.

CCG has entered into permanent partnership with: • The IT-guide association, a multiethnic association with a dual purpose: to bring together everyone with an interest in IT, and to make the members’ knowledge available to citizens without IT-literacy by way of free courses. • Homework Help Association ‘Tusindfryd’ under the Danish Refugee Council, which consists of young people offering help with homework free-of-charge. You don’t have to book an appointment, but can just turn up. Homework help is for all citizens, whether they attend a language school, are studying to pass the theory test for their driving license, attend primary or secondary school or are doing an upper secondary course. • The Voluntary Centre, the purpose of which is to establish contact between voluntary social associations and people who wish to do voluntary work. • Local-historical Archive, which collects pictures, association documents, maps, memoirs etc.

CCG as a model

CCG is interesting for a variety of reasons. First of all as an example of a multi-functional local community centre that bursts the framework of the traditional library. It is innovative in the sense that library service is combined with advisory service, voluntary work, health work and help with job applications. CCG has here extended the sharing of premises to also working with the development of common competences, better service and organisation development in the meeting and interplay between professionals in the institution and in an interplay between users, volunteers and employees. The involvement of the professionals has meant that the flexible networkbased, ‘ready-for action’ attitude in relation to the local community generates more cross-disciplinary competences. In this connection the interplay between staff and volunteers is also of great importance. CCG employees maintain that during the project period they have become better at exploiting each other’s specialist knowledge in their contact with the citizens, e.g. in relation to health, job seeking and more extensive use of the employees’ linguistic talents. This ‘synergy advantage’ is due to two things:

1. In relation to the employees it is a question of learning from each other and building up common competences to the benefit of the citizens in the local community. Yes, but does it not create more stress when the individual or the team have to develop competences by way of referring to each other, facilitating contact to voluntary organisations etc.? No, not if organisation and management prioritize joint activities for the employees where you take stock of dayto- day experiences. If you get better at using each other’s various competences, it can in fact be ‘stress reducing’, because ‘tricky’ cases outside one’s
own field of competency can be passed on to those who are more familiar with such cases. In this way one avoids the individualised ‘borderless work’, and turns it instead into a collective, unbureaucratic and flexible division of 2. In relation to the users, it means that they will experience a more flexible and coherent contact with various public systems and with voluntary organisations. One may contact or be referred to another person in the Community Centre without having to contact another authority, make appointments etc. This is important in areas with many ethnic minorities and disadvantaged citizens.

The evaluation report concluded that in order to secure the dynamics in such development work it is important: • To work on organisation development that prioritizes the social wellbeing and collectivity of the staff and joint competency development • To encourage relevant further education of the staff that supports the development of a ‘Community Centre professionalism’, where the keywords are knowledge of the local community, civic inclusion and the interdisciplinary aspect • To develop a strategy for staff recruitment in the form of clarifying which professional competences support CCG’s targets • To ensure creative frames for dialogue between voluntary work and CCG • To develop simple evaluation and user-satisfaction tools that can be used internally in the organisation as well as meeting the decision-makers’ demands for documentation of ‘value for money’.

Community Centres and user driven innovation

CCG can be taken as an example of user driven service design (Parker and labour between employees. Heapy: 2005) and user driven innovation, which were launched in connection with the Danish government’s Quality Reform. The CCG concept is therefore interesting in relation to the discussion on routes towards democratisation, better exploitation of resources, and quality development of the public sector in a close interplay with the civic community. One of the challenges is that public institution budgeting and administrative processes are not always geared to supporting such cross-sectorial and civic- community- inclusive innovations. There still remain some hurdles to surmount in order for a user driven innovation to become part of a realistic, sustainable development trajectory.

Perhaps the Quality Reform will pave the way for cross-sectorial organisations like CCG no longer being regarded as exceptions, but as forms of organisation that set a new standard for holistic and user-inclusive managing and innovation of public activities.

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

professor,Roskilde University
research assistant, Roskilde University
branch librarian, Gellerup Library