Pendrecht University: a foolish gesture from a jester

May 02, 2011
Pendrecht University: a foolish gesture from a jester

Having met Tessy during a recent trip of her to the Netherlands I organized (which she has blog about), she has given me the opportunity to ‘think out loud’ on this site. I am trained as a philosopher, am in the final stages of finishing my Phd studying practices of citizen participation, and am now an independent researcher and organizer of ‘positive urban connections’. In my blog posts I will combine these worlds in theoretical musings on some of the interesting practices I have visited during my research or meet in my day to day work. Having been trained in writing academic papers, writing blogs is a new experience for me. But they say you only learn by doing, so here we go…

‘The jester brings vitality and wit to make us laugh. Yet the comic mood of the jester’s clowning only sets in sharper relief something else we know. The jester has a serious side and allow us – if we will but look and listen – to laugh at ourselves, to see ourselves as others see us, to take that crucial step in developing the focus of inquiry whereby we expose ourselves to ourselves.’ (Torgerson, 1992, 233)

The South of Rotterdam, home to 200.000 people has recently been described as one big deprived area with problems of ‘undutch proportions’ given its scale and longevity. Not the place one normally associates with important innovations in democratic governance. Or than again maybe it is. Whereas the well to do have only scarcely to do with government, it is in these difficult areas that residents have a lot to do with government. And so it is here that they experience firsthand the fact that our governance system developed in the 19th century, is largely inadequate to deal with 21st century challenges. It is here therefore that the need for democratic innovation might by biggest. And from needs grow experiments.

I have been involved in a research project (together with Henk Wagenaar) over the last couple of years searching these kinds of experiments and innovations in democratic governance. One of the most interesting practices I encountered during this research project was the Pendrecht University. Pendrecht is one of those deprived areas in the south of Rotterdam mentioned earlier. When former minister Vogelaar drafted a list of the worst 40 neighbourhoods in the Netherlands who would be eligible for extra financial support, Pendrecht came in second (for a more positive depiction of Pendrecht by one of its residents visit www.mario-bosch.nl).

In these testing circumstances, and born out of a joke and a tragedy, residents created the Pendrecht University, based on one basic rule: residents are the professors of the university and the professionals and public officials working in the neighbourhood are its students. Before exploring the implications of this basic rule through Torgerson’s notion of the jester quoted at the beginning, a bit more on how a joke and a tragedy together can lead to democratic innovation.

Because the story of the Pendrecht University starts from a reaction to a big tragedy. After the shooting of a small boy while throwing snowballs, the neighborhood received a lot of bad press and became a national symbol for all what was wrong in our most deprived areas. Born out of frustration with this, residents organized a memorial service and a joined inter-faith Christmas party. It became obvious to residents that there was a lot of positive energy available in the area, if only they created the right opportunities to let it come to the (visible) surface. Exactly such an opportunity was created out of a joke.

At that time some students from a Dutch university where doing field studies in the neighbourhood concerning safety. On one day they had to take exams at the University and do interviews with residents during a ‘pancake party’ organized in a particular street. Given the physical distance between the two locations, this seemed impossible. It turned out to be the start of something beautiful. For one of the most active residents, Bien Hofman, approached one of the primary schools in the area to see if they had a spare room in which the students could take their exam. They had, and after securing permission for the students to actually take their exam of campus, the director of the school jokingly said to the residents: ‘now we have our own university, the Pendrecht University’. This joke stuck inside the head of Bien and together with other residents and the community worker developed a plan for the Pendrecht University.

The Pendrecht University became a platform for many activities in the neighbourhood, giving residents the opportunity to take the lead in what the discussion in the neighbourhood should be about. Organizing meetings, theater plays, a search for the soul of Pendrecht, and even hosting the Pendrecht Olympics, are just some of the examples of what has transpired over the years under the banner of the Pendrecht University. And in all of these, in one way or the other, they try to give form to this basic rule which turns citizens into professors and professionals into students.

The effect of this reversal of roles can most easily be seen when we look at the kind of public meetings – on topics such as safety in the neighborhood, the role of the media, the redevelopment of the housing stock, and the economical development of the main square – they have organized. The Pendrecht University, by putting citizens first, gives the floor to the residents first, who thereby set the stage for the meeting. It offers a script which allows residents to play a much more active role in talking about their neighbourhood, giving room to personal stories, anecdotes, emotions and actual dialogue. Through reversing roles, on reflection, what you see happening in the Pendrecht University, is a challenge of all kinds ‘standard operating procedures’ ingrained in the way we think of and design our public meetings. It challenges what counts as important knowledge, and thus who is an expert. By putting resident – literally and figuratively – up front their knowledge takes center stage. Instead of abstract figures, generative concepts, or technical plans, local knowledge gains an important position.

And this brings us back to the jester with whom I started this post. For as Torgerson states, the fool, Torgerson’s latter name for the jester, ‘obliquely bears witness to unwelcome insights that test the limits of what may properly and safely be said. When employed in the administrative sphere, carnivalesque language and logic generate unconventional perspectives that promise to enhance creative problem solving in the face of complexity’ (Torgerson, 2003, 128). And this brings out the challenging element of this ‘foolish gesture’. By turning things around, reversing what is top and what is bottom, they not only reveal new possibilities, but also lay bare the limitations of more traditional tried and true solutions. The carnivalesque idiom, Torgerson argues, ‘might provoke unwelcome insights that could expose established power as irrational rationality, thus placing on display an emperor without clothes’ (Torgerson, 2003, p. 128). But rather than showing that the emperor is wearing no cloths, as Torgerson states, I would say that the Pendrecht University shows us that the emperor is out of fashion and in need of a new wardrobe. Not in the form of haute couture in the sense of democratic theory, but in the form of practical things one can wear on a daily basis.

(in 2010, the Pendrecht University won the Voluntary Prize of Rotterdam)

• Torgerson, D. (1992), Priest and Jester in the Policy Sciences: Developing the Focus of Inquiry, Policy Sciences, Vol. 25, pp. 225-235
• Torgerson, D. (2003) Democracy through policy discourse, in Hajer, M.A. and Wagenaar, H., Deliberative Policy Analysis. Understanding Governance in the Network Society, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge