The Social




Chapter 9:   The Mother Center




I)        Introduction



Mother Centers are self managed public spaces in the neighborhood, where mothers and their children meet on a daily basis. The atmosphere is informal. You join by having a cup of coffee in the coffee shop or by a visit to the Mother Center second hand store. Childcare is offered on a drop-in basis for all ages throughout the opening hours of the center. Mother Centers are based on participation. Their motto is that “everybody is good at at least one thing – that they can contribute”. Mother Centers are places where mothers can relax, focus on their needs and interests, exchange knowledge, information and experiences with peers, receive personal support, take or give courses, and initiate services like childcare, eldercare, catering, healthcare, laundry or other household services.


This chapter introduces the Mother Center as one of the central meeting points for families with young children to be created in the temporary settlement. It will attract families moving to the developing new settlement and families from the adjacent communities as well, since public places for mothers to gather with their children are lacking.[76] The concept is well tested and developed and has become a “success formula” in many countries for creating alive and caring neighborhoods. This chapter describes the history and the concept of Mother Centers and introduces ways it can be implemented as part of the Nest!





Mother Centers are self managed spaces in the community for women, children and families. They were a totally new concept when introduced to family and youth welfare policy in Germany in the beginning of the eighties by the German Youth Institute, a federally funded research institute that regularly consults the government on its family and youth policies.[77]


The research team of the institute created the concept of Mother Centers drawing from their research on the conditions of parenting in contemporary societies. Low income families were interviewed on their coping strategies, their relationship to parent education programs and what they would welcome as support in their daily life. On the basis of the results the team was able to mobilize initial federal funds as start up support for three model centers for the first three years.


During this time public support by municipal and regional funding, by welfare institutions and by private foundations was secured to keep the centers going. The concept of preventive family policy was formed following the rationale that it is cheaper to help families help themselves than to pay the high public costs resulting from dysfunctional family socialization. Many social problems of crime, juvenile delinquency, failure in school or lack of integration into society can be addressed by strengthening the family system and its coping capacities. Rather than targeting the family along the lines of special issues like poverty, childcare, school, or debt management or along the lines of individual members like children, youth, or elders, addressing the family as a whole can build on and strengthen the family as a system. This is especially true in the context of migrant families, where a holistic approach to family support programs can build on family ties and kin networks which form a major component of the coping strategies in migrant cultures. Supporting families in their social interaction is a way to strengthen family relations as well as to prevent social exclusion and marginalization by enhancing their social capital.


Welfare institutions and family support programs consistently report that they are generally reaching a very small segment of middle class families, and that their programs are ineffective with low income and migrant families and especially with families at risk. The research of the German Youth Institute portrayed that the lack of response to institutional parent education and parent support measures is strongly due to the institutional atmosphere, the school-like and paternalistic structures many of these family support and welfare programs convey. The research team suggested a different route. Rather than focusing on problems and deficiencies and what professionals can do to fix these, the focus turned to competencies and capacities of the “target groups” and what can be done to support their potential of helping themselves and each other. Creating peer learning and peer support structures in the neighborhood was suggested as a low threshold alternative strategy. The success of the concept, the daily stream of mothers and children into the centers, the creativity and ideas that were generated there, and the subsequent expansion into the neighborhood soon made people wonder why Mother Centers hadn’t been there forever.


Yet the concept, however natural and obvious it may seem in daily practice, challenges traditional principles and structures of institutional welfare agencies, who may experience the competencies of families as a threat to their professional identity. This can happen, when experts expect contributions from mothers to be either given for free, or on a subordinated “assistant” or “junior” level, or when the interests of children are seen as separate and disconnected from the interests of their mothers. These prove to be deep rooted mental barriers, which need to be overcome in order to effectively implement Mother Centers.



From Model to Movement


Over time the success of the centers and their rapid replication created a momentum towards a change in attitudes and towards further public funding resulting in new legislation and funding procedures, allowing for funding titles explicitly earmarked for Mother Centers in family and youth welfare programs. This was the result of extensive lobbying of the countless Mother Center initiatives in communities across Germany. Public support for family self help and peer learning structures is now anchored in German youth and family welfare legislation, although accessing funding and support locally still continues to be an on-going and tedious struggle. Each Mother Center initiative needs to spend much of their time and effort on securing funding, especially in times of cutbacks in social welfare.


A key strategy responsible for sparking off a Mother Center movement, that has since spread over the boarders of Germany into 15 countries[78], was the fact that the research team did not publish their results solely as an academic book but facilitated a process where the women involved in the first three Mother Centers wrote down their own stories, creating an authentic and animating book[79] (which has since been translated into English) by which women felt inspired and encouraged to replicate the model for themselves. Currently there are about 750 Mother Centers world wide.[80]


Mother Centers exist in the Netherlands since 1992. They were inspired by the German centers and applied the concept to target especially migrant families. Currently there are over 30 Mother Centers and 20 Mother Center initiatives in Holland, which have formed a national network. The Network has been active since 1995 and brings together the experiences of all the Dutch centers. Main activities include initiating and developing innovative projects, publications and studies, organizing national meetings, conferences and workshops, consulting Mother Center initiatives, development of quality criteria and quality control, publication of the Mother Center National Network newsletter, as well as providing information and documentation to everyone interested in the concept. Special focus is put on promotional and lobbying activities on national basis to improve the operational conditions for the centers and initiatives. The Dutch National Network for Mother Centers reaches over 3000 women in Holland, active on a daily basis.


Mother Centers have created an innovative shift in the field of social work and social welfare. A shift from families as clients of professional programs to active participants in local problem solving and local governance. They have widened the scope of welfare policies as well as of governance and gender policies.




II)      The Concept



Based on qualitative interviews of 144 parent education programs and a quantitative survey conducted with low income families, the researchers of the German Youth Institute found, that the hierarchical and institutional culture of parent education programs are a major disincentive for low income families, whose status in society is due in large parts to low or moderate success in the school system and who often experience professional attitudes as stigmatizing or devaluing.


Institutional and professional activities often use a patronizing approach. They want to teach mothers how they can play better with their children, how they can feed the child more healthy, or how they can better support the child’s development. They seldom look at what enabling conditions are needed to put these insights into practice. Women with small children are often hesitant to commit to fixed schedules or ongoing courses, because of the many unforeseeable events of family life, sick children, school problems, needs of elders and other family emergencies. These realities are rarely accounted for within the formal structures of associations and institutions, even those of established women’s organizations.


Families not reached by institutional social work are not looking for top down educational programs that make them feel “back in school”, inadequate or lacking. They are specifically looking for recognition for what they are accomplishing, despite of their problems and disadvantages. They want to experience themselves with their children positively and with self confidence. They are looking for exchange, knowledge and information on a peer level, for informal structures of learning and communication. And they are looking for practical support and concrete relief in their daily family chores.



Drop in Approach


The Mother Center is a place where families find practical support, where they are welcome with their children, where they can relax and refuel, and find an open ear along with a cup of coffee. It offers a welcome break from daily chores as well as opportunities to relieve the family budget by cheap but good second hand clothing, a toy library or by earning some extra money in the center. While there are on-going courses and activities, mothers can also just come in, have a cup of coffee and watch a while, while their child sits on their lap doing the same, or gets involved in the children’s program happening in the adjacent room. There is no need to make appointments or define any problems or issues as reason for coming. Participation can follow family rhythms and personal timing. Each woman can take her own time in developing her involvement in the center, without the feeling of committing to yet another obligation or of exposing family problems by coming there.



Mothers as Every Day Life Experts


At the same time the Mother Center approach is based on the assumption that women have a lot of knowledge and skills from practical experience, and that what is lacking is a place where this knowledge is valued and can be shared. The principle of the Mother Centers is that each woman can do at least one thing really well, that she is an expert at at least one thing and that it is the task of the center to help find out what this might be and how she might contribute and develop this ability. This is discovered in relaxed and unthreatening conversations. Women can invest different quantities of time and take on tasks and chores in the center to the degree their family situation, the age of their children and the development of their self confidence allows for. They can start with smaller contributions and gradually upscale their involvement.



Self managed public Space


Mother Centers are public spaces controlled and managed by the participating women. This creates a sense of ownership and supports identification with the center as well as allowing for an open and participative structure. There is a constant flux of new women bringing in both new impulses as well as challenges by which to grow. This keeps Mother Centers alive and lively, and makes them melting pots of creativity, innovations and integration in the community. Discussions, conflicts and negotiations on differing sensibilities regarding order, punctuality, or child rearing are a continuous and integral part of collective self management. Settings where women can meet once a week in a local church or a local neighborhood center, without being able to influence or define the structural conditions, do not have the same effect. Collectively defining and working out how things should be done in the center and what are to be the rules, is a profound way of getting to know each other and of learning to reach out, listen to each other, make compromises and find solutions that work for all.



Children are welcome, but the Focus of Attention is on Mothers


Contrary to many mother child groups activities in the Mother Centers evolve around the interests and needs of the mothers. This creates a different kind of childcare than in most institutional settings. It creates a public space that is co-inhabited and shared by adults and children, where both sides learn to deal with each other’s presence. Children are an integral part of the centers and their activities, but they are not the center of attention. Nevertheless or maybe just because of it, children also benefit enormously from the center.

They learn to associate and deal with children of different age groups and they learn to deal with a wide scope of adults in public situations. They experience their mothers in responsible roles outside of the family as well as a general public atmosphere that is welcoming, competent and patient towards children.



Paid Work


Tasks in the Mother Center like running the coffee shop, co-ordinating activities and programs, instructing a language course, minding the children, cleaning, accounting or organizing the second hand shop are shared by the mothers and are paid. Remuneration can be in the form of regular or temporary jobs, honorariums on an hourly basis, or when there are not enough funds, take the form of free educational courses and trainings or free use of Mother Center services.


Earning money not only contributes to the family budget and serves as legitimization towards spouses or other family members for spending time in the center, it also contributes to a learning process of taking care of ones own needs and taking life into ones own hands. Earning own money means a lot for the development of self value and the awareness of ones skills and talents. It is a strong motivator to further develop life plans and perspectives. Experience shows that volunteer work is regularly contributed in addition to the hours paid, often in equal amounts, which is remarkable, considering that Mother Centers reach women who usually do not engage in voluntary work.


Although not constituting an equivalent or substitute to regular employment, remunerations in the centers constitute an invaluable bridge over the split between family and public life. They contribute to making visible and acknowledging the work mothers do. Paying for activities in the centers creates room for “non-working mothers” to try out their skills, to raise their self esteem and to develop an orientation towards re-entering the labor market.




III)     What do Mother Centers look like?





The facilities of Mother Centers consist of shop window rooms in the neighborhood, harboring a café, a children’s room, a kitchen and space for meetings and activities. Access to a garden or playground is ideal. Opening hours are geared towards family rhythms and are fixed by the participants themselves.





Participants come mainly from the neighborhood and reflect the population of the community. Families from middle class as well as working class backgrounds, single as well as married mothers, local as well as migrant families are reached. During the day women and children dominate the scene, evenings and weekends also include events for the whole family. On average the centers are visited by more than 300 parents and children on a weekly basis.





Activities follow a wide range of educational, recreational and economical interests and are developed according to the needs, interests and skills of the participants.

They include courses on job training, legal issues or parenting skills, on nutrition, playing an instrument, using the internet or handling tax declarations, or on self defense, theatre, or conflict solving. Services like hair cutting, homework support for school children, eldercare, ironing or repair services are developed and outings and celebrations, sport activities, family brunches, children’s games and vacation programs are regular events organized inside and outside the premises of the Mother Center. On-going groups like savings groups, diet groups as well as lectures on a variety of issues like health or environmental issues are further examples of activities harbored in the centers.


A constant unfolding of ideas, activities and projects are sparked in the drop-in café, where participants gather, where contact, communication and group building takes place. Most of the educational value happens outside of the planned programs and activities, but rather as part of the peer communication and peer learning going on while organizing the daily life in the center.


Children are an integral part of the center. Child care is offered throughout opening hours. However, it is also possible for mothers to have their children around during their activities in the center and keep an eye on them themselves.


Mother Centers develop neighborhood services that are geared towards gaps in the local infrastructure. Babysitter referral services, janitor services, catering services, pick up and transport services, mending and laundry services, health care, beauty services and body work are examples. Especially in the area of childcare a whole spectrum of Mother Center programs has been developed. This includes the simple drop-in type care during opening times, as well as mini clubs for babies and toddlers, pre-school groups, and even full time or part time child care for working parents. In addition there are many other forms such as play groups with or without parents, baby groups, hourly child care when parents need to run errands, emergency childcare, breastfeeding groups, child gymnastics or arts and crafts programs for children of all ages.



Basic Agreements


Over the years many Mother Centers have developed a set of rules and agreements that support positive interaction. In the Dutch centers the most important rule is that the language spoken in the center is Dutch. Many centers work with the Leadership Support Process, a method developed in the USA for neighborhood women’s projects, that carefully designs a set of agreements to help sustain a positive, enabling and respectful climate in the centers.



“If something is bothering you, you should speak up, not wait until problems get old. Every day between 9.00 and 9.30 in the morning we are only sitting with the team and we talk, how are you doing. We ask if there is anything people want to bring up, anything they are concerned with. This way things can be talked about in a normal way, not with emotional tension having built up for a long time. It is a kind of daily group hygiene, and it works.

Another agreement is that everyone may say what they have to say, without being interrupted. They can either speak or write it down. This makes the statement that what women have on their minds is worth reading or listening to. It gives everyone an equal say and everyone feels important and part of the process.


A further “rule” is that everybody is prepared to change anything in the organization or the way of doing things, when it is needed. That people are prepared to at least give it a try. That way the project can move forward. That cannot happen if people are rigid about things.” (Luna, Arnhem)


“Talk about yourself, not others, that is an important rule to limit gossiping in the centers. We also have made an agreement with each other to continue to communicate, no matter what happens.” (De Koffiepot, Den Haag)



Peer Learning


Learning happens on a peer level and on an informal basis. It is often not defined as such, but all the more effective. Witnessing how an experienced mother of 3 deals with a child’s tantrum and exchanging opinions and experiences on child rearing over the coffee table are important aspects of “parent education”. Getting information on what has worked for others on health issues, on solving marital conflicts, on how to survive with very little means or on dealing with school problems widens ones own scope of action. Being exposed to different cultures and life styles opens up mental horizons and perspectives. All this happens in the centers without involving diagnostic language, a formalized consultation setting, or a self image as a problem case. Nevertheless a wealth of educational information is transported and tremendous capacity building, personal growth and development is triggered.


Consultation in the Mother Center takes place spontaneously, in daily situations when issues present themselves, and in a role model format from woman to woman, without the barriers often found in institutional counseling services like bureaucratic and intimidating procedures or long waiting lists. If necessary Mother Centers make referrals to professionals and establish the first contact. Women are encouraged and supported in finding support and in getting answers to their for instances at doctors offices, or welfare and employment agencies.


Support for re-entry into the labor market happens directly through job trainings, qualification programs and ideas and incentives for self employment, but also by a general boost of self esteem, self confidence and meta competencies that are generated through the involvement in Mother Center activities.

In the centers the women discover or reinvent their skills, capacities and resources, they create new balances for reconciling the responsibilities of work and family life and strengthen their courage to plan and build up their future.


Participating in a Mother Center usually results in diverse personal and social contacts, as well as an increase in knowledge and information. Even an occasional visitor in the center will come across all kinds of important information for families, like recommended local doctors and clinics, kindergartens and schools, educational and cultural programs and details about the local situation.



Multicultural Approach


The Dutch centers have developed a more multicultural approach and are frequented to a larger extent by the migrant population. As a consequence men are more strongly excluded in the Dutch centers, since that is a major precondition for women with Islamic religion to participate.


The multicultural approach is reflected in the program and activities of the Dutch centers. Next to the basics that are common to Mother Centers all around the world like childcare, handicrafts, drop in cafe, and the second hand shop, the Dutch centers focus on activities like literacy programs, language lessons, bicycle lessons or international cooking. Women from the Arnhem center Luna have developed an innovative Dutch language course that has become very popular with many institutions, who send the women undergoing the obligatory Dutch language training to the Mother Center.

The Mother Center courses combine learning the language with a practical activity like making tea bags or tulip decorations. The participants learn the words and concepts related to these activities, which makes it a lot easier to understand and remember them and in the end they also have a nice product to take home. At the same time they are exposed to the center as a place for social activity that they can reconnect to. Since the lingua franca in the centers is Dutch they have a strong motivation to learn the language, in order to be able to communicate with the other women and understand and participate in what is going on in the center. Integration happens in the Mother Center in an organic and informal way, more as a side effect of dealing with daily issues of the family and the neighborhood rather than as a programmatic intention of an “integration course” or program.



Public Living Rooms


Mother Centers are experienced as a safe and caring place for families from all walks of life. They have an informal, caring atmosphere often described as “public living rooms”. There is a strong orientation towards personal needs and well being. Relationships are personal, nurturing and non hierarchical. Families that can’t afford public restaurants or commercial recreational and cultural events can find community and contact and a wide range of easily accessible activities in the centers. Most activities in the center are not merely consumptive, but activate own involvement and creativity.


Social bonding is generated by working together as well as by celebrating together. Laughter is shared, as well as tears. In crisis situations and emergencies direct and immediate support is offered in a familiar setting.



Gains + Benefits


On the individual level dimensions gained include support to find employment perspectives, more self confidence, vitality and improved gender equity. Capacities developed include organizing and negotiation skills, communication and relationship skills, improved stress resistance, capacity to work in teams, increased willingness to take responsibility as well as to develop tolerance and flexibility.[81]

Mother Centers have a positive impact on improving family relations, especially when the fathers take part in the family events in the evenings and on weekends.


The longer a Mother Center exists the more there is a tendency to widen the scope of activities to include the whole neighborhood. The most evolved Mother Centers have developed into intergenerational centers including programs for all generations and the participation of young as well as old. Eldercare services have been developed in many Mother Centers that both address the care needs of elderly as well as integrating what they have to contribute into a community setting.[82]


In an evaluation study conducted by the German Youth Institute the following responses were received to the question what effects the Mother Centers have had on the lives of the participants:

▪ 80% of the respondents felt that the Mother Centers enriched the neighborhood.

▪ 75% saw the centers as an expansion of the social and physical opportunities for their children.

▪ 70% learned more tolerance.

▪ 67% affirmed that the Mother Center had influenced decision making in their communities.

▪ 58% said they learned to participate and raise their voices.

▪ 55% answered that they learned to cope with every day life with more calm and confidence.




IV)      How Mother Centers differ from the Dutch Neighborhood Centers



“We are very different from a neighborhood center. They are composed of different courses and programs. They have different kinds of activities for different kinds of groups. It is all organized around special interest groups, where people meet only other people like themselves. When no course is going on, the rooms are closed, there is nobody in the center. There are no spontaneous visitors there.

In the Mother Center the women receive personal attention. They can bring in all aspects of their lives. They are involved in all aspects of the center. They can always find an open ear and someone to talk to about anything that is going on in their lives. A women is always welcome with her child. At the neighborhood center childcare is only available at certain times and for certain courses. And if you come at another time, the child is not welcome. Then you are told that it is not a good moment to bring your child. You are told, today the center is closed for children. Today it is only for adults. This does not happen in the Mother Center. Women can always bring their children.

Participants are not just visitors, they have a say in what is going on. What they have to say counts.

You can also see it in the way the place looks. The Mother Center is more personal, more colorful. In a neighborhood center everything is done from the perspective of efficient organization, not so much from the perspective of how the rooms make people feel. We have organized open lunches for people from other institutions for them to get a taste of the different way we work. One remark that people have made is that the atmosphere here is that of a living room. People feel at home here.

The centers are a safe place for women. They can be as they are, they can learn their own way.” (Luna, Arnhem)



Neighborhood centers (Buurtcentrum) were created in the Netherlands in the sixties and are to be found in most cities throughout the country. They have institutional funding and administer services and programs for the neighborhood. Nowadays they are used by a small section of the population.

The Mother Centers differ mainly in their demand driven and participatory approach, in their focus on the needs of (especially migrant) women and in the low threshold character of their open door, drop-in programs. Mother centers appeal to the talents and skills of women and do not focus on their problems and deficiencies. The practice of self management in the Mother Centers counteracts bureaucratic and paternalistic approaches, which have developed in many of the neighborhood centers.




V)       Effects of Mother Centers



Mother Centers have wide reaching effects on many levels. They benefit the women involved and their families, they benefit the neighborhood and they benefit the community at large. The following list summarizes the effects of Mother Centers on these multiple levels. For the temporary settlement the effects of the Mother Centers on the neighborhood and on the social cohesion of the community are the most relevant.


Mother Centers:


▪ break through anonymous and isolating structures of residential areas

▪ create an opportunity for children under kindergarten age to meet and interact

▪ are a switch board for information, skills, support and resources for everyday life issues

▪ create a platform for talents and skills to be brought into the community

▪ develop the leadership potential of women in the community

▪ bring together citizens of diverse class and ethnic backgrounds

▪ strengthen tolerance and democratic attitudes in civil society

▪ create a structure for integration, social peace and community cohesion

▪ develop social solidarity and mutual support networks

▪ are incubators for new ideas and local problem solving

▪ enhance the quality of life for families

▪ support the parenting skills of families with young children

▪ support the reintegration of women into further education and the labor market

▪ serve as preventive measure against maladjustment and delinquency

▪ bring marginalized and excluded groups into social participation

▪ generate innovations in professional and institutional programs

▪ empower women and contribute to gender equality

▪ create income generating opportunities

▪ create a rich reservoir for informal learning

▪ create a community net for families at risk

▪ offer direct and non bureaucratic assistance in crisis situations and emergencies

▪ serve as links to institutional programs



In their own Words …


“It is intercultural cooking day, 10 women take turns in letting each other enjoy the smells and tastes of their cooking. The kids are at school or in the day care room. Nothing is in the way of a nice and inspiring morning. We exchange ways of cooking and basic recipes. I have never heard of a turnip. What can you do with it? A timid one very soon gets a potato peeler into her hand, and she participates too, very happy, she can take part so quickly. Mieke says she cannot contribute much to cooking. But she knows Dutch and makes use of that. While cooking we talk about our lives, our children. We understand one another, we have the same issues we face in our everyday dealings with the children.


The kids get picked up from school or from the day care, the table is decked and it is time for communal eating with all that are present that morning in the center.


At the end of the cooking course we will have a party, in which everyone can invite 5 people of their choice. That way there will be enthusiasm for the next course. The party will involve all kinds of dishes, music, dancing and a lot of laughter.” (Malle Molen, Haarlem)

“I must stay busy, if I sit at home I become crazy. I must meet people, that is why I am so active here in the Mother Center. The raising of children is something important to me. It is good to do real activities with them and this happens in the center. At the children’s cooking cafe they are allowed to cook and do things not allowed at home. It is fun to see tough boys sitting down sweetly making meat balls.” (Mamma Mia, Nijmegen)


“Mother Centers support women, so that they can grow, gain self confidence and make something out of their lives. Women develop greatly during their time in the center. They move on to get education, then to paid jobs. This is a place for development and growth in every possible way.

The women have a lot of talent and potential. The center is a very dynamic, buzzing and alive place, and also very caring. You can always find a woman there who has time for you. You are personally seen in the center, not as a case. People see you for who you are and the talents you have, regardless of what education or school certificates you have or not have.” (Malle Molen, Haarlem)


“Mother Centers are a very unique approach to integrating migrant women, often the only public place they can access and the only public contact they have with the host society. We offer language courses, but we also offer creative activities, that all women can participate in, regardless of their language abilities. That creates a non intimidating and low threshold atmosphere. Our language lessons are also more popular than elsewhere, because you can learn Dutch here, by applying it too. You can meet women in the same situation, you learn the language by speaking and doing things together.” (Alida, Den Haag)


“In the center, people get to know each other from different nationalities more than anywhere else. Elsewhere segregation is a big issue. People stick to their own ethnic groups. This has become even stronger since the attack on the world trade center in New York. Not so in the Mother Centers. The women learn to understand each others backgrounds and become friends. It is not always easy, there are also conflicts and prejudices against each other. But we work on having a climate of mutual respect and basically it works because we all have the same problems in the neighborhood. We find each other as women with children. We basically have similar issues, problems with the children in the school, struggling with a tight family budget, living in a low income neighborhood.

We celebrate the holidays of all religions. And we celebrate international women’s day. Being together in the Mother Center has also changed the climate in the neighborhood. People mix more and there is not so sharp a segregation.” (Malle Molen, Haarlem)


“Basically we are the same. The one from Marrocco might wear a scarf, but she doesn’t have to keep her mouth shut. We make the same kind of jokes.. We talk. We have met. I know now why she wears a scarf. We are comfortable with each other.” (Mother Center Initiative Leidse Rijn)


“It enriches the center to have women from different cultures. We learn from each other, from other cultures. It broadens our view. We talk about things. How do you do things in your culture? We talk about Ramadan. What is the meaning of it? We learn to respect each others traditions.


What we have learned from the women from other cultures is that there is more togetherness in their culture. Everybody stands up for each other. The other cultures have added a sense of togetherness to the center. A certain warmth has been added to our group. When you are ill, when something has happened, the women really are concerned and take interest.


Women from other cultures have also learned from us. When there is a disagreement or an irritation, they have learned to talk about it. They might ask for coaching first, but they have learned to speak up. Dare to speak up, dare to have ideas. Also dare to ask for help. There is also a lot of humor, things are talked about with humor. And it has become easier to get ideas through. To look at the positive side of things, not only seeing that things won’t work, or can’t work.” (Luna, Arnhem)


“The center plays an important part in the neighborhood. For instance when the streets needed to be changed, the municipality wanted to ask the opinions of the people living on the street. Usually it is very difficult to get any response in low income neighborhoods. People don’t answer written questions, they don’t come to citizens hearings. The Mother Center women went out and knocked on the doors of all the houses on the street and invited the families to a meeting in the center. And they came. There were 100 people there and they indeed had opinions and something to say to the issue.


The same happened when the municipality wanted to change the playground. Civil servants always complain that it is difficult to get participation of the population. They do not really know how to connect to the people who it really concerns. It needs a place like a Mother Center, where women are not intimidated and where they can convene and reflect on their ideas about their environment and the neighborhood. It is important to have these kinds of meetings. It makes women aware of their environment and makes them aware what participation means, and that they do have views and suggestions to contribute. At an official council meeting you will never see the women who come here. At those meetings there usually are only men, 50 years and older.” (Malle Molen, Haarlem)


“The centers are often a kind of last resort for people who are excluded in society and who fall through the safety net of institutions. In many instances they have become a recruiting place for institutional programs. They often operate as important partners of other programs. Throughout these partnerships they have also started influencing the way institutions work, bringing their approaches down to the ground. Now also other institutions shape the language courses more to the needs and life styles of the women, they now include childcare, or offer transportation support, or are conducted closer to the residential areas to give easier access.” (National Association of Dutch Mother Centers)


“In the Mother Centers you can first learn how to crawl, then you walk and soon enough you have learned to run and to get to wherever you want. You start with the basics of life and then you realize that the world is open to you. A Mother Center is often the only place a woman from my culture can go to, the only place where she can be as she is.” (Mother Center Alida, Den Haag)




VI)      Added Value of a Mother Center in the Nest!



The Mother Center contributes in many ways to the temporary settlement as well as to the developing new neighborhood.

It supports community building by creating a meeting space and opportunities to get to know each other along the lines of shared everyday life activities, common interest groups, festivities, and excursions.

A Mother Center also creates a space where issues concerning the well being of women, children and families are addressed. In their role as the daily caregivers for children, the frail and the elderly, mothers learn much about what an environment must look like in order to meet the needs of dependants. The Mother Center generates first hand knowledge on issues like family friendly housing, transport and safety. that can be channeled into the neighborhood development process.


The Mother Center in the temporary settlement is well equipped to create an environment where the worlds of the new inhabitants of the developing neighborhood, the adjoining communities and the pioneers of the temporary settlement can meet and integrate. Issues concerning children and the family have a strong cross cutting potential. The interests of mothers of small children are often very much the same, despite differences in cultural or class backgrounds. Children themselves easily cross class or ethnic barriers when relating to each other.

The Mother Center also creates a broad scope of social and economic activities. It generates access to information on quantitative as well as qualitative service gaps in the community and can respond with initiatives like grocery services, laundry or mending services as well as care services like babysitting, sick care or eldercare according to the interests and talents of the participants. The Mother Center serves as a community space for both the supply and the demand of services.


Especially in regard to childcare the center can develop a wider range of more customized family services: These include for instance childcare in the evenings, at irregular times, before school, after school, lunch tables for school children, help with homework, games and sport activities in the afternoons, as well as pick up and transport services for cultural and recreational after-school activities.


Demographic trends are pointing towards the need for more eldercare. Family resources for the care of dependants are diminishing, while professionalism often lacks genuine care quality. The greatest structural problem of professional care work has proved to be the lack of personal involvement, that can not be repeated over and over again outside of personally motivated structures. The Mother Center provides the opportunity of creating a new mix: it develops childcare and eldercare services for the community that are integrated into neighborhood networks, that are embedded in the family like culture and support systems of the Mother Center. Such services are more flexible and person oriented and develop a more personal care quality than professional care systems usually can provide.


Especially for two income families the provision of childcare, household and eldercare support, is a strong factor in the decision making process of where to settle and where to obtain property. The Mother Center makes a big contribution to the quality and attractively of the new neighborhood.




VII)    Implementation



The Mother Center is a central piece of the Nest!. The center should begin as soon as the temporary settlement is set up. The initial phase will involve identifying an initiator group, rooms and funds.



Initiators are a core group motivated to create a Mother Center for their own needs and interests. This group needs to spend time on developing the mission, goals and implementation strategies of the project as well as on growing together as a team, understanding who has what talents and contacts and how they can best be applied. Talents that the group of initiators should cover are negotiation and communication talents, writing and organizational talents, fundraising talents as well as the talent to motivate and inspire others. Initiators need to be positive thinkers, have trust and confidence in the resources and capacities of Mother Center participants and the know-how and dedication to bring these out. Founders of Mother Centers need to be able to support each other through tough spots and give each other strength and courage as well as be able to shoulder the project on their own through phases where group cohesion slackens or becomes noncommittal, or when there is a change in active participants, until the group comes together again and there is again a strong team. Mother Center initiators need to identify with the Mother Center concept and to be able to communicate it convincingly both inside and outside the Mother Center.


Spreading the Word

Information about the project must be spread widely, both inside and outside the temporary settlement, targeting both potential visitors and participants as well as the media, businesses, founders and institutions in the neighborhood.



Finding allies among politicians, welfare agencies, equal opportunity commissions and among municipal departments and local authorities is an important step along the way. Partners need to know about the structures of the local administration, about funding programs and current trends in social, integration and gender policies as well as have good contacts with local decision making structures.



Mother Centers depend on rooms that are at the full disposal of the project. These rooms need to be central, easily accessible, affordable, have high public visibility, and be spacious enough to allow for the activities of both the mothers as well as the children.

The minimal space needed includes a café, the children’s room, a kitchen, a toilet and a room for projects. Optimal facilities include an additional room for children to have an afternoon nap, a bathroom including a table for diaper change, an atelier room for creative activities, a room for a second hand shop, a small office space, a garden for the children to be able to play outside and a big meeting room for celebrations and general assemblies.



Dealing with public space and different groups of people including children calls for security nets in form of insurances for the building, for accidents as well as for the people engaging in activities in the center. Insurances that offer packages for self help groups need to be identified and contacted.


Start-up Process

Regular meetings open to all who are interested need to be conducted from the start, where participants are involved from the beginning. Renovations, furnishing, activities, programs and schedules as well as the operating rules and agreements are developed along the way, together with the participants and according to their needs, interests, ideas and competencies. This allows for a maximum of participation and contribution of the participants in the shaping and running of the center and a sense of identification, ownership and belonging can develop. Out of these meetings a Mother Center co-ordination team arises that co-ordinates the Mother Center program and activities.


Space for Reflection and Development

Daily life in the Mother Center needs reflective space in form of trainings and seminars to accompany the practical work and to process and reflect on the daily experiences. Regular times for reflection of individual and group processes as well as of project developments are an indispensable support structure for the work of the Mother Center and the learning processes involved. Seminars, workshops and peer learning events, that allow for reflection space as well as for targeted capacity building will be conducted on a regular basis in cooperation with the Nest! Neighborhood Academy. How to solve problems and conflicts constructively, how to motivate and encourage participation and self development, how to deal with different interests, different levels of ability and self confidence, or with culture clashes or informal hierarchies are issues that can best be addressed outside of the daily hustle and bustle in the setting of a seminar or retreat. Outside facilitation and coaching can be of great support in this process and partnerships with competent trainers that understand the concept of the Mother Center as well as the value and elements of peer learning should be built in as an accompanying structure to the work in the center.


Funding and Remuneration

The Mother Center need funds to pay for rooms, for furniture and equipment, insurances, for the remuneration of daily tasks and activities, for publications and publicity and for personnel development and training. Since the core concept of the center is to offer support and budget relief to families, the prices of services and consumption in the center are kept low. As a rule of thumb the money raised by the activities in the center can cover about 20% of the yearly budget.


Funding can come through the Savings and Loans division of the Nest! Local Economy Organization or from outside sponsors. The core activities in the Mother Center like the drop in café, childcare, cooking, cleaning, educational courses, accounting, etc. are paid on an hourly basis in Local Currency.


Integrating the Surroundings

The Mother Center constitutes an element that can also be established independently of the temporary settlement. Since families with young children will be an important part of the new settlement the Mother Center provides a central service. It is a good way to integrate the new settlement and the surrounding neighborhoods.




VIII) Enabling Policies and legislative Framework



The development of the Mother Center movement raises issues of welfare policies and welfare legislation of a larger nature. Mother Centers are extremely successful on the ground. They reach families who are not reached by welfare institutions, they bring out capacities and competencies that are otherwise lost to society. They answer to many issues that are currently high on the agenda of public debate, like strengthening the participation of civil society, especially of women, integration of different cultures, social cohesion in neighborhoods as well as improving the quality of family socialisation and child rearing and accessing undeveloped talent and potential. Their success, however, is not matched to the same extent by political and administrative recognition and financial support.



A Governance Paradox


In her article “Domineren of Faciliteren[83] Joyce Hes analyses the situation as a “political governance paradox”, arising out of the fact that governmental top down welfare approaches do not fit the needs and parameters of bottom up self help initiatives, so that the very formula that creates the success of the Mother Centers generates resistance from the institutions and organizations, where the money, recognition and support should come from.


Hes identifies the following factors as major barriers:

▪ bureaucratic orientation that allows for little or no flexibility, autonomy, or consideration for context

manageralism, the attempt to align social development to the cost and effect principles of the free market, including an increasing competitiveness of welfare organizations for ownership and credit for successful initiatives

▪ segmentation and specialization

▪ centralization in large welfare institutions, top down steering from a distance


In order to support self help initiatives another governance model is needed, one that fits better the work on the ground, one that can enable rather than block and hinder bottom up solutions.


In the following we present lessons from the Mother Center experience concerning four areas where legislative and policy reforms can enhance the effectivity of social welfare policies.



Holistic Approach


A weakness of the present welfare system is the degree of specialization and segmentation that has developed in delivering support and services. Increased professionalism has resulted in the slicing up of life into social issues, target groups, specialized themes and funding titles.



“Dutch society is cut up in many pieces. There is a specialized social worker for every target group and specialized funds for every social issue. Women, children, youth, the elderly, the disabled, migrants, refugees are all addressed by different programs and different specialists. The Mother Centers by contrast use a holistic approach. In the Mother Centers all these groups come together. This creates a lot of difficulty in accessing funds, because there are practically no funding titles for such an integral approach.” (National Network of Dutch Mother Centers)


“Subsidies are specialized. You get them for refugees, for volunteer work, for work with unemployed, or with the youth. But never for the integrated way that the Mother Centers work. So you can get one or the other activity in the center funded, but not the whole project. There is a government rule, that you can not get more than three subsidies of government money. That limits our possibilities and the result is that not all the activities of the Mother Center can be paid, because what happens here definitely includes more than three given sectors. We have to always be careful that the funding policies do not kill our concept, that the way we work is not altered by the lines of financing imposed by the government or the city council.” (Malle Molen, Haarlem)



Much of the success of the Mother Centers is due to the fact that they follow more of a family than an institutional approach. Addressing the family as a whole, rather than children, youth, women, the elderly, in separate approaches, reflects and builds on the synergy of the family as a system. Especially in the context of migrant families an integrated approach is crucial in order to build on and enhance self coping energies and strategies, which are very much linked to family and kin networks.



Recommendation for enabling Policies:

A more organic and holistic approach to social welfare needs to create programs and funding titles that allow for non-segmental, integrated bottom up approaches. Channeling state support and public subsidy directly into the system of family and community self help networks can increase the range and quality of social policy by including and enabling the problem solving capacities and resources of the target groups themselves.





A big issue that hinders the development of innovation and creativity in social welfare is the tendency towards centralization and large welfare institutions with increasingly bureaucratic structures. The further away decisions are taken, the more likely it becomes that they are not in tune with what works on the ground. The Mother Center movement has many examples of such miscommunication and misalignment between the work of the Mother Centers and the attitudes, procedures, requirements and regulations of host welfare institutions.


“A big problem is that our center cannot get independent funds, only channeled through our host welfare institution. They get all the subsidies and pass them on, so we always need to convince this big and rather bureaucratic institution of our work. We cannot do our own business, grow and expand as it is happening in our own process. The welfare institution divides the money evenly among all the projects, regardless if they are equally successful and expanding or not. This is an advantage for unsuccessful projects, but for the Mother Centers it blocks our development. It would be better if the Mother Centers could get subsidies directly, on their own.” (Molle Molen, Haarlem)


Recommendation for enabling Policies:

Decentralization can be enhanced by creating legal and financial procedures by which grassroots projects can become direct partners with founders and social welfare programs. This constitutes an important step away from bureaucratization and a patronizing approach in social welfare and an important step towards improving the effectiveness of social welfare programs and how the increasingly limited money available is spent. Through more direct communication channels between decision making, funding procedures and the implementation level, funding can be more fine tuned to the real requirements on the ground, which more often than not also reduces costs.



Deregulation and wider Margins


Innovations are often difficult to fit into a very regulated and bureaucratic system of rules and requirements. When the effect of rules and regulations is no longer evaluated against the basic intentions for which they were originally formulated, they can become a barrier and a block to good social policies.


In the case of the Mother Centers this is true in regard to regulations and legislative plans concerning childcare. The Mother Center concept involves a new kind of (informal) childcare in the presence of parents and other caring adults. This is different from formal public childcare arrangements, where parents are substituted by professional child minders. Public childcare arrangements involve a wide series of requirements like the need for child size toilets, separate chambers for sleeping, or security tests for play equipment, which are not required in a family or family like setting.


“Plans on new childcare legislation threaten to centralize responsibility for public childcare and to submit informal childcare settings to the same regulations required of formal public childcare. This can make the practice of childcare in a community and neighborhood setting like the Mother Center childcare system illegal, which seems counter productive in regard of the fact that sufficient childcare is lacking in Dutch society and there is a need to enhance rather than limit the supply.


We are therefore negotiating to receive a specific Mother Center status within this new law.” (National Association of Dutch Mother Centers)


Recommendation for enabling Policies:

Working with wider norms and wider margins that leave room for context orientation, innovation and decentralized initiative and responsibility appear more suitable to ensure that services, in this case childcare services, are offered in such a way that they are accessible to those who most need them, while at the same time ensuring the standards of quality that the rules and regulations are intended for.



New Welfare Mix


The European public welfare system is targeted towards public solidarity and state responsibility in those areas that are least ensured by market forces. The third pillar on which society rests is civic engagement in the form of voluntary work and citizen’s initiatives. In times of a shrinking labor market a redistribution of tasks and responsibilities between the market, the state and civil society needs to be considered and there are currently many debates, political initiatives and proposals that attempt to do that.


The Mother Center experience contributes to this debate by introducing the concept of subsidized self help. Mother Centers bridge the gap between public and private, between productive and reproductive tasks, between paid and unpaid work, labor market involvement and welfare subsidies. They cannot, however, survive on a purely voluntary basis, although much voluntary work is generated and contributed in the Mother Centers. They can also not survive on a purely commercial basis, because the care needs and services involved are so time and labor intensive, that it is not possible to provide them on a self sustaining profitable basis, if they are to stay as personal as they are in the context of the Mother Centers and still affordable for wide segments of the population. And finally Mother Centers risk endangering the quality of their services as well as their empowerment potential if they are conducted purely on an employment basis and submitted to labor market laws and logic.


Enabling structures for the kind of civic involvement and social services generated in projects like the Mother Centers therefore require “a new welfare mix”.


Barriers in existing legislation include the tight limits in regard to the remuneration of tax free voluntary work (€700 per year), the limitations to engaging in remunerated work while receiving social welfare, the practice of limiting subsidized work to labor market programs.


The practice of subsidizing work programs as labor market re-entry incentive has been introduced to counteract unemployment rates. Such programs cannot solve the issue of the structural decrease of employment due to post industrialization. They have, however, successfully introduced the concept of subsidizing work, of creating a “second labor market” outside of market forces.


The lessons coming out of the Mother Center experience point towards carrying this redistribution, or re-balancing of state, market and civic forces one step further to include subsidies for work and services provided in the context of neighborhood and community engagement.


“Because of the complexity and ambition of our project we need partners in politics. We need help in getting financing innovations, in getting recognition, also for the transfer of the model to the whole region, as basic infrastructure for families.

There needs to be a good co-operation with public policy makers to make the necessary legislative changes, both national and municipal” (Luna, Arnhem)


Recommendation for enabling Policies:

Creating direct funding titles for family and community self help initiatives, increasing the margins of tax free remuneration for civic work and creating opportunities and incentives to supplement welfare subsidies with paid work in the community, constitute strategies of a new welfare mix, that can both counteract negative effects of unemployment as well as generate stronger civic involvement.


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