Elena Ponzoni is assistant professor at the department of Sociology of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, where she is part of the expertise-lab Refugee Academy and of the project Engaged Scholarship and Narratives of Change led by Prof Halleh Ghorashi. A red thread in her work is the focus on how academic research can contribute to make visible and change implicit mechanisms of exclusion and inequality. She is also affiliated with the Hogeschool InHolland and the research department Youth and Society. Her current research focuses on the inclusion of refugees in the Netherlands. She has also done years of research on social work and parenting support practices in Amsterdam. Between 2019 and 2021 she was lead researcher in the NWA-funded participatory project Kracht van Ontmoeting, which focused on the challenges of parenting support professionals in increasingly diverse urban settings.
Professional intimacy in engaged encounters
In late-modern European cities social work professionals operate in a complex context, characterised by patterns of structural inequality, implicit forms of stigmatization and exclusion including othering mechanisms (negative and reductive images of people that do not fit implicit norms). This often complicates the encounter and connection between professionals and different groups in society. The three-year participatory project Kracht van Ontmoeting focussed on the outreach practices of parenting support professionals from the municipal organisation Ouder- en Kindteam in Amsterdam, involved in preventive and community-oriented actions. It explored various ways in which professionals come in contact with and latch on to the experiences and daily reality of parents and youth having life experiences and social networks different that their own. These daily ‘practices of encounter’ show the need to participating in micro-interactions and engaged dialogues with informal networks of parents or youngsters, and the importance of ‘professional intimacy’ in order to create reciprocal engagement. While disclosure and personal presence have received a lot of attention in literature, they are mainly understood as instruments to increase the trust parents or youngsters have in professionals. What is missing is a reflection on how professionals need to engage their own personal background, history and emotions in order to reflect on their own positioning in longstanding structures of inequality and stigmatization. This requires spaces for encounter that are both safe and ‘daring’ and allow open dialogues between professionals and youngsters or parents, centred on mutual learning.
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