Open up the Doors! Multicultural youth, leisure and participation in civic activities

(In Finnish: Ovet auki! Monikulttuuriset nuoret, vapaa-aika ja kansalaistoimintaan osallistuminen)

Päivi Harinen, Veronika Honkasalo, Anne-Mari Souto & Leena Suurpää
Youth Research Network 2009

This publication, composed of research articles and short writings of youth work officials and youth workers, is the concluding part of the nation-wide research project Multicultural youth, leisure and participation in civic activities, coordinated by the Finnish Youth Research Network from 2004 to 2007. The primary aim of the project has been to paint a comprehensive picture of how leisure activities for youth relate to and are influenced by the contemporary demands of multicultural society. What kinds of participation possibilities are there in diverse leisure environments for young people from multicultural backgrounds? What factors enhance or restrict their leisure activity and civic participation? How can we develop leisure practices that support multicultural co-existence among young people in Finland? What does an anti-racism policy imply in the organized leisure areas of youth work and civic organizations?

In order to answer these questions, extensive nation-wide quantitative and qualitative research data were collected. These data consist of:

•    responses to a nation-wide, questionnaire-based survey of young people, aged 13–25, from multicultural backgrounds (n=1384), measuring their self-assessed participation rates, interests, personal experiences and hopes concerning youth work and leisure activities,
•    responses to a nation-wide, questionnaire-based survey of leisure organization secretaries (n=136) and municipal youth workers (n=227), exploring their ideas about and experiences of anti-racism campaigns, multicultural youth work multiculturalism in general,
•    qualitative interviews with multicultural young people (n=40, selected from among those who took part in the survey mentioned above) representing different nationalities and living in different parts of the country, in order to take a deeper look at their experiences of leisure contacts and possibilities for civic action, and
•    qualitative interviews with municipal youth workers (n=40) from the ten largest cities in Finland, which contain the vast majority of Finland’s immigrant population.

One further aim of this project was to include in the study those young people whose nationality is officially Finnish, but who have multicultural roots which may influence their social conditions and sense of membership in Finnish society. In this regard we hope to challenge the traditional conceptual framework in Finland when it comes to categorizing people according to ethnic or immigrant labels. This relates to the very foundations of the categorization process, based on dialectics of “newcomers” vs. “established groups,” “majority” vs. “minority” and “(im)migrants” vs. “Finns.” In the starting phase of the project, the term “multicultural youth” was adopted, taken to refer, in this context, to those young people who were either born outside Finland themselves or who have at least one parent from abroad. This concept was introduced not only to depict the problems relating to binary distinctions but also enable us to consider a variety of complex, sometimes highly hybrid social and cultural identifications and modes of belonging experienced by these young people. We wanted to highlight the relational character of young people’s membership contests in society, which cannot be reduced to a set of fixed statuses such as citizenship, mother tongue, ethnic background or place of birth. The concept of “multicultural youth” is based on the hypothesis that these kinds of young people have often lived their lives in contact with more than just one national culture. In the articles in this book, “multicultural youth” is thus a wide-ranging term, not referring to just immigrants. 

The focus of this book on leisure activities is based on the idea of inclusive leisure activities for young people having a significant impact on their well-being and civic education. The articles presented here mainly discuss leisure and civic activities organized by adults (youth organizations and municipal youth work), but young people’s informal leisure spaces are also worth mentioning. Multicultural openness in leisure environments and everyday communities is a topic which, at least in the Finnish context, remains largely unexplored. The aim of this project has not been to argue that active participation in collective activities is a symbol of “proper citizenship” and integration. Our premise has rather been the ideal that cultural or ethnic background should not decrease anyone’s possibilities to participate.

The articles and “field studies” in this book are divided into two main themes. The first, Friendship and Belonging, deals with issues of multicultural identifications and social networking in diverse leisure fields. As the backgrounds of multicultural youth vary a lot, stereotypes related to cultural distance from “Finnishness” seem to define their positions and relationships within local youth networks. Those with the greatest difference in appearance and the least Finnish cultural resources (linguistic, social, etc.) seem likely to remain as outsiders, while young dual citizens often find themselves in socially and culturally flexible spaces; they are more easily welcomed and accepted as friends by both Finns and immigrants. Being a cultural outsider, however, is not always defined as a space of social and psychological misery: If diasporic experiences are interpreted from a perspective of (multi)cultural consciousness and freedom – as many multicultural young people do – they can offer a means of building a new kind of social identity which is not limited by national and cultural constraints.

The second theme in this book is Offering and Rejecting. Its focus is on youth work and youth NGOs, and in their openness to multiculturalism. According to the analyses presented, culturally open, anti-racist attitudes, strategies and daily working methods are seen as important goals in both municipal youth work and youth organizations. Concrete and continuous forms of multicultural action, however, are still often lacking, as well as active participants and youth workers with divergent cultural backgrounds. There also seems to be a gap between the activities offered and multicultural young people’s desires: young people long for activities that consist of daily action – e.g., actively defending human and/or animal rights – but most often they are offered camps, trips, clubs and education. Sport, however, is one leisure arena where multicultural youth often feel themselves as welcomed and where multicultural friendships can emerge. In terms of integration, participation in education, labour and leisure activities are often tied together: If multicultural young people succeed in one of those spheres, this “success” (statistically) predicts coping also in other spheres of life.

As a disproportionate number of immigrants in Finland are young people, the field of youth work can serve as the avant-garde for societal change in terms of strengthening the new multicultural everyday life. The results of the project Multicultural youth, leisure and participation in civic activities show that the demands of multiculturalism have already attracted considerable attention in youth work. The unequal features of youth leisure communities should not, however, be forgotten. In spite of many multicultural openings, ethnic based discrimination still exists in both formal and informal spheres of youth leisure activities: Some cafeterias may be “forbidden” for immigrants; young newcomers may not dare to join their peers in youth centers, etc. As multiculturalism has been declared as one of the priorities of contemporary youth work, these cultural obstacles deserve to be seriously investigated.

The aims mentioned above can be challenging, as different sides have different perspectives regarding the obstacles to multicultural action. While youth workers and NGO-actors may define, e.g., immigrants’ cultural backgrounds and family relations as the main obstacles to young people’s leisure participation, the young people themselves see that their access to collective activities as being blocked by the prejudices of adults organizing these activities, and those of their peers. Concrete ideas for multicultural co-operation also seem to be hard to formulate. Of the numerous informants in the studies carried out in this project, hardly any could clearly envision concrete and effective means by which to promote multiculturalism in leisure activities. But regardless of this, new working methods to promote an antiracist orientation and cross-cultural awareness, and new administrative strategies to back them up, are rapidly being developed in the field of Finnish youth work.

This includes Finnish online youth work conducted over the Internet 
(, which is still unique in the European and even the global context.