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Experience, insight and always asking ‘why’

‘Any professional analysing my adolescence would wonder how I didn’t go completely off the rails,’ says Femke Kaulingfreks, who investigates ways of helping young people in a vulnerable position to increase their resilience. As Lector of Youth and Society at Inholland University of Applied Sciences, she can use her own problematic childhood as a model. ‘The warning signs were there.’

Text: Elke Veldkamp, image: Willeke Duijvekam

‘Any professional analysing my adolescence would wonder how I didn’t go completely off the rails,’ says Femke Kaulingfreks, who investigates ways of helping young people in a vulnerable position to increase their resilience. As Lector of Youth and Society at Inholland University of Applied Sciences, she can use her own problematic childhood as a model. ‘The warning signs were there.’

I took inspiration from researchers who committed themselves to a social ideal

Choosing resources

The fact that she did not lose control altogether at that time was partly down to luck, she says. ‘I met the right people at the right time. One finding from the research I do is how important it is for juveniles to be able to choose and call on their own so-called “resources”, even if they don’t follow traditional methods. The older friends I hung around with would probably not be regarded as “standard resources”, but they were kind to me and taught me the ways of the world. Without them I would have had to work everything out for myself. And I also made sure to be in school for exams. While I spent a lot of time in the coffeeshop, I didn’t take drugs. I saw enough living in that scene to know that it wasn’t for me. Grandma, who I visited for dinner every week, kept on believing in me and would often say to me: “You’ll be fine.”’

Not pathetic

The importance of a positive outlook is another finding from Kaulingfreks’ research. ‘Social workers are often inclined to treat young people as victims. But it is better to focus on their strengths. I was actually proud of myself and was certainly not looking for sympathy. So I avoided social workers. The emotional backlash only came years later, when I was an adult and started processing all I had gone through with my mother.’

Is her own adolescence the reason she conducts research into recognition and equal opportunities for young people? ‘I didn’t consciously choose that path. I think I would have been just as interested in this target group even if my childhood had been ‘normal’. Because they are going through a very special, formative phase of their lives and it is a period when they are experiencing a lot. At the same time, I recognise many of the problems youth face.’

The heart of things

To get back to the start of her career, Kaulingfreks initially planned to study law in order to help make the world a juster place. ‘I come from a deeply engaged family. I talked a lot with my grandmother, who was a committed socialist, about subjects such as income inequality and the refugee problem. But when I went to the open day, the law course seemed a bit boring to me. I was drawn more to philosophy, which is all about asking “why”; trying to get to the very heart of things.’ After earning a Master’s degree in political philosophy, Kaulingfreks obtained a PhD with a study into the political participation of juveniles with a migration background in deprived areas. ‘I felt an affinity with those youths. Like them, I didn’t see myself as entirely Dutch, since my father is Chilean.’

Without abuse of power

As a young man, her father was active in the anarchist movement in Chile. He fled to the Netherlands, with his parents, when he was nineteen, just before the military junta seized power. ‘I only heard his stories when I re-established contact with him as an adult,‘ says Kaulingfreks. ‘It turned out that he had been engaged in a similar search to mine: how can we collectively create a juster society, without abuse of power by the government and the elite?’ Her own search was further stimulated by a journey she made through Chile to learn more about her father’s home country. ‘The inequality is even greater in Chile, where there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor and the indigenous population is excluded in many respects.’

Searching for the underlying vision

During her studies Kaulingfreks found a family of like-minded individuals in the squatters’ movement in Amsterdam, where she joined a squatters’ collective for a number of years. ‘We wanted to create a free space for an alternative, non-commercial culture,’ she says. ‘We organised events such as films, debates and free festivals and invited people to come along and get actively involved. I learned a tremendous amount during this period – organisational skills, how to formulate a vision and dealing with conflicts. That experience is a great help for me now in my position as a lector. It sometimes surprises me how people in an institutional environment like this can blindly follow rules and procedures without reflecting on the vision behind them. During my time with the non-hierarchical squatters’ collective, every week we would have lengthy discussions about why we had made particular decisions. In my view, there is not enough of that in the university. We could reflect more often on what it is we are trying to accomplish together.’

Constant proof

Her decision to join the Youth and Society research group was a very conscious one. ‘For a long time I followed the regular academic path: earn a Master’s degree, obtain a PhD, do a postdoc. I found that in a university career you spend a lot of time applying for grants and finding international publishers for your articles. This culture of constantly having to prove yourself in the academic world exists far less in the universities of applied sciences, where the practical relevance of your research for professionals is far more important. Research is always carried out in consortia with policymakers and organisations in the field. That is what appeals to me and gives me the feeling that here I can really have an impact on society.’

Engaged researchers

Kaulingfreks’ ambition is to strengthen the collaboration with the academic world. ‘The universities come up with marvellous fundamental insights and we should do more to combine them with the practical perspective of the universities of applied sciences. During my research at the University of Berkeley in California, I took inspiration from the deep commitment shown by researchers there, for example by actively campaigning for the abolition of solitary confinement in prisons. They made a clear choice to devote their research to the pursuit of a particular social ideal. That is certainly a complicated role for a researcher, but is something we should also try here more often.’

Bright pink high heels

She strives to inspire students to discover their own voice. She speaks openly with them about her own experiences. ‘They are an important reference point. I want to show them that you can bring your  own wealth of experience and ideas and claim your own space, even if you don’t necessarily feel at home in an institute of higher education.’ She conveys the same message with her striking dress style. With a smile: ‘When I was a squatter I would often confront the police in high heels and a dress. And as lector, I like wearing bright pink shoes with stiletto heels during my lectures. I don’t like being pigeon-holed. I want to feel free. And I want my students to feel the same way: like me, you can be crazy about make-up tutorials and listening to hiphop and a good scientist at the same time. There is no contradiction between them.’

Portretfoto van onderzoeker

Recognition and equality of opportunity

Femke Kaulingfreks’ research group focuses on societal issues relating to child development and upbringing. She combines qualitative research into the perceptions of juveniles – in particular district-specific ethnographic research – and the theory of political philosophy. The focus of her work is on recognition and equality of opportunity for young people in a vulnerable position. In Speelruimte voor Identiteit, a book co-written in 2022 with Stijn Sieckelinck, Professor of the Youth Spot research group at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, Kaulingfreks discusses how young people can be helped in establishing a resilient identity.

  • Femke Kaulingfreks in brief


    1981                                       Born in Amsterdam

    2006                                     Master’s degree in political philosophy, University of Amsterdam

    2013                                      PhD from University of Humanistic Studies on the political significance of                                                          riots and public disturbances by youths with a migration background

    2013 – 2014                         Researcher in the Lectorate Citizenship and Diversity, The Hague University                                                    of Applied Sciences

    2015                                      Visiting researcher, University of California, Berkeley

    2015 – 2017                         Postdoctoral researcher, Radboud University Nijmegen

    2017 – 2018                         Associate professor of pedagogy, Utrecht University

    March 2018 – present     Lector Youth and Society, Inholland University of the Arts, Amsterdam


    Femke Kaulingfreks lives in Amsterdam with her husband and son Victor (6)