Meet… Manja Coopmans

Manja Coopmans
Manja Coopmans

Her research is focused on factors that improve or inhibit social and political involvement among youngsters. Equality or inequality of opportunities, inclusion and diversity are themes she often comes across in that field. Themes that link up seamlessly with Dynamics of Youth. Her name: Manja Coopmans, an Assistant Professor at Utrecht University. She is currently busy working on the coordination of the Erasmus+ project Vox Pop Europe; an online dialogue platform where youngsters from various countries can meet. So it is about time to get to know this researcher.

You currently spend a lot of time on Youth Studies. What about that appeals to you?

“I've always been interested in youngsters as a target group. What exactly causes youngsters to feel or not feel connected to society? And how do we ensure that youngsters feel heard? That's an issue I occupy myself with. Youngsters' voices are still often not really heard: there is much research into youngsters, but less with youngsters; while it's exactly that sense of ownership and experience that something is done with their opinions that is so important.”

“I think my interest in this subject is in part the result of my own experiences with this: I also had trouble letting my voice be heard in the past. That I had the idea I had something to tell, but simply didn't know how. I think it's important that we help youngsters with that as well as possible; that we ensure that all youngsters – regardless of the families, the neighbourhoods or the countries they grow up in – have sufficient possibilities to practise with this.”

What are you currently working on?

“I'm currently busy working on the Erasmus+ project ‘Vox Pop Europe’. Together with mbo teachers and mbo students from four European countries (the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal and Romania), I'm working on an online dialogue platform. With this platform, we want to offer youngsters with various backgrounds and opinions a place where they can meet in an accessible way and discuss social subjects (such as discrimination, freedom of speech and mental health) with each other. The starting point in this is that we unite youngsters who have opposite opinions on a specific subject. We let them meet various perspectives, so they learn to deal with those. It's also a practice in listening and discussion skills.”

“The first research phase is currently ongoing, during which we collect input from students to see which subjects they'd like to discuss with each other, which subjects are more sensitive and how we can use the online context for this as well as possible. The first results have since come in and we're now working towards the development phase, during which the tool is further designed. The pilot phase will follow in the spring, during which students and teachers are going to try the platform. It's a very inspiring project, that energises me.”

Why does your work fit in with Dynamics of Youth?

“The Vox Pop Europe project is a project that's not only about youngsters, but what we're really doing in consultation with youngsters. We want to make youngsters' world a bit bigger. To me, that's very much in line with youngsters' social development AND with their personal development.”

You are full of ideas and interests. What else is on your wish list for things to research?

“Other things I'd like to get more insight in is in which forms of conversation youngsters' voices REALLY come to the surface; and then how to develop a research method for it. If you take the youngsters who dare to speak up out of a class, there's still a very big group left who have more difficulty expressing themselves. Exactly those are the ones of whom I'd like to know what they're thinking. But it's tricky to get a view of that when you also want to do representative research among big groups of youngsters at the same time. I'd really love to find a way to get an even better view of those youngsters' voices. Of course, preferably with as much involvement from youngsters themselves as possible.”

Who else would you like to collaborate with?

“Within Utrecht University, I've already had the chance to work with many interesting colleagues, many of whom have ties to Dynamics of Youth. Since my start as an Assistant Professor in April, I also have many inspiring new colleagues. That results in many new interesting insights. When I think who else I'd like to collaborate with, the name Diana Hess comes to mind. She's done much research into ways to teach youngsters to discuss and increase their social involvement, and also applies this in her education in a very inspiring way. I'd love to become acquainted with her and her approach to education.”

Diana Hess has been researching since 1997 how teachers can involve their pupils in discussions on controversial political and constitutional issues. She wrote multiple books on that. “The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education” is her most recent work. Since 2015, Hess works as a Dean at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education in the United States.