Jörg Richert
Ashoka Fellow seit 2015   |   Germany

Jörg Richert

KARUNA Zukunft für Kinder und Jugendliche in Not e.V.
Through creating new ways of engagement and thus a new public profile for children and youth living on the street, Jörg effectively changes how we as a society perceive and interact with street-youth,…
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This description of Jörg Richert's work was prepared when Jörg Richert was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.


Through creating new ways of engagement and thus a new public profile for children and youth living on the street, Jörg effectively changes how we as a society perceive and interact with street-youth, so as to broaden positive perspectives about the group of often traumatized youngsters. He successfully provides the space and resources for one to actively shape not only their own life, but also construct a platform for change in the political framework they live in, allowing them to find and fulfill their participating and constructive role in society.

Die neue Idee

“What do you think when seeing a child or teenager, maybe a punk, on the street with no shelter, but a dog?” Jörg would ask in initial conversations, leading right to the core of what makes his work unique. With his organization KARUNA, he works to change how we perceive, interact with and in turn, broaden development perspectives for children and youth. KARUNA places a particular focus on the youth who have fallen through the cracks of the system and face a rather stigmatized and marginalized life, living on the street.

Most of the estimated 20,000 children or youth living on the street lack some sort of fundamental functioning relationship, which is a crucial component in building self-confidence and self-efficacy. Within the KARUNA “family” and its enabling infrastructure, Jörg allows lasting and stable relationships to develop across different phases (and programs). It’s these relationships that help initiate the healing processes, and break the cycles of violence, trauma and feeling of being the odd one out. This is done by enabling young people to take a position of impact in their own lives, and additionally play a leading role in efforts to better re-shape the societal developments that originally affected them. The first street-youth driven movement of Germany resulted in national and federal politicians listening to and speaking with this marginalized citizen group, and implementing systematic action in the field.

Jörg is strengthening the changemaking role of street-youth, and setting new standards for youth aid programs. He is rebuilding KARUNA as a not for profit social cooperative, and is creating a model built on empowerment and participation with new roles and opportunities for youth and additional stakeholders. Furthermore KARUNA’s youth are challenging a national system of child protection laws and (very segmented) federal youth aid programs, that are struggling with increasing costs, number of cases, and restriction to social services. The methods and institutions created, managed and replicated by KARUNA offer proof that his approach works and influences professional debate and action.

Das Problem

Conservatively estimated, 20,000 children and youth in Germany live on the streets with no or little connection to their original family. Additionally there are 30,000 young adults who also live on the streets (18 – 27 years old). The reasons for this societal reality are broad and complex, but patterns seen in this group of youth are striking. They often suffer from traumas rooted in physical or psychological abuses at home, dropped out of school, are using drugs, or turn to criminal behavior in order to survive. While numbers vary and unofficial numbers are even higher, one development is increasingly recognized, studied and worrying - there are a growing number of children and youth who are not reached by state organized programs. This is despite the fact that the overall public budget for youth support and welfare is continuously growing. Within this paradigm, a parallel system starts to build, where youth anonymously move from emergency shelter to emergency shelter, never registered by public offices. This growing number of “disconnected youth” is Jörgs’ main stakeholder group.

Reasons for focusing on street youth over those in the welfare system are complex, yet indicators can be found in leading paradigms of youth welfare in Germany. Most traditional approaches focus on direct social services and an approach of demand prior to support. In order to receive support (housing, therapy, education) youth have to show a certain behavior. They have to “earn” support. Also, children usually have to experience and vocalize their experience of abuse before being relocated to living arrangements outside of the family. This is an administrative process in conflict with the law, but widely practiced. It is an approach that once seemed comprehensible but is now shedding light into the negative consequences of the system. What is more, it fails to recognize and mobilize the developmental and self-healing potential within the children and youth themselves.

What is true at the individual level is also true at the systemic level. The impact potential of valuing the perspectives and living realities of street children in order to develop solutions, tend to vary from the vary processes that originally affected them. To do so, the prevailing system would have to change how youth programs are managed; meaning no more time-restricted, measure to measure, and continually changing contact persons. Trustful and long-term relationships are then the basis for active engagement of the youth. Also, a publically respected representation of the youth could overcome social prejudice and lead officials to engage with youth in dialogue, rather than talking about them (Many officials today have little trust in their abilities and creativity). It is on this basis that the aim can be to reach street children and youth, get them off the street and to include them in a way that they too can contribute back to society and effectively build a more stable and constructive way of life .

Die Strategie

KARUNA calls Berlin its home. The city has been at the center of Germany’s street children and youth issue, since the reunification of Germany in the early 1990s. Jörg has worked in this field and created an enabling infrastructure and safe space for street children and youth, step-by-step, in order to regain their confidence. Based on this experience and networks built, he is now creating a powerful ecosystem to share his approach and empower children and youth to actively shape not only their own lives, but also the frameworks in which they live.

Having worked and innovated in the system for years, Jörg knows that the time has come.

In KARUNAs first phases Jörg’s work focused on showing that his approach could be replicated at all levels of care. All of his programs thus followed the notion that youth can and should be in the driver’s seat when developing their potential and role in society, with the key being, to encourage stable and lasting relationships. Only through the feeling of belonging--which they often experience for the very first time—do they start to feel safe: a crucial basis for further development. Jörg designed a system of connected institutions and programs, co-created by youth and therefore both accepted by them and meeting their particular needs. The programs are flexible and amorphous in design, so that children and youth are able to skip, repeat or reorganize at every point. Additionally, there are programs for 18 – 30 year olds, since traditional program support often ends at 18, resulting in severe consequences. To highlight the success of KARUNA’s programming, 87% of the youth they reach stay within a process of support even if they have fallbacks. In other institutions, the rate varies between 40 and 60%.

Throughout the years, KARUNA has grown to be a renowned home to many innovative practices. Jörg and his team have created leading institutions, which are now run by independent teams within the KARUNA universe: (1) KARUNA prevents, is the scaled social business within KARUNA, which innovated playful prevention in the fields of smoking and alcohol abuse, and reaches 20,000 children and youth every year. (2) KARUNA Montessori schools/kindergartens offer 700 integrative places for children and youth who have been labeled “non-schoolable” by public authorities. (3) The “Drugstop” is an ambulant go-to place, which serves on average, 1,000 youth per year. The program enables youth to get involved, co-create and experience self-efficacy. One example outcome of Drugstop is the attached fashion label “people.berlin”, which was created, marketed and sold by street children. In fact, due to the success of the program stakeholders have started to take notice. Through means of the “Innovation Fund of the National Ministry of Youth” the label has been adopted by many cities as an impactful way to create a living for street children. Drugstop’s café Pavillion also provides employment possibilities as well as an important touch point to mainstream society;

Being the first partnership of its kind in the field of youth welfare, KARUNA partnered (4) with local hospitals: Case managers from KARUNA will go to hospitals with the children and youth who live on the streets and stay with them throughout their entire stay. Additionally, psychiatrists of the clinic hold counseling hours and therapeutic sessions at Drugstop. The overall results of these partnerships are faster diagnosis and care as well as higher success rates in drug withdrawal. (5) If further stationary care is needed, the therapeutic homes “Hausotterstraße” and “Villa Störtebeker” offer places to continue during the healing process (focus on abuse and drug addiction). KARUNA now works to foster these kinds of partnerships in other places through active lobbying for this constellation.

While building these different programs, Jörg followed the conviction that in order to change youth welfare he needed to show how it could work more effectively. As a result, its models have been the basis for reform nationally and internationally (i.e. in Croatia, Mongolia, Vietnam, Poland and Czech Republic). For the transfer of innovative practices on a national level the “alliance for street children” has been an important instrument. Since its establishment in 2008 Jörg has been the key initiator, continuously including 20 leading youth welfare stakeholders, who jointly look for and act upon synergies in order to move towards shared solutions.

Using these deep insights and experiences, Jörg has moved forward and added another dimension to KARUNA’s work, which proves to be a great lever to the systemic changes he envisions for the youth welfare system, and for the empowerment and participation for street living children. In 2013 Jörg and partners created a model for living, caring and self-representation unseen before. They started to rebuild an abandoned train station in Jamlitz, a village in the country side of former East Germany. The so-called “academy for self-representation and co-creation” offers seminars on statesmanship, democracy, intercultural awareness, communication and conflict training for youth throughout the year. Workshop topics include “My Rights and Responsibilities Living in Germany” or “Living in a Fast and Changing Society – Winners, Losers, and Accelerating Forces”. The program is organized by young people, and participants learn to become speakers, so that they too can facilitate their own seminars. Jamlitz also offers 8-20 places for youth, who can each stay up to 12 months while developing their own self-confidence and broaden their perspective. One of the programs found from this long-term approach was the youth involved initiated “KARUNA – We are one family”. A virtual safe space organized through “What’s App”, covering both administrative and emotional topics. Approximately 300 disadvantaged children and youth joined the community in the last year alone, developing political (self-) confidence and strengthening political education so that youth can better organize and represent.

Prepared in Jamlitz, the first national convention for street children took place in late 2014, bringing more than 120 street children together to work in 12 open space sessions on topics relevant to them. As a result, a catalogue of calls for political change was presented – and later given to the national Minister of Social Welfare and Youth during a personal appointment. In turn, the Minister supported the formation of a group, working with national and federal political representatives in order to explore the feasibility of the proposals. As a result of the first convention the “Permanent Representation of Street Children and Youth” was created; a group of 30 youth, who shape the movement and act as a body for political stakeholders to address in the form of conversation rather than disregard. 30 youth are active in this initiative today. Under patronage and involvement of the national Minister for Youth the 2nd national convention took place in September 2015, building on the success of 2014 and bringing together more than 200 street children and youth from Germany and beyond. It also involved 60 young refugees and 50 Ambassadors from civil society, who were included in the discussion. The convention is important to continue the political work and bring awareness to broader societal problems such as domestic violence, drug addiction, psychological illness and weakness in the education system.

Looking at the organization behind all this, KARUNA today is a non-profit member association with different subsidiaries. It reaches about 1,000 youths a day, handled by 160 full- and part time employees on a budget of roughly 7.3 million Euros a year. Currently Jörg is at a crucial moment, as he is changing the way KARUNA works, shifting towards a solidary social cooperative, enabling all youth involved to formally take stake and experience belonging and co-creation on a new level. Through this re-building process he is able to involve new stakeholders like foundations, companies and private individuals to take responsibility in this field and become part of the solution. Inside the cooperative all members have equal rights and decide upon important matters. Setting up this structure will turn KARUNA into the largest cooperative in the field – leading by example, encouraging the new standard he wants to establish within the youth welfare system.

Die Person

Growing up in the GDR, Jörg noticed the paradoxes of a political system that proclaimed to be democratic at an early age. Not only did he see how his father was sent to prison for protesting against the system, but also how his school mates from cadre families were able to go to university while he was not (even though he had better grades). This sense of injustice only continued to grow when Jörg volunteered at a kid’s club and realized how many kids in need of better social care went there. Being empathetic to their needs as well as his personal interest in the matter, he continued to work with neglected kids, where he eventually took up the position of heading the youth center in East-Berlin. Nevertheless, this work experience was interrupted when Jörg was drafted by the military and exposed to further conflicts and humiliation – this is when he realized that education of democratic values is key for social change. Upon return to the youth club, he started designing and implementing workshops and formats which encouraged youth to take responsibility and design their own programs, while also engaging them in discussions that subversively questioned the democratic ideas the country was supposedly based on.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, Jörg drew on his former work experience to help the growing number of street kids – often drug addicted, and forgotten in the midst of two states growing back into one. In the 1990s Jörg founded KARUNA, and has tried to build the micro-structures that ensure long-lasting relationships with children. Yet, while the political system changed, the larger situation of street children had not, leading Jörg to the realization that unless there was not a change in perspective by society and a reconfiguration of public institutions to acknowledge these street kids as active stakeholders in society, they would never have the chance to reconnect in life. He thus set up the enabling infrastructures so that their voices would not only be heard but that their actions can actually shape their living environments.