I visited the Ley at the invitation of Chris, who volunteers at the centre; his life now is about as far removed from his past as is possible. The Krays ruled London’s gangland in the 1960s and were imprisoned for murder. Chris was present on the night Jack ‘the hat’ Mcvittie was stabbed to death. His presence and silence that night in naming Reggie Kray as the murderer resulted in Chris being jailed for 15 years.
Whilst in prison Chris, now 78-years-old, reflected on his life and the mistakes he had made. He wondered how he had found himself to be in such a position. Like many other prisoners Chris ‘found’ God. But unlike many others who use this as a cynical ploy to seek freedom early, Chris knew his life had to change and was determined to make that happen. He wanted to make a difference to others. On his release in the early 1980s he began working at the Ley. His voluntary work there includes accompanying people to court and generally giving them the encouragement to try and turn their lives around.
I had read about Chris’s work in his autobiography, The Kray Madness, and contacted him to discuss our mutual interest in helping people to turn their lives around. After a few phone calls, he invited me to Oxfordshire to a look around the Ley. The centre initially struck me as quite regimented, but it has to be that way to encourage the residents to make the efforts to come off drugs and show self discipline and determination. There is a strong emphasis on group discussions, peer pressure and support, openness and self responsibility.
We have different backgrounds and seemingly different areas of interest – me with mental health campaigning and Chris supporting the rehabilitation of people with addiction issues. Yet we both have a desire to use our life experiences to make a positive difference for others.
Chris has an influential role among young men because of his Kray connections, with much recent interest in his life thanks to the Tom Hardy film Legend – Chris advised on the movie. Chris is not volunteering as much at the Ley due to his age, but when he does he accompanies people to court, and generally encourages them to try to transform their lifestyles and behaviours. They see him as a positive role model and he can relate to them.
Supportive networks are vital to recovery and a focus on relationships is the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week next week. Social contact is the best way of breaking down barriers, misunderstanding, and ignorance of mental illness. It is important for us to have good relationships for our own mental health in the sense of talking and listening to each other.
My own work, for example, has been aimed at encouraging men to seek help early for mental health issues and self-harm. My most recent media advisory role was advising the storyline involving the ‘macho’ character Zak Dingle in TVs Emmerdale during his depression storyline.
Tragically we have very high rates of self-harm among young men in my native north east. Much of this is a consequence of the damaging ‘Big boys don’t cry’ attitude among men, and the damaging misperception that men expressing their feelings is a sign of weakness. This is something Chris would relate to in his own work.
Challenging stigma and addressing feelings of shame is something Chris and I share as a common goal.
Through social media, Facebook, and social contact, we are both starting to chip away at the damaging defensive layering common to all tough guys. We are trying to convince men who think they are somehow immune from mental illness that nothing could be further from the truth.
We have discussed the idea of a joint project, perhaps a book, to try to reach out to men in particular who self harm and feel stigmatised because of having mental illness. Together we are determined to make a difference; we have more in common then we think.
The fate of children in care in Scotland has recently his the headlines; care leavers need more support, say experts, if their life chances are to improve. And today Michael Gove has criticised the care home system in England. But what if some vulnerable children could be prevented from going into care in the first place? In a joint guest post, Daniel* and the support worker who helped him describe how a Scottish community-based alternative to custody and secure care helped him turn his life around.
Daniel*, 21, describes how he was supported by the charity Includem:
“I don’t even know if I would be alive had it not been for Includem. I was drinking all the time and taking drugs, valium, cannabis, ecstasy. I was fighting a lot with my mum and other people and ‘doing turns’ – theft, breaking and entering offences – to get money to spend on food and clothes. Things started to go wrong when I left primary school and when I was about 12.
I had a bad relationship with my mum – we argued all the time – and I was constantly getting thrown out of the house. I had nowhere to go so ended up on the streets. I was always in front of children’s panels and going into temporary care and then home again.
I wasn’t happy and could see that this [drinking and taking drugs] wasn’t the right thing to do but it was what was happening in my life at the time. I felt guilty about what I was doing. I wanted things to change but didn’t now how to make changes. I wanted things to be normal and to have a normal family life.
A social worker referred me to Includem; I worked with a few project workers until I clicked with my project worker who became the person who I felt I could work with. We spoke about goals and how to get there and how I was worthy of a better life.
My worker helped me when things were really bad at home; I could call the helpline at any time and Includem would come out and talk to me and my mum and make it ok for me to stay at home. They would meet with me at times when no one else would be able to – at the weekend, when I needed them I would contact the helpline and they would be there.
Includem helped me stay at home and they helped me get into training and never gave up on me. I respected them and they respected me. I felt hopeful that things could be different. They helped with all sorts of things – planning how to spend money on food and clothes to helping with how to deal with bad situations at home and how to get training to help to get a job.
They were there through everything – even during the night – when I lived at home, when I was homeless and then moving into my own place. They made me think that I was worthwhile.
Before I would just go out and steal things to sell so that I could buy new clothes. I learnt how to save money and how to spend it on food so that I would last. They taught me how to deal with situations with my mum – how to walk away from violent situations and how to stay calm.
Things changed for me because my worker listened and respected me so I trusted and listened to my worker. I got on with her and established a relationship – I started to feel hopeful that things could change. Includem listened and didn’t give up on me, even at the start when I didn’t want to work with them.
Now I live with my daughter and girlfriend and I have my own home. I try hard to be a good dad that my daughter can be proud of – I want her to feel loved and cared for and safe. I want a routine for my family and my daughter and I am trying to find a job.”
Karen McCulloch, Includem project worker, on how she supported Daniel:
“Daniel was referred to Includem at the age of 15 due to his drug and alcohol misuse, anger, aggression, and difficult family relationships. He was a persistent high tariff offender and was facing homelessness due to a chaotic relationship with his mother.
When we meet a young person for the first time we listen to what they have to say and let them know what we can offer. We talk through their lives and identify the areas that aren’t working the way they should and start to look at how these could get better. We identity goals and talk to them about A Better Life – a unique toolkit that we use. We let them know we will meet them on a frequent basis and that we will plan normal social activities where we can meet and talk.
We let them know we put them first and they can trust us – that we want the best for them. Often this is a first for young people who haven’t had proper care in their lives or someone to talk to and look out for them.
We gave Daniel intensive support in managing his anger, including practical support on issues such as how to remove himself from volatile situations. Daniel’s relationship with his mother was difficult, and Includem worked with her to set clear and consistent boundaries within the home.
Daniel and his mother used Includem’s 24 hour helpline, not only at times of crisis but for advice and support. Includem supported Daniel for whilst he was on an electronic tag, a period in secure care for his own safety, and voluntary transitional support into adulthood. Throughout this time, Includem supported and liaised with Daniel’s mother to maintain their relationship.
Daniel didn’t gel with his first project worker so we changed workers to someone that Daniel clicked with. Our model is relationship based therefore we are flexible and will try different workers with different young people for the right relationship to be established.
My first visit to meet Daniel was on a Friday night when Daniel was out with his care home – Daniel had none of his own clothes so I went to his home and picked these up and took them to him. We visited him throughout the weekend and supported him. We talked about ways to change things – and assured Daniel that his life could change with the right support and direction. We put a plan in place that we would work through together in order to meet outcomes.
We started to see real changes. We taught Daniel to listen to his “inner speak” – the voice within that said he deserved a better life and that he could make it happen. When he started to realise that he did deserve better, and how to achieve it, things started to change.
Daniel used the 24/7 helpline regularly as a support – he would phone if he had been thrown out of the house or was in trouble. He would call if he was arguing with his mother – on one occasion an Includem worker would be speaking to Daniel on the phone in one room, another would be speaking to his mother on the phone in another room and a worker would be driving to the house to help calm the situation face to face.
Daniel would forget basic things such as when to eat as sometimes he was living between people’s houses – we would remind him that this was essential and give him practical support on what to eat and how to budget his money. We would plan our contact visits with him around when he would receive money and would take him to the supermarket and show him how to spend the money wisely and make it last.
Daniel moved into his own home under a mainstream tenancy at 19 (he is now 21), and is in a settled relationship and doing well. He has created his own family – he and his girlfriend have a baby, and there is no social work involvement with the family at all. Daniel has accrued no court charges or pending court charges for fouryears. He’s very keen to get a job. His partner is looking to start college and his main aim is to build on his progress and continue to provide a happy and loving environment for his child and partner.
We have a “scaffold of support” in place – a team of three – a project worker, an assistant project worker and a mentor – assigned to each young person so that they can build links and relationships with more than one person. Every service we provide is unique for that young person – we fit our service to them, not the other way round.
Among our successful outcomes is the fact that 90% of young people we worked with in a project with Strathclyde police reduced their violent offending. And with 72% of referrals from the Clackmannanshire area, Includem prevented family or community placement breakdown.
The biggest challenge is usually at the outset when young people are wary of accepting help and opening up about issues. Another challenge is actually meeting up with young people on planned visits at the start– often they don’t turn up for planned meetings and we have to go looking for them.
You learn to be creative in situations like this – finding solutions to challenges such as this and others – and speaking to colleagues for advice and ideas in order to make contact. We constantly refer to our A Better Life toolkit for support and advice.
Includem operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We accept any referrals via social work departments, courts and police. We never turn any vulnerable young person away – no matter what their situation is and how chaotic it may be.
‘Stickability’ is a word we have coined – it’s a key part of our service and is at the heart of what we do – we are persistent, we won’t give up on a young person and we will stick with them at all times during the support we give them.”
“Even though we’re not involved in gangs,” the young man from Hackney tells me, “the way people look at you just puts you down. No matter what you do, you’ll always have that bad name of a black kid from Hackney, so some people think, ‘if people are going to see me like that anyway, I might as well be bad.’”
Last summer’s riots, which began a year ago today, hardened my resolve to write an uncompromising book, British Voices, about our country from the perspective of its people. The comment above comes from a teenager I met in east London last August, not long after the end of the unrest.
The riots felt like an expression of something we had swept under the carpet. It seemed to me that failing to address the way that people in the country were feeling – including the sense that ordinary people’s voices often went unheard – would simply leave those feelings to fester once again. I wanted to approach the widest range of people possible and no matter they said, would present their opinions faithfully.
I started my research three weeks after the end of the riots. One of the first places I visited was Hackney, the scene of some of the worst trouble, and a lot of discussion focused on stereotypes of young people and a lack of opportunities.
“There’s a lot of talent in Hackney,” one young man suggested, “but there are no opportunities to uplift yourself. We’re left stranded; we have to fend for ourselves; so, if you see people with the nice car, you say, ‘I want some of that’. Our generation, we like fancy stuff but we can’t afford it – the riots were an opportunity to get things you know you couldn’t otherwise get.”
Was it worth the risk of a criminal record? “If there are no opportunities anyway,” he replied, “you might as well risk it.”
There was also anger towards the police. “They racially discriminate,” another young man said. “They search the black kids and leave the whites. They smashed my brother’s head against a windscreen, pushed me up against a wall, all for no reason. That’s why people rioted – they enjoyed having power over the police. They were saying, ‘If we wanted to take over, we could.’”
“It was great how youths were united by the riots,” one young woman said. “Gangs you wouldn’t expect to mix going up against the police together. It was great to see such spirit.” She went on: “It was wrong to burn people’s houses and family businesses, but the big shops all had insurance so what does it matter? I don’t see how it’s different from MPs and their expenses.”
I asked her whether the expenses scandal justified violence and looting. “No,” she said, “but it sets a bad example.”
It was an argument I heard again and again; indeed a sense of disillusionment, and alienation ran throughout the entire three months I spent travelling around England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. I went as far south as Lizard Point in Cornwall and as far north as the Shetland Isles, talking to over a thousand ordinary people along the way. They were disillusioned with different things and expressed their feelings in different ways, but the feeling remained.
As I travelled, the anger in the wake of the riots seemed to fade. It was replaced by a sadness, a sense that for all the social, economic and technological steps forward the country had made, a lot had been lost along the way: a sense of community, trust and responsibility to one another.
The riots may prove to be a one-off, a few days of violence consigned to history; and even if there is trouble again, the police will be better prepared to respond. But none of the underlying issues have changed since the unrest began a year ago. Indeed, since then the economy has deteriorated and national institutions – the media, the police, the banks and politics – have all continued to take a battering. Surveyed around the Queen’s Jubilee, 75% of respondents to a Yougov poll said that community spirit had got worse in Britain, chiming with my own findings.
I came home determined to use the lessons I learnt to found a new charitable trust, The Community Trust, aiming to address this issue. My confidence comes from the most powerful lesson from my journey: that, in spite of all the changes in our society and the challenges we face, the kindness and decency of the British people lives on.
I also picked up some valuable lessons on the types of initiative that the new trust might support to harness that kindness and decency and to build a stronger society.
First, projects bringing together people from different backgrounds, building social bonds, fostering trust and breaking down barriers between communities. Second, initiatives enabling people to help each other to navigate their way in an increasingly complex, difficult world, building the skills, networks and personal attributes needed to get through and to thrive.
Small but important initiatives such as these – and the willingness of ordinary people to support them – could foster a greater sense of community and citizenship in Britain. That might not solve our problems, but might help us to face them together, rather than turning in on ourselves.
“We see 12-year-olds holding knives. They are doing it in daylight.” That’s the shocking reality of gang membership on south London’s Rockingham estate, as witnessed by 18-year-old Tanvir Hussain.
On my way to meet Tanvir and his friends, I pick up the Evening Standard. It carries a couple of stories on gang-related crime, including a heart-wrenching plea for an end to the violence from the mother of a 15-year-old boy stabbed to death while out on his bike. It’s a reminder, if any were needed, of the terrible impact of knife crime in our capital city.
Last year, more than 2,000 young people were injured by a knife in London and south of the river the problem is particularly bad, with Lambeth and Southwark last year recording the highest number of knife crimes in the capital. Earlier this month the Met launched a new drive to target gang crime.
For youngsters on the Rockingham, a spate of nine knife assaults three years ago was the final straw. They decided to come together to warn others about the grim consequences of gang culture and have since produced two films and, most recently, a hard-hitting poster campaign on knife crime.
“We’ve been affected by knife crime – we are telling a true story, it comes from the heart and it’s not like something you see on TV,” says 18-year-old Shabir Ali. “We just really felt enough was enough and we wanted to get the message out.” What’s so impressive about the youngsters’ work, through their Faces in Focus Boys’ Group, is that they have led the project every step of the way, inspired by their own experiences – and in some cases their own brushes with the law.
They are aiming their message at the youngsters, often only just at secondary school, who get involved with gangs to try and look cool. They’ve run sessions in schools to discuss gang violence and significantly have also opened a dialogue with the police about how policing methods such as stop and search can fuel community tensions.
But although the project is very much young person-led, it’s brought together a range of partners across local government, housing, voluntary organisations and the private sector. They include the Southwark-based charity Faces in Focus, Peabody Housing Trust, which has supported the work as part of its cross-London Staying Safe anti-crime project and Poached Creative, the social enterprise which brought its design skills to the table. The launch of the drive was hosted by campaigning charity Art Against Knives last month.
Khalis Miah, who helped the youngsters get their ideas off the ground after approaching them through the Connexions service three years ago, says their experience is a positive one on many levels. “Some were in court themselves,” he says. “But they have turned their lives around – they have been doing something positive for the community instead of getting into trouble.” The pay-off projects like these can have in terms of building confidence, leadership and employment skills is important too.
But with young people’s services hit hard by the cuts, support is crucial from social landlords like Peabody, which is currently supporting nine different anti-crime campaigns under the Staying Safe banner.
“Our approach is working with young people, not patronising them but working with them on a professional level,” says Lajaune Lincoln, Peabody’s Staying Safe and special projects manager. “Not only are they putting out an important message on crime, but it is also productive for them, improving their skills and helping with employers.” The members of the Faces in Focus Boys’ Group are continuing to work hard to get their message across – including to London Mayor Boris Johnson, who, they say, has not yet responded to their offer to discuss ways of tackling knife crime.
“We just want to get the word out,” says Shabir. “Knife crime is still going up and we want people to know it does have consequences.”
Season’s greetings from The Social Issue – to mark the jollities, here’s a snapshot of some of the upbeat posts and pictures about people, projects and places featured over the last 12 months. This festive pick is by no means the best of the bunch – the inspiring stories below are included as they’re accompanied by some interestin and images and almost fit with a festive carol, if you allow for a little the poetic and numerical licence…
Very huge thanks to the Social Issue’s small band of regular and guest bloggers, all contributors, supporters, readers and everyone who’s got in touch with story ideas and feedback. See you in January.
On the first day of Christmas, the blogosphere brought to me:
The contrast with the grainy images of missile-hurling, pickpocketing young “hoodies” from the summer riots could not be greater. These stunningly shot and beautifully-lit portraits showcase East London’s young creative talent and form part of a new exhibition opening on Thursday.
The project focuses on young people from diverse backgrounds, each involved in some sort of creative enterprise, to highlight local talent.
As Kayla, who has blogged on this site before, explains in the story that accompanies her image (the first one featured in this post): “People feel like, because you live in Hackney you’re destined for doom, but I love the people, it’s just so diverse. I do think there is stuff to be proud of..This next year for me is about really getting stuck in media – giving young people a chance to experience media how I have, and giving them the opportunity to express themselves within media. I want to help as many young people as possible, and create a pathway for the next generation. I’m having a baby this year so my child’s gonna be in the next generation in Hackney, and I want to make it a better Hackney for when my child grows up.”
You can read more each young person’s story here by clicking on their name.
Youth-led charity Art Against Knives (AAK), which began in reaction to the unprovoked stabbing of art student Oliver Hemsley, is curating and promoting the exhibition. AAK aims to reduce the causes of knife crime through youth-led arts initiatives providing an alternative to violent gang culture. The hope with the FYI show is to connect creative industry and Hackney’s young talent, giving the young people’s work a platform in the East End’s thriving art scene.
A week-long exhibition will be at The Rebel Dining Society’s 30 Vyner Street HQ, E2 9DQ from 6 – 13 October. Site-specific displays based on the FYI exhibition open for a month on the 6 October. Admission is free.
* For more photography from Agenda, see the website http://www.agendaphotography.co.uk
It’s as much a symbol of antisocial behaviour as hoodies drinking alcopops at bus stops; on the corner of most streets in the middle of most neighbourhoods in the UK, you’ll usually find a gang of beanie-hatted teens, posturing on their bikes before racing up the pavement and causing the locals no end of distress.
But in the small community of Blaina, in Blaenau, Gwent, a deprived area where alcohol and drug addiction is common and where young people have little else to do but get into trouble, a group of teenagers on bikes have proved the exception to this stereotype. They boys have turned their cycling from an activity that caused local havoc into a force for social good.
The seven young people had faced problems at school, some had had run-ins with the police and all of them hung around the town centre on their bikes. The boys, recognising their problems stemmed partly from boredom and a lack of local facilities, heard about the Prince’s Trust and applied for money from the organisation’s community cash awards scheme. With match funding from the Welsh Assembly Government, Buzz Bikes was born in October 2008.
The outdoor cycling club offers a diversion with bicycle maintenance training, health and safety training and organised cycle rides. The group has designed its own logo, now emblazoned on hoodies and T-shirts, and the youngsters runs a small shop in town hiring and repairing bicycles; if the local police knock on their doors now, it is to hire a Buzz Bike (the boys have loaned bikes to local officers).
Around 50 young people now belong to Buzz Bikes while the core founding members have learned skills including negotiating, budgeting and working in a team. None of the original members has been in trouble since starting the scheme.
The founding members now want to give something back to the charity that’s supported them so in October this year, they plan to do the Prince’s Trust Adventure Challenge to the Himalayas. All team members have to raise £3,700 each for The Prince’s Trust in order to take part in the challenge – hiking, biking and white-water rafting 286 kilometres in seven days. The money raised will go back to The Prince’s Trust to help more young people.
I heard about the project earlier this year when it won the Prince’s Trust Community Impact Award, sponsored by Balfour Beatty, to recognise the positive contribution of young people to the community. I was reminded about it while watching a recent BBC story about the Bike Works project in America to teach children who might otherwise be on the streets how to build and maintain bikes. The project has been a runaway success but, with public services scarce, it is a victim of that success – increasingly finding itself providing emergency care by offering children food, or a place to sleep, rather than concentrating on its central aim.
As Bike Works’ director, Kitty Heite told the BBC: “So many kids are falling through the gaps, and it’s the responsibility of society to help them..We aren’t social services, and we could do so much more with Bike Works, with the fun thing, if we weren’t having to do that. Making the voluntary sector responsible for the glue in people’s lives is a little scary.”
Heite’s words stress an emerging theme in the current cuts climate; that an over-reliance on community-based enterprises might backfire and distract organisations from their founding princples. I’m not suggesting that the Buzz Bikes teenagers are expected to (or could) provide a social safety net if local public services decline, but I do hope that their core aims – what the American Bike Works director calls “the fun thing”, the diversion caused by an interesting activity – will long continue.
A year ago it would have been pointless painting a mural on the wall of Hutton Hall; it would have been covered in grafitti within a day. But after the building was transferred to community group Comm:pact by Birmingham city council in April, youngsters treat it – and its new exterior artwork – with pride. Read about how to make community asset transfer work in my Guardian piece today.
A powerful image of a black teenager, eyes downcast and his bare arm criss-crossed with knife scars, is among the striking images in a photographic exhibition about the UK’s gangland culture.
The photograph of ex-gang member Jean Claude Dagrou, who was scarred during a fight between rival south London gangs in his late teens, is part of Another Lost Child, which opened at the Photofusion Gallery in Brixton, south London, earlier this month. Read about it in Saba Salman’s Society Guardian piece today.