Between June and October 2018, Community Links hosted eight Community Conversations on serious youth violence. These events were designed to encourage open and frank conversation within our local community in order to gather feedback and proposals on the causes of, and possible solutions to, youth violence across London. Today, we can share the key findings of our Community Conversations, along with policy recommendations for local and national government, communities, and the social and private sectors.
Our Conversations were hosted with a wide range of partners in Newham including the Renewal Programme, the University of East London (UEL) and the East London Citizens Organisation (TELCO). Over the course of the Conversations, we spoke with over 200 people in Newham, over a third of whom were young people aged 25 and under. We would like to say a big ‘thank you’ to all who took part and shared their thoughts.
Community Links believes that the findings of this research, based on the voices of the real experts in our community, can generate a systemic shift in approaches to youth violence. We believe that youth violence cannot be treated solely as an issue of criminality and enforcement. Instead, a public health response to this issue must aim to take an Early Action approach, involve the whole community, and work from the ground up.
You can read the full report here.
Why we did this project
The shocking scenes that have been transmitted across newspaper pages, television screens and social media in the past 18 months mark a noticeable increase in serious youth violence. It seems like each week has brought a new tragedy: at the time of writing in mid-December, there had been 125 violent deaths in London in 2018, 72 of which were fatal stabbings. Since the report was completed, there have been a further 13 reported murders in and around the capital.
Yet too often, these stories are forgotten as soon as they leave the front pages. Many questions have been asked about whether drugs, gangs or music are to blame, but not enough time has been spent listening to young people and communities about what is happening to them.
By April 2018, it was clear that this situation demanded a response. Two serious incidents of youth violence affected us directly at Community Links last year. One young volunteer tragically lost her life, and another young person’s life was saved only through the quick actions of our youth workers after he was stabbed outside one of our community hubs. These incidents prompted us to act, and the report we present here is the result of that work. We have seen not only the traumatic impact of such violence on those directly involved, but also the fear and anxiety it engenders in the wider community.
Whilst Community Links is by no means the only organisation looking for answers, we have always felt that we are well placed to understand the relationship between government policy and local impact. As an organisation rooted in our local communities in Newham and East London, we believe that the only appropriate response to youth violence is one that involves the whole community and works from the ground up.
Our findings suggest that many young people growing up in London today suffer multiple forms of structural disadvantage (e.g. poverty) and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which take a traumatic toll on their emotional resilience. The combined effects of poverty, austerity and cuts to youth services have closed down opportunities for young people. 37% of children in London live in poverty, but that figure is as high as 43% for boroughs such as Newham and Tower Hamlets in East London (End Child Poverty, 2018). Cuts to child protection and family services have made it increasingly difficult for local authorities to meet the safeguarding needs of vulnerable young people. Recent increases in violent crime (along with the easy accessibility of graphic, violent images through the news and social media) exacerbate this climate of fear in which young people do not feel safe.
This climate of fear further undermines the emotional resilience of young people and their families. Bullying, ACEs, poverty, sexual abuse, grooming and exploitation can all take a heavy toll on the ability of young people to interact with society in a positive way. In situations where this lack of resilience is exposed, physical violence can often seem like the only means of resolving a dangerous situation.
Broadly speaking, participants in our Community Conversations were supportive of a shift towards a public health approach to tackling violence. This reinforces the view that violence should be treated as a widespread social issue that requires the involvement of communities in a systemic, multi-agency solution. Such an approach would move away from seeing violence solely as an enforcement issue, and would invest resources in preventative measures, Early Action and community spaces.
Our research also suggests that there is an enabling and capacity-building role for “anchor organisations” (e.g. charities, community centres, housing associations) to play in communities. By helping to form better relationships between individuals, families and the state, these anchor institutions can plot a path towards a multifaceted, place-based approach to serious youth violence, unearthing local community-led ideas and generating buy-in across the public, private and social sectors.
Based on the feedback from our Community Conversations, we believe that the following recommendations will help local authorities, policymakers and communities to begin tackling serious youth violence.
- City Hall and London boroughs should work together to develop forums that co-ordinate activities and services locally, enabling a joined-up, whole community response to youth violence.
- Public services should work in partnership with the social sector to develop an advocacy strategy that would enable multiple agencies to engage with young people. Dedicated advocates who work with young people on a 1-1 basis and help them to interact with these agencies would reduce the pressure on vulnerable young people and act as the focal point for a multi-agency intervention.
- Mentoring in schools, online mentoring and detached youth work must all form part of the solution. Young people’s mental health across the UK is a growing concern, but positive guidance, role models and opportunities for expression can set young people on positive pathways.
- Youth workers should be valued as Community Champions who can act early to prevent grooming and gang involvement. However, they need the appropriate support, training and counselling to be able to do this job safely and effectively. As the Youth Violence Commission argues, youth workers should be valued in a similar way to social workers.
- It is important to begin rebuilding trust between the police, communities and young people. It is the perception that police use of Stop and Search powers is already heavy-handed and potentially discriminatory. Holding Stop and Search workshops, where young people and police officers meet to have a frank dialogue about the motivations, thoughts and fears they experience during a search, is one option for rebuilding trust that young people suggested to us.
- Organisations across sectors should collaborate to develop Family Hubs, with support from corporate partners and employers, which combine multiple family support services and employment opportunities into a single location. Safe spaces such as these with co-located services are vital to ending the negative, sometimes violent, associations that young people can have with public services and would focus on a family-centred approach to preventing structural and physical violence.
- Gather evidence around successful examples of providing progressive alternatives to pupil exclusions or prison sentences for low-level offences. Initiatives such as the Glasgow VRU, SPAC Nation and Love 146’s “Immediate Safety Plan” suggest some models for how offenders can be rehabilitated and young people removed from risk.
- Creative arts and sports are crucial for engaging young people and setting them on positive pathways for the future. There are numerous examples of where arts and creative engagement are driving social change, particularly in theatre and education (e.g. Roundabout), music-making settings (e.g. Spitalfields Music Endless Imagination, Art Against Knives) and participatory Visual Arts work (e.g. Artichoke).
- Strategies for tackling serious youth violence cannot be top-down, one-size fits all approaches. As far as possible, they should be rooted in local social infrastructure and the communal dynamics of each place. In particular, it is important to realise that chicken shops, schools, youth clubs, bus stops, libraries, the home, and online are all spaces in which young people socialise and learn. At present, these spaces represent certain risks to young people; but they also represent opportunities to intervene early to reduce risk.
- Use the Community Conversations model to begin listening to communities and understand how a genuinely community-led approach can be developed in violence hot spots across the UK.
- Change the narrative. All sectors of society need to stop reinforcing the idea that young people are the problem. Communities should promote opportunities to support potential and talent. We need to work together to properly encourage and celebrate the achievements of young people.
We are keen to take the findings of this research forward and to begin generating change on this important issue. Community Links has already begun on a partnership project to deliver positive messages to young people about their futures and the risks of carrying a knife. We will also be hosting meetings and events with our local community, leaders and organisations across sectors in the coming months to take this work forward. If you are interested in taking part in these events then please get in touch by emailing Daniel.Willis@community-links.org.
This work wouldn’t have been possible without the support of our project funders and partners. We would like to thank Barrow Cadbury Trust, Trust for London, CVC Capital Partners and UBS for supporting our research.