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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Community-led ideas for tackling youth violence

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Community Links held a series of community conversations to explore responses to the increase in youth violence.

Community Links, an East London charity, has just published a report into the root causes of youth violence. Community Conversations: Unearthing community-led ideas for tackling youth violence draws its findings from eight community conversations with over 200 people in Newham over a third of whom were young people aged 25 years or younger.

Community Links argues that the findings of their research, based on the voices of experts by experience, can generate a systemic shift in approaches to youth violence. They aregue 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. “Early Action” refers to a task force established by Community Links in 2011 which comprises a group of leaders committed to preventative approaches and drawn from across the sectors – voluntary, statutory, private and academia. 

Findings

The report found that violence is not the exception in the lives of many young people, but something that permeates the social relations and interactions between young people, their families, the police, and the communities around them. It argues that, whilst there must always be individual accountability for premeditated violent crimes, it is vital that policymakers and service providers take into account the wider structural and systemic factors that can, at times, make violence appear to be the only way to survive for young people.

The research found 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 recent increase in incidents of youth violence has engendered a climate of fear across communities, further undermining the emotional resilience of young people and their families. In situations where this lack of resilience is exposed, physical violence can often seem like the only means of resolving a dangerous situation. For some young people, violence has become the first, not a last, resort as a means of self-defence.

Broadly speaking, participants in the Community Conversations were supportive of a shift towards a public health approach to tackling violence. 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.

The 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 forming 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.

The research found that there are multiple structural, systemic, environmental and individual factors that underline London’s challenges with serious youth violence.
Structural factors:

  1. Inequality and austerity
  2. Lack of positive opportunities for young people
  3. Disconnect between rhetoric around youth violence and the reality

Systemic factors:

  1. The lack of a joined-up approach
  2. Young people are seen as the problem
  3. Violence is normalised
  4. Intervention is too late

Environmental factors:

  1. Social media is a catalyst for violence
  2. There is a lack of spaces for young people and the community
  3. Young people operate in a climate of fear

Individual factors:

  1. Challenges to mental health and little investment in emotional resilience
  2. Challenging parent-child relationships
  3. Lack of sense of belonging
  4. Inhibitors on self-expression.

Recommendations

The report makes eleven main recommendations:

  1. Local authorities, the social sector and the private sector must collaborate. London boroughs should encourage forums that co-ordinate activities and services locally, enabling a joined-up, whole community response to youth violence.
  2. 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 through a single, end-to-end contact. 
  3. Mentoring in schools, online mentoring and detached youth work must all form part of the solution. 
  4. Youth workers should be valued as Community Champions who can act early to prevent grooming and gang involvement.
  5. 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. 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 has been suggested to us by young people.
  6. 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. 
  7. 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 this could work.
  8. Creative arts and sports are crucial for engaging young people and setting them on positive pathways for the future. The arts and creative engagement are a powerful diversionary activity for young people. 
  9. 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. 
  10. 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. 
  11. 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.
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