I was unfortunate enough to be present at the New Year’s day shooting in Birmingham three years ago that left two young girls dead and the local community in shock. I was already working with young people involved in gangs. But for me that day was life-changing and it made me realise that young people needed to do more themselves to stop the violence and engage the disenfranchised in our society.
After the shootings it was a real media frenzy and we had more ministerial visits than you could count. Of course the spotlight soon moved off us but since then a lot
has happened in the city to tackle the whole issue of socially excluded young people. Yet so much more needs to be done. Birmingham has some of the highest
levels of deprivation in the country. We all know that poverty breeds crime but it also breeds the wrong sort of entrepreneur.
Many young people in the city who turn to crime have a lot of business and entrepreneurial skills – it’s just that they misdirect them. My project works with many young
people engaged in crime. Young people in the inner city are so focused on survival they are not able to develop. And limited minds create limited people. It should be
obvious that if a young person doesn’t have a roof over their head they are not going to be thinking about going to college. If agencies don’t look at these basic issues then
their work could be a waste of time.
My personal experience is that however much you are struggling, there are no services out there to support you unless you have some sort of learning difficulty. I had
to give up my college course to go and get a job to support myself. No wonder some people turn to crime – those who take the moral high ground and judge them should
reflect on what it’s like to have nothing. And now, with my project, it’s a constant fight to get the budget to enable us to work with young people who clearly are in such desperate need. They are labelled as socially excluded and they have no voice.
Agencies need to speak to the people who are causing the problems because they have the answers too. Services should be adapting to cater for their needs and asking
them “what would help and support you?”
Young people lose hope because they feel society has written them off – their attitude is “we might just as well live up to the label they have given us”.
We are happy to work with other agencies and wish they were more willing to engage with this group and adapt services accordingly. In fact it is the church that has seemed most willing to do that – religion does play a big part in many of these young people’s lives, believe it or not. I would like to see a lot more in the way of developing peer mentoring – give young people the skills to act as intermediary with the most excluded. Also I wish there was more to try and encourage young people
to get involved with the community – but please avoid the dreaded word “volunteering”.
In our experience that usually means picking up rubbish in the park. You have to give people something a bit more exciting than that which is where developing entrepreneurial skills comes in. But if there’s no route into community work that way then people are going to give up on it and go off and do a 9 to 5 job
– or no job at all.
We all have an entrepreneurial element in us and we can use it in any way we choose. We have something to contribute and so do these disillusioned young people if only society is willing to try and engage with them. One of the reasons that young people join gangs is because they feel disenfranchised and ignored by the wider community.
We have to look at sustainable and innovative ways forward rather than locking up more and more young people. Yes not locking up criminals is a risk – but
it’s a calculated risk and one worth taking because we have tried a hardline approach and it just hasn’t worked.
Justice Williams set up and volunteers for the Inner City Creative Media Group, a social enterprise for young people in the West Midlands. Read her story and her own
experience of prison at www.thesite.org/community/reallife/truestories/fromprisontoprojectleader