Divisions and resentment between people with different ethnic identities in Peterborough exploded in 2002 with the murder of white teenager Ross Parker by three Asians.
Against this backdrop of racial tension, the Unity youth project was set up by the council’s youth service department to help young people in the city’s poorest areas appreciate their similarities, not differences.
One of Unity’s key schemes is Peacemaker, which brings together peer leaders from various social groups in the city to meet each other. Project co-ordinator Jason Horne says that, even after just two days of team-building exercises and getting to know one another, a big change can be made to attitudes.
“People from different areas do not cross certain boundaries, so don’t normally see each other, apart from in the town centre,” Horne says. “By the end of the project, friendships are developed. [White teenagers] can go back and say, ‘I’ve spent the weekend with mates from [predominately Asian] Gladstone and they’re alright. They’ve got the same issues; the same shit. We’ve just never had a chance to speak to them before.”
The idea is simple but effective because of the project’s penetration into the community. The police and youth offending service both advise who should be chosen to take part, as do – more crucially – youths who have been through Unity themselves and know the people in the area.
It is this approach and the popular schemes it has on offer that are the key to Unity’s success – the project has just won a youth services award, backed by the Children’s Workforce Development Council.
Ricki Ulliot and Shaahid Latif are both proof the scheme works. Having started off as teenage gang leaders at war, Ulliot says he joined the project because the conflict was becoming increasingly violent. “There was an Asian website called Peterborough’s Pakis Most Wanted, and it had my photograph and address on the website, so it went quite deep.” A subsequent hammer attack by Latif’s friends on Ulliot ended in court.
The project allowed the two to meet and talk for the first time. “We spent the first evening walking around talking about why we didn’t like each other,” Ulliot says. “And it wasn’t because he was Asian; it was because we never talked to each other. Within the first night we’d pretty much resolved six years of conflict.”
Javed Ahmed, locality manager for Peterborough youth services, chased Ulliot to join the project for a long time because he knew he could carry a positive message back to his friends.
“It’s an evidence-driven project,” Ahmed says. “It’s not just working with young people from across the city. What we want to do is identify young people who are involved, or are at risk of becoming involved. What we’re looking for is peer-leader influence, so they follow to make a difference.
“We’ve got to be where it’s happening. It has so much more impact when an older youngster who’s been through the project explains it to someone younger who may be involved in some of the tensions.”
However, giving youths the responsibility to effect change does put them under pressure. Despite being the role model for many younger kids in the community, Ulliot has suffered attacks for his involvement with the Peacemaker scheme: “I’ve had a few poppets [fights] with white lads calling me a Paki lover,” he says. “I got attacked and got my jaw broke because of it.” Undeterred, Ulliot is now applying for positions as a youth worker in the city.
In addition to the three separate peacemaker projects, the scheme’s football team – trained by coaches from Peterborough United – has been a roaring success, recently winning a tournament in the Netherlands in which 400 teams took part. Ahmed says the team itself proves the success of Unity, attracting interest from youngsters right across the city.
“It’s not dictated by anyone high up,” says Ahmed. “If I just said ‘yeah, we’re doing some training in Peterborough in the local community centre’ I’m not sure there would be the take-up with some of the harder-toreach people. But no matter whether you are black, Asian or white, the idea of going to Holland is ‘wow’.”
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This article appeared in the 24 January issue under the headline “Peace on the streets”