Home secretary Jacqui Smith recently sparked controversy when she said she felt unsafe in Hackney at night. Given the north east London borough’s reputation for drug and gun crime some may see her point, but there’s another side to the area. Cheap rents and empty industrial spaces have attracted world-class designers, musicians and artists to the area and it is figures from these communities who are now inspiring some young offenders.
This April sees the Hackney Resettlement and Aftercare Provision (RAP), a Youth Justice Board-funded programme run by the council, launch three new rehabilitation courses in fashion, music and web design for young offenders. The schemes will involve “professional mentors” from each field teaching the young people about their businesses.
One fashion designer is keen to become a mentor and RAP is currently recruiting others for both the fashion and the web design schemes. The music programme is a repeat of a previous scheme run by RAP in collaboration with music training and industry support charity Rising Tide, which finished last year, and the new plans have come about due to its success.
RAP manager Carita Austin says the schemes are about raising offenders’ aspirations. “You are trying to get the young person to see themselves in that position [of the professional mentor] and to understand the journey to get there. You want to inspire them,” she says.
The music scheme, which ran from last April until December and cost £20,000, involved nine young offenders getting advice from various music industry mentors such as Gregory Sewell, aka Spooky DJ, who has a similar background to the young people.
Sewell ran mentoring sessions with aspiring MCs, rappers and producers and helped them to record tracks for a grime album, entitled No Limitz, which was launched at the end of the programme.
The scheme’s results are impressive. All the participants completed the course, two are now studying music and none have re-offended. Austin says the young people have more important things on their minds now.
“The young people are different. They haven’t got time for the guy on the street who wants to have an altercation because they are in a different place. They have got direction,” she says.
Rui, a young person who completed the course, agrees with Austin: “It’s given me confidence about myself I used to hang out with my friends and get into trouble because I was bored. I’ve got this now so I don’t need to do that anymore.
“I used to have lots of arguments with people but now I just get on with stuff and don’t worry about what people think.”
Many of the young people’s lyrics were negative and Austin explains how a counsellor worked with the group to challenge their views. “We did some work on their identity and culture. We wanted them to look at the message that they were making from the music and look at themselves and think how they wanted people to see them,” she says.
This also involved a trip to the West End branch of Tommy Hilfiger, through a contact known to the project, where the young people were given a large discount.
“That was the first time some had gone into the West End,” says Austin. “They were saying ‘we don’t belong in here’ and we were like ‘yes you do’.”
It is a common criticism among youth offending teams that social workers wash their hands of young people once they have offended. Austin says that young offenders are misunderstood in some quarters and that their offences should be viewed as mistakes which can be rectified rather than simply deserving punishment.
She says that having senior managers with high aspirations for young offenders is essential. “When I say I have this idea and I’m really keen to do this programme it’s not met with ‘that’s a bit ambitious’ [from senior managers] because if you work with young people you need to be ambitious,” she says. “I say to a young person ‘you have come out of custody and now I expect the best of you’. That has not been met with ‘she’s a bit over the top’.”
Hackney’s youth offending plan
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