The ability to fully understand young black men is crucial to ensuring they remain engaged with society. Camilla Pemberton talks to Ian Joseph, who has helped former gang members into careers
(Picture caption: social workers need a better understanding of young black men, says Eastside’s Ian Joseph (centre) with Capital Man project users Anthony Wright (left) and Razak Farley)
The key to diverting young, black boys from gang membership lies in giving them better role models and providing social workers with the methods and tools to engage with them. That is the belief of Ian Joseph, action researcher at Eastside Young Leaders Academy in Newham, east London.
Joseph has been researching interventions at Eastside for the past three years and already the project has seen former gang members go on to successful City careers. “For a community group that is referred some of the most troubled boys we are seeing excellent results,” he says.
Along with an educational psychologist, Joseph and the team at Eastside “work with boys to identify the routes that will help each, as an individual, to change his life”.
Joseph doesn’t shy away from talking plainly about the issue as he sees it, declaring, “there is a longstanding issue regarding black boys and their behaviour which causes great problems for teachers, social workers, the police and youth offending teams.”
He is convinced this behaviour must be understood in order for it to be changed, and researched so it can be understood.
A former researcher for the Youth Justice Board, Joseph works directly with the young people who take part in his studies and who he is trying to change. His research is anthropological, and he is keen that social workers follow suit.
“Social workers need an understanding of the language of the black community and of young, black males in particular. We need to understand how these young men talk, how they hold themselves and how they think and experience the world.
“If you don’t, you might get the wrong message from what black boys say and do. Without meaning to, social workers can perpetuate problems. For example, a black boy not responding to questions is not necessarily trying to be difficult. There are different traditional values at play.”
The problems facing the UK’s socially excluded young, black males are complex, Joseph says. The draw of gangs and criminal activity is a very real threat, and services need to focus on the drivers of problems. “Eastside aims to recognise the trajectories of deviant behaviour. When you identify this process, you can unpick and tackle behaviour.”
Risk factors align themselves in certain ways at different points of vulnerability, he adds. “For example, secondary school is a time of great change and the likelihood of children going off the rails increases. They will come into contact with older children and the need for them to increase their status and popularity rises.”
A lack of identifiable role models is also a massive problem, Joseph admits. “If the people around them with access to cultural badges of success, such as fast cars and designer clothes, are achieving these through criminal activity it’s easy for boys to get sucked in.
“We have a generation of black boys who see criminal activity as the only way to elevate their status. This has big implications for services. How do you convince a young man who’s making thousands of pounds a week dealing drugs to retrain and earn far less through legal means?”
The answers lie in early intervention, Joseph believes. He is now busy masterminding Eastside’s mentoring scheme, Capital Men. It aims to match one thousand teenage black boys with positive black male role models who can steer them towards better life choices.
He is also trying to help black boys develop exit strategies from gangs and has started a specialist service called CM Consulting advising professionals working with this group of young people.
Community Care inform subscribers can find a guide to working with gangs and other delinquent groups written by Professor Simon Hallsworth, director, Centre for Social Evaluation Research, London Metropolitan University. For more information please contact Kim Poupart
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