Compared to 2017 when “knife crime” headlines abounded, youth violence doesn’t seem today as urgent an issue in the public consciousness. And much like when Brexit dominated discourse, the uncertain dynamics of a global-health pandemic could eclipse and therefore exacerbate such pre-existing social problems.
I know first hand, however, from working in hospitals with survivors of violence and exploitation, that young people are still experiencing harm at alarming rates. The media, despite its fear-mongering and sensationalism, fails to illustrate the magnitude or analyse the nuances of the problem. It’s known that violence causes approximately 300,000 Emergency Department attendances in the UK every year, but without further consideration of the demography of victims or mechanisms of injury, it’s hard to deduce from such a headline figure the bleak reality – a troubling number of children present daily to hospitals across the nation with all manner of acute and latent needs.
We hear most frequently about stabbings and shootings, but harm exists on a broad spectrum. Young people, for instance, have sprained ankles from running, or broken bones from jumping from heights to escape danger. Others have been involved in road traffic collisions speeding away from harm. Others suffer grazed skin, dislocated shoulders and bruised wrists from being slammed onto floors or forced into handcuffs by police officers.
Attention is given almost exclusively to the interpersonal but there are also those who self-harm, overwhelmed for example by the unrelenting demands of an education system increasingly neoliberal in philosophy, or by grief as they mourn the murders of friends. The psychological effects of trauma which can be severe and even longer-lasting ought to be discussed much more.
The underlying social problems are numerous and entangled. I consider commonalities in the backgrounds of some of the young people I’ve encountered throughout nearly a decade of youth work in settings ranging from youth clubs and schools to prisons: they are disproportionately black, and from poorer backgrounds; their parents, for instance, may have mental health difficulties for which less and less support services exist. Far too many are failed by an education system which too quickly excludes them even from primary schools. Many have their lives made more difficult by being avoidably swallowed by a criminal justice system which contemptuously spits them out with worsened trauma and further depleted prospects.
While one-to-one intervention can be transformative for individual lives, such work can sometimes begin to feel like desperate attempts to resolve structural issues for which the state is ultimately responsible. A feeling of impossibility can descend in the context of a housing crisis which makes it difficult to appropriately relocate those at risk where they reside, and austerity causes under-resourced social care systems.
Necessary hope, however, is retained and spread infectiously by people like 18-year-old Shanea Kerry. The loss of Shanea’s close friend to a 2017 stabbing harshly exposed her to the unpredictable, indiscriminate nature of violence and the great cost of society’s inequalities.“It didn’t just affect me”, says Shanea of the aftermath. “It shook everyone, all of my people. I saw a drastic change, a shift. No one could have prepared me”. Shanea knows all too intimately the impact that violence bears both on biographies and communities. But she sought to convert this initial grief into impactful social action, beginning to seek answers: “What are the structures that are allowing this violence and all the other injustices around us to thrive?”
Shanea read history, learnt about issues like poverty and inadequate housing. She discovered the lack of support for young people in education and youth services.
Shanea continues to learn of the various ways and extent to which this issue is systemic. We discussed how gentrification causes alienation among young people, how the creation of the E20 postcode around the 2012 Olympics highlights the inherently political nature of such spatial demarcations. “I’m definitely seeing it in Stratford, where I’m from. The one thing we had, that togetherness… it’s changed”. Shanea was empowered by her new understanding, also drawing inspiration from relationships with older community figures like Temi Mwale whose youth organisation 4Front was born from her own experiences of growing up on the Grahame Park Estate.
“Love is the engine for justice”, Shanea philosophises, ever hopeful, “affecting my corner of the world is all I can do”. Shanea has inspiringly now set up her own initiative Your Life More Life which advocates for youth causes in Newham and beyond, alongside her formal employment as youth activism coordinator at 4Front.
Similar inspiration can be found at organisations like Fight for Peace, an academy in North Woolwich combining combat sports with education and personal development: “We exist to support young people to overcome the obstacles in their paths and reach their full potential”, says CEO Jenny Oklikah. “These obstacles have increased significantly in 2020 and so our work has never been more necessary.”
The organisation supports its young members into paid roles from finance and operations to youth work. When visiting, I witnessed one of their young facilitators run a combat sports session and was struck by their passion and commitment to the development of the younger students they’d been entrusted to teach. A safe space of community and catharsis was created where children and young adults could congregate, disengage from external stresses and develop character and skills. I left feeling hopeful about the potential for change, encouraged that such a facility remains despite the steady decimation of young people’s and public services generally.
Lockdown, however, presents a real challenge for the task of safeguarding and supporting young people, and illuminates what’s at stake: “Families and young people we work with are dealing with financial hardship, reduced employment, a lack of food, disconnection from education, and challenges with mental and physical health stemming from the effects of the pandemic. This threatens the security and development of our members, and can force those most at risk of criminal exploitation into difficult choices." Unwavering in dedication, however, organisations like Fight for Peace have adapted remarkably quickly to continue delivering services like one-to-one mentoring and personal development sessions for young people online
It is encouraging that people like Shanea and organisations like Fight for Peace manage to undertake such invaluable work, defiantly making headway in a difficult societal circumstance. It is damning, however, that such work is needed.
I could conclude with a rightful assertion that the media need to be more accurate and consistent in its reporting of violence, that the government now more than ever should urgently address issues like grave inequality and other root causes. It feels far more hopeful, however, to reflect on the phenomenal examples of work being done by community representatives with true knowledge of the issues at hand and lived experience of traversing them. Such efforts, I truly believe, are our hope at creating and forcing change from the bottom up. We continue then on these frontlines to strive towards the vision of a society which encourages the wellbeing and flourishing of all of its people; a society which Britain never has yet managed to become, had it ever intended to.
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