Gangs are taking advantage of our failure to inspire!
The only way we are going to break gang culture is by helping boys and young men discover they are worth so much more!
Idle hands are the devil's workshop!
Growing up in Leicester during the 90's, I was always puzzled by the groups of boys (cruelly referred to as chavs) hanging around on a random street just waiting for passers-by to heckle and intimidate. Come sunshine, rain, or snow, there they were!
Being an 80-year-old woman at heart, I was always more concerned that they would catch their death in only a thin tracksuit and absolutely no hat or gloves to protect them from the elements! However, I did often wonder why they did it. What possible enjoyment you could get from such a dull pastime?
Outside of school-time, I loved the theatre (a gay man in theatre?! Shocking!). I was extremely lucky to have amazing teachers around me who generously gave their free time to host elaborate theatrical productions, which I couldn't wait to be a part of. No offence intended to my other teachers, but the lessons I learned doing something I loved sunk in a thousand times more than maths or science. Those lessons still serve me every day.
Even though I am most definitely not a professional actor or religious in the slightest, the theatre was my church. Between the lines of those plays and musicals, a young boy struggling to find his path in life found answers to his prayers. Whether it's the confidence to speak in front of people, express my emotions, or deal with rejection, the role models I encountered during that time gave me the tools and resources that would open my future to a range of possibilities.
Rewind two years before my theatre awakening, when the future was looking a lot less bright. I was the epitome of a rebellious teenager who had zero interest in being told what to do, failing multiple exams, mainly because I hardly turned up! I was angry against a world where I felt I had no place and strangled by an education system that wasn't interested in me but saw me as checking another tick box.
It was through my own transformation, catalysed only because I stumbled into what I loved and had a few teachers that believed in me, that I suddenly understood a little about why those boys were on the street, standing in the cold. If the world has left you behind, why should you play by its rules?
Fast forward 10 years. I had just arrived in my first job after moving to New York with my husband (definitely didn't see either of those coming!) when The Boys' Club of New York offered me my first opportunity as a professional fundraiser, raising money for their after-school programs.
Located in the heart of the Lower East Side, The Boys' Club of New York had played a key role in the dramatic change the neighbourhood had experienced. A stunning park in which I often ate my lunch was previously a place you'd only visit to buy drugs. A beautiful leafy street I walked down every day had once been a place not safe to stroll in. Now, the neighbourhood was thriving with new developments, cafes, and restaurants springing up all over the place!
The Boys' Club saw communities where young men lacked strong male role models, often falling into gang culture and criminality, and decided to help them discover their potential. With a rich history spanning over 140 years, the Club has positively influenced the lives of over a million young men. Whether it's learning to read, swimming lessons, mental health support, career prep, or basic life skills like cooking, the Club has empowered their members to see a future open to possibilities.
Why does this matter in the UK? In 2018, knife crime in England and Wales reached record levels with a staggering 40,829 recorded offences. As always, the blame game starts afresh with each new incident, with few offering anything resembling a solution. The police and teachers are often the first at which the masses and media point their fingers. However, when you actually speak to people in those professions, it’s clear they are suffering from the ever-increasing burden on the scope of their jobs.
Teachers are working themselves to the bone getting students through constant exams while taking on more and more responsibilities that should fall to the family, such as potty training and brushing their teeth! Police time is being spread thinner and thinner investigating ridiculous "crimes" such as hurt feelings on Twitter (these two topics are whole articles in themselves). The point is, they alone cannot provide the answer.
In this never-ending blame game, rarely do we stop to ask why it's happening in the first place. What might convince a young man to gamble with his life and future by joining a gang or turning to crime? Much like the boys I described growing up, that choice is made because nobody offers them anything better.
Gangs prey on those who are lost and looking for a sense of belonging. By not helping young men to discover they are worth so much more, we are handing them over to gang leaders who will exploit them for everything they can and dump them without a moment's thought. It is only with long-term planning and investment into community services that we can combat the seductive appeal of gangs.
Amazing non-profits such as The Boys' Club of New York and the Princes Trust in the UK are shining examples of how we can empower young people to discover and achieve their goals. Observing the programs for which I raised funds at the Boy’s Club was always my favourite part of the job. I saw young men who had once been on a rocky path turn their lives around by discovering new skills, talents, and interests that they never thought possible.
By renewing our commitment to the fact that all young people should be able to reach their full potential, we can break the gang culture, unlock endless potential, and give these young men their futures back!