The importance of Diversionary Activities for Young People
Since 2005 Glasgow’s violence levels have plummeted. This is thanks to the work of the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU). John Carnochan was one of the founders of the unit and in his Postcards from Scotland book – Conviction- he sets out what they did. For example, they took a public health perspective on violence and gangs, and made the problem the responsibility of lots of agencies, not just the police. They interacted with young people in gangs and provided alternative activities. The approach they instigated has led to a reduction in violent behaviour, including knife carrying, across Scotland.
Since the VRU started in Glasgow it has had most impact here and Glasgow rightly has become a model of good practice across the world. However, despite the VRU’s undeniable success in reducing Glasgow’s violence, the problem is far from fixed. I live in Maryhill and we have recently seen a rise in gang related activity and violence. So too have other local areas such as Lambhill, Possil and Cadder. Police Scotland describes the area on Maryhill Road as a MATAC – a Multi Agency Tasking and Coordinating spot. What this means is that it is a small geographical hotspot for violence. The police are now focusing their efforts to reduce crime there.
In our community there are some great initiatives for young people, but very little for teenagers involved in street gangs.
Established indoor clubs often don’t work for these young people anyway. This is because their behaviour is often seen as unacceptable: lots of swearing, play fighting, and graffiti, for example. They often don’t mix well with other groups of young people because they feel judged by those more in control of their emotions and behaviour. We know from our discussions with young people that many of them have multiple ACEs (adverse childhood experiences).
These children and young people are often unable to benefit from mainstream schooling. It’s pretty well impossible for teachers to handle such a wide range of needs and abilities in a single classroom. In many cases the young people’s challenging, anti-social behaviour leads to suspension or exclusion from school. This exacerbates the young people’s challenges, reducing the chance of developing the soft skills they need to integrate with mainstream activities, and potentially putting them at risk of being back in a vulnerable home or out on the street. They then fall further behind developmentally and this can be disastrous for their future lives.
Even out in the community our young people are facing barriers. They are often banned from various shops and other places they might congregate because of the number in their group and the way they behave. They are also at risk of taking dangerous drugs and misusing alcohol.
We keep hearing people saying of these youngsters involved in street gangs, ‘It’s their own fault’. But how would your own child fare if he or she was in their shoes and had to contend with some, or all, of the following? – little to no parental support emotionally or physically; exposure to various forms of implicit or explicit violence; extreme poverty; no money for out-of-school activities or personal transport to get there at night; exposure to casual substance abuse, and a local community, or school, which fails to provide support. Many have to overcome barriers that are more horrendous than most of us could imagine. How would you have fared between the age of nine and fifteen in these circumstances?
Yes, there are exceptions – those who excel in spite of extremely challenging circumstances. Others manage, despite difficult circumstances to create a reasonable life for themselves but too many struggle and never manage to turn their lives around.
In our area we can see that many of our most vulnerable young people are getting caught up in gang related behaviour and spiralling out of control. We believe that to stop this happening we need to involve them in diversionary activities. We also believe that the reason for their antisocial behaviour is not the young person’s fault but the result of inequality and poverty which is stressing their parents and leaving the young people with nothing to do and no money for hobbies and activities.
The problem is I cannot see this situation getting any better unless something radical happens. Young people need something to have control over, to hope for and to believe in. They need others to believe in them too. They need a place they can go to where people ask them: ‘What do you need?’ ‘What do you hope for?’ and ‘What do you enjoy? They need communities who are supportive. A lot of this is about developing trusting relationships.
This is what we The Children’s Wood has been trying to do in our own community through our G20 Festival. We have been working with a gang of young people for the last year and taking a bottom up/grassroots approach to finding out who they are, what do they need to flourish and how can we best support them. Thanks to funding from Glasgow City Council’s Hunger Fund and other funding, I believe we have created something quite special. We now have a team of amazing youth workers and a supportive community. Our numbers are increasing and other ‘gangs’ from different areas are coming to seek us out. I believe this is because they want something positive in their lives – something that engages with who they are now and what matters to them.
G20 Youth workers
When I wrote The Dear Wild Place I talked about the positive power of accessing local wild space for the mental and physical health of our young people, and I also talked about having access to a supportive community and how this can play a vital role in tackling gang related activity and for inclusion. We have been collaborating with other community partners like Police Scotland, schools and our local McDonalds restaurant. Recently McDonalds told us how the young people have gone from causing mayhem in the shop to now diffusing fights and playing a positive role within the community. McDonalds have been developing positive relationships with many of the young people and their families. This has happened through us all working together as a community and we are collectively making a difference.
We have a long way to go. While it has been hugely motivating and supportive for our young people to get support from Glasgow City Council, other groups and services need to do more for young people both locally and nationally. This has to be a priority since failing to do so will not only impact on the young person’s life but also the communities in which they live. This is everyone’s issue. Young people deserve more than their current lot. They deserve a better future.