This post is written by Adam Fellows, who tweets in a personal capacity as @eatplaylaw. Adam was recently called to the Bar of England and Wales, and is a Trustee of IARS. He writes a personal blog here.
This post is about the 99% campaign, which attempts to bust the negative stereotyping of young people, by making clear that those stereotypes do not apply to the majority.
The Kids Are Alright, Really
Last month, the country sat back aghast as pictures of fire and smoke filled our screens and our papers. The UK Riots of August 2011 started initially as a reaction to a shooting in North London, but the protest at this shooting quickly turned into rioting in Tottenham and the surrounding areas, and this then spread throughout the capital, and then into other cities in the country.
People started speculating as to what caused it, and due to the perceived age of the rioters, the phrase ‘disaffected youth’ swiftly made an appearance. This was supported by articles and reports throughout the press speaking to young people involved in the disturbances
A lot of loss has emerged from the riots. Loss of property, loss of livelihoods, loss of liberty, and worst of all loss of life. While it cannot be denied that young people were a part of all of this, the sheer range of people involved in the disturbances shows that this is an endemic problem. The extremely unfortunate language used by the Secretary of State for Justice Kenneth Clarke MP, describing the the rioters as a “feral underclass” has taken centre stage, while his comments about the social deficit affecting people of all ages have gone unnoticed. Indeed, he kept a tight focus on those over 18 facing criminal sanctions following their participation. And yet still the focus remains upon young people. An article from 5 September 2011 that appeared in the online edition of the Guardian focussed on the young people in Salford and their responses to the riots. The headline blazed with “Behind the Salford riots: the kids are angry”, but a closer reading of the article shows that the young man whose interview supplied the quotation in the headline mentions both people (ie adults) and kids. The young people who experienced the riots in one way or another recognise that this was not just about young people, but a response across all ages of society. Indeed, as the sentencing for criminal behaviour in the riots continues, we can see that those involved into the disturbances not only came from a range of ages, but a range of backgrounds too.
So why the focus on young people? One point that the Guardian article referenced above made that this has been simmering for a long time. Another point is that the recent cuts are just part of a longer shift in spending away from services, services that been reducing over time for specialist youth projects either for leisure or for education. Former PM Tony Blair commented, stating that the problems were based largely upon “disaffected youth … outside the social mainstream“, but even his analysis focussed on dysfunctional families and troubling environments. Current PM David Cameron made mention of a moral decline. Both Cameron and Blair are right, and both of them are wrong. Yes, the rioting and violence was started by a small group of individuals, but that doesn’t explain the participation by people outside of those families he describes. There has been a moral decline, but not the one Cameron discusses. Yet as noted above the breadth of those involved shows young people of all groups feeling angry. As exmplified by the Salford response, these young people feel that there is nothing for them, no hope, no future. You can easily see why they would be angry. To them, it does not appear that the door to a future is locked; it is locked, bolted, behind bars and there is no key or equipment to help them get through: these are not just the people Blair was talking about.
We have had some excellent articles on this blog recently about children in the criminal justice system, and other parts of the public sector services, which you can read here, here, here and here. At the same time as children are slipping through the cracks, we have seen a growth in the ideology that surrounds young people: “hoodies”, “yobs”, and now “feral”. It appears to me to be a ‘chicken-and-egg’ question: which came first, the ideology or the youth to encourage it? Is there even an answer? That’s not the point, it doesn’t matter which came first. The matter is that it is happening, and it is having a terrible impact upon preconceptions of all young people. When politicians and the media pick on isolated incidences and build an image of fear and disgust, it is easy to see why society will withdraw from an entire generation: this is Cameron’s moral decline.
This post may sound like I am making excuses. I am not. There are some young people out there who are troublemakers and worse, and who rendered the labels of “yobs” and “feral” necessary, but by ascribing those labels to all young people in essence writes them off as lost. The only young people worth time and effort are those from good families living in good areas. People (ie adults) are simply not willing to look past their initial perception and get to know the young people they simply write off, and by doing that they are helping to restrain and destroy the dreams of so many. And yet these disruptive young people form such a small part of our youth at large.
Today sees the launch of the new 99% Campaign materials across London, especially on the Transport networks. Its premise is extremely simple:
“We are young Londoners, living positive lives”
“We are not negative stereotypes”
“We are the 99 per cent”
The campaign itself has been going for some time: “it is a pan-London, youth-led initiative that brings together key public, private and civil society organisations to dispel stereotypes about young people and make the capital a better, safer and more inclusive place.”
The project was initially developed by young people in London with the partnership of the London Serious Youth Violence Board. However, with that body now lost in the Bonfire of the Quangos, it was feared that the project could be lost and the work done to change preconceptions of young people would grind to half. However the campaign is now run by a charity, Independent Academic Research Studies (IARS) with the support of a Core Partners’ Group. Of course, young people themselves are also heavily involved in the campaign.
The aims of the campaign are as follows:
- “Disadvantage thinking” about young people is addressed and positive stories are promoted.
- Negative perceptions and stereotypes about young people are tackled.
- New youth opportunities are created while current opportunities are highlighted and enhanced by making them part of a kite-marking, partnership movement that uses the 99% brand to recognise high quality positive engagement youth projects within the objectives of the 99% (taken from campaign website).
What about the young people? How does it help them (While I am aware that the campaign focusses solely on young people in London, this message is not to be ignored by the rest of the country)? The core mission is simple: “to give [young people] a chance“. The campaign aims to do this through “high quality volunteering opportunities; restorative justice interventions; the creation of role models and 99% Ambassadors; youth-led research & policy; awards, training, accreditation and campaigning; educational/ vocational opportunities”. This may sound like a collection of buzzwords, but let’s break them down:
1) volunteering gives young people something to be proud of, something to be a part of, and it also gives them skills and an experience they can refer to and draw on later;
2) so many of the young people involved in the riots have been given custodial sentences, but this has been tempered with arguments about recidivism for young people in the criminal justice system; restorative justice can save both the strain on the courts and prisons, and could help put someone back on the right path;
3) role models are important as young people need people to inspire them, to show them that they are capable of what others are, and while adult role models are good, peers are even more effective;
4) research and policy development, and awards, accreditation, and campaigning all encourage an individual to become involved, to take ownership of something for themselves, and to discover that they do have the capacity for self education.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the campaign is its targets: all adult Londoners, and public sector service providers. These are the types of people to whom young people look for support during their crucial years of personal development, and that who are currently ignoring them. While a lot of online commentators have spoken about the need for a parent in these children’s lives, that is not always possible. Children and young people need as many avenues as possible to flourish, especially if their home enviroment does not provide them with this crucial support.
What does all of this hope to achieve? Respect. Be it the respect of adults and peers, or self-respect, the notion of respect is very powerful when considering the impact of others’ preconceptions. By achieving this respect, young people will be more engaged in mainstream society, and society at large will come to realise that their deeply held belief was wrong all along.
This is quite a challenge. Dr Theo Gavrielides, the director of IARS, and his able team of staff and volunteers have a wealth of experience in this work already; just take a look at the projects IARS undertakes. However, this is an attempt to change the perceptions of an entire country, no mean feat at all. All their hard work, both for the 99% campaign and their other projects, requires sponsors and funding. These are currently in short supply, but this does not remove the need, and it is entirely to their credit that they are still going strong through these difficult times.
Nearly all young people out there makes mistakes, goodness knows I did; that is what youth is for, to make mistakes and to learn. However, a mistake is not something that renders an individual feral. Nearly all young people out there are decent, upstanding people, and yet society still tars all young people with the same brush. Not only are there limited ways for young people to better themselves, but now people are unwilling to take the time to help them. How are young people supposed to learn, to grow without the benefits of adult support or experience? But no, young people are increasingly viewed as written off. Is their participation in the disturbances any real surprised?
I challenge you all reading this to think back into your past, and think about an adult who was willing to help you, support you, give you advice on whatever path you wanted. Not a family member, but someone from school, or a club, something like that. Got one? Now think about the things they told you, the experience they imparted. Now take that away. Can you safely say that you would be where you are now without that person? Even if it was just a boost of confidence, that little push to keep you going, it was still enough to help. This is what young people need, be it through programmes or clubs, or simply just face-to-face advice. Something to remind them that they have not been forgotten.
That’s what these young people: help. Support, assistance, a friendly face, whatever you want to call it. But without it, society could be denying them a chance to improve their lives, the same chance you had. Without that, there is every chance that the kids will not be alright.
To learn more about the 99% Campaign, visit the website at http://www.99percent.org.uk/, and follow the progress on Twitter: @wethe99percent