The Kids are Alright, Really

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:

  1. “Disadvantage thinking” about young people is addressed and positive stories are promoted.
  2. Negative perceptions and stereotypes about young people are tackled.
  3. 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

To learn more about IARS, visit the charity’s website at http://www.iars.org.uk, and follow IARS on Twitter: @_IARS_

If there is any way you or your organisation could help or get involved, please get in touch with either the campaign or IARS.

5 thoughts on “The Kids are Alright, Really

  1. Well written and evidenced piece. Just one observation. I’m not entirely sure that all young people are being tarred with the same brush. I refrained from using this term in my Fact or Fiction blog because it is an all encompassing phrase. Yet I think when people use the term they are referring to the group of rioters and burglars and not all young people. Why would they criticise the young person who studied hard, battled against the odds and got a job?

    I agree that Mr Clarkes comment was stupid but perhaps we need a term to pidgeon hole them away from the good and honest group of youngsters who make up the 99%. Maybe the 1%’ers?

  2. Hoorah!

    Thank heavens for recognition of the amazing young people out there.

    On the 24th July 2011(pre-London riots) a middle aged lady like myself (who shall remain nameless) suddenly had a rant on her personal wall about the younger generation. (It was not a copy and paste ’round robin’ comment it was her own).

    This is what she said,

    ‘ Bring back national service for EVERYBODY leaving school, college, university if they haven’t got a job to go to….. teach them respect for other people aswell as themselves, self discipline, self control, and that the law applies to everybody. The longer it takes them to learn these things the longer they are kept in’

    After some agreements from her mutual face book friends, she herself suggested she would start a group which she duly did.

    She then globally ‘added’ her face book friends to the new group…(a relatively recent face book facility…adding people without their consent).
    As one of her face book friends I found that I had been added to the group and swiftly removed myself. I felt my hackles rise….
    I was disturbed by the ‘all encompassing slight’ on young people….and was witnessing matters gather momentum. (As they can easily do on face book, unless someone pipes up).
    I decided to make my feelings known and posted a comment amongst the thread of people agreeing with her original sentiment.
    This is what I wrote…

    ‘XXXX clearly something has got right up your nasal passages…(and I know that feeling) but the young adults I know almost without exception are ‘exceptional’, hard working, respectful, they often do charity work, whilst studying and earning and all manner of community things and would (and do) put a lot of adults to shame…so sorry I removed myself from the group…understand your frustration tho’

    I was ready for a battle but there wasn’t one of any substance. (As an aside I enjoy the fact that social media allows all of us to ‘Police’ comments to a degree, but that’s a whole other topic…)

    The numerous young people that I know, are individuals of steel and substance and are far less self absorbed than I was at their age.

    Let’s hear it for the ‘Ninety Nine Percenters’ I certainly plan to spread the word.

    Thank you.

    Pauline
    Gardens Weekly

  3. I have to admit, I had to think long and hard about the phrasing I used. So many words and expressions have been bandied about that it really is difficult to write a piece without someone not liking a word choice.

    I suppose in the end I used it because the first response people came up in any discussion was general / all-encompassing. They don’t mean to criticise the individual who works hard, but for that moment in time that hard-working individual doesn’t exist. A case of ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ as it were, and it is only upon challenge that they will then say “Of course I didn’t mean them…”. It’s essentially that moment of realisation that this piece is about, that people will focus on the visible bad and extrapolate it to cover all until some other evidence disrupts, instead of thinking simultaneously that there are some bad kids, and lots of good kids.

    Except that sentence was too long, and not nearly as catchy.

  4. The problem as I see it is not the the kids are not alright but that far to manyy are not alright and painting a rosy picture is not going to help them.

  5. I’m not sure how to adequately reply to this drivel without seeming vitriolic, especially since I’m sure your intentions are noble and come from a genuine desire to do good for your community.

    I grew up in a not-so-great area of South London and went to an extremely rough, but an apparently representative (if my compatriots from other schools in the area are to be believed), inner-city comprehensive school. In this school the 99% were outnumbered by the 1% and the 99% was divided into ‘those who agree with the 1%’ and ‘those who disagree with the 1%’, needless to say the former group was the larger. Fights, both between gangs and individuals, were common and attempted murders weren’t uncommon. Teachers taught as best they could, but nobody was listening (that is, when they weren’t busy physically assaulting or otherwise abusing the teachers). In my class, two of the thirty of us lived with our fathers and only slightly more than that had direct contact with a parent in employment. Unless you’ve lived this life it’s hard to think of this as anything but hyperbole, but I assure you it isn’t.

    As you can probably tell from my writing, I’m not a member of this class and the behaviour of this class both astonished and terrified me for the first year amongst them. I can safely call myself the 99% or rather, ‘the knowing 99%’, the small subsection of the 99% who’ve lived amongst the 1% and actually understand them. The riots didn’t astonish me in the least, I wasn’t shocked or outraged, merely numb; all that astonished me was that nothing similar had happened sooner. Though few of that school’s 99% had ever committed any serious crime, most were engrained in the same culture as the 1% and saw nothing remiss in their behaviour. This 1%, and their counterparts in the 99%, come from areas that make that school seem civilized. One of the 99% once casually remarked to me that she was tired at school because gunshots on the roof of her council estate had kept her up all night. She wasn’t frightened, nor upset; this is merely her day to day life. How does being assured that upper class know nothings, who can barely comprehend her day to day existence, don’t view her in a pejorative way help her sleep? How does a government campaign aimed at attempting not to seem discriminatory help these tens of thousands of people on these estates escape this hellish existence? Knowing that a 1% exists is literally worthless when all you can offer as a solution is “Don’t worry, 99%, we know you’re not all like that!”: who gives one solitary damn whether or not you know we’re not all like that when you’ve got literally no workable ideas on how to stop those that are?!

    Remember how I said I felt terrified at first? These days I just feel nothing. I feel dead inside. I have for seven years. I can’t even imagine how those who experience this when they go home too must feel. The knowing 99%, who’ve actually routinely met the 1%, aren’t offended in the slightest by words like ‘yobs’. We don’t care about being respected by adults. We just want to be safe. We just want to be able to go to school without witnessing some gangster use the design technology drill as a weapon. We just want to walk safely down the street without being attacked or robbed. 99% campaigns are worthless, if not destructive. All they do is show that the private school segregated political class don’t understand the first jot about what the 99% care about. You can literally perceive me however you wish, disrespect me however you wish, as long as you fix the problem. How does wasting a fortune on pathetic 99% campaigns help me feel any safer?

    So why should we focus on the youths and not the adults? Because we’ve still got a chance at changing the youths. But in order to do this we must first show them that there are consequences for their actions which extend beyond some meaningless community order which they’ll never attend. Just because we understand that they’re a product of their environments doesn’t mean we should just let them run amok and further destroy their environments.

    But I suppose what I’m saying here falls upon ears deafened by a lack of any direct experience of this culture.

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