The winning idea at the ‘Dragon's Den' style contest for best community initiative last Friday night was for a series of ‘Strictly' -styled dance classes, pitched at older residents but with a specific aim of promoting inter-generational involvement. The hoped for outcomes? Older people will have an enjoyable local activity (and useful exercise) and, because young people are involved too, their fear of teenagers might be reduced. The team putting this forward? A group of exactly those teenagers from whom too many people shrink when encountered on a dark evening on a street corner.
The young men who designed this project and the other entries ( classes for parents and children to ease the problems of secondary school transfer and help parents deal with adolescence, and a community sports and talent festival), have been working with the Brathay project at the Avenues Youth Club. In some cases they will themselves have been at risk of being drawn into gang or criminal activity. They will certainly be aware of it, for there have been simmering tensions over recent months, and a series of clashes, between what we will call, for want of a better description, ‘gangs' in Westminster, Brent and Ladbroke Grove. Yet on Friday night at the Avenues they demonstrated a degree of commitment, civic mindedness and self-awareness that would be hard to find in many more traditional corners of the community.
Theirs is no easy path. They are very aware of being demonised and labelled as ‘thugs'. Yet some have indeed been in trouble or on the fringes of it and they are painfully aware of how tough the streets and estates can be, even in a place like Westminster. Many have lived young lives of unbelievable hardship. Relationships with the police are often fraught- though an exception is often made for local Safer Neighbourhood Team police, who know and engage with them as individuals not as faceless group members. Quick fixes are thin on the ground.
Projects such as Brathay, and Working with Men, and the youth workers operating out of clubs like the Avenues, Stowe Club, Fourth Feathers, Amberlety, Paddington Boys Club, London Tigers and others are doing extraordinary work in a difficult environment and with youngsters who are at once both challenging and full of potential.
At a time when the ‘postcode' tensions between neighbourhoods seem to be hardening, when too many young people have suffered and even died on London streets in recent years, axing these youth projects is simply insane. Yet the axe is what many of them face, even though what is cheese-pared away from youth work may end up being spent many times over down the line in the criminal justice system. What has been built so carefully over recent years through these activities and a slow improvement in sports, neighbourhood management and more, could be swept away in weeks leaving us worse than where we started. Youth work is a soft target for cuts but we may all, and not just the inspirational teenagers who worked so hard to present their ideas to us last week, regret the pennies saved and the pounds- or something worse than pounds- which will be spent as a result.