Riot Us.

I’ve just returned from the first of three ‘Camden Summits’: community events in which residents, officers, councillors and representatives of businesses and voluntary sector organisations have been invited to come together and share ‘views on the public disorder in Camden’. To my chagrin, an astute member of the public named causes which in my previous blog I missed: the British Board of Film Classification and 9 o’clock watershed.

That aside, it was a fairly typical community meeting. Fronted by Cllr Nasim Ali, with additional perspectives from Borough Commander John Sutherland and CNJ news editor Richard Osley, the evening opened with a series of reflections and questions before being opened up to the floor: over one hundred sat around circular tables, with plenty offering comments, questions and opinions (many of which were not altogether relevant).

This is a brief blog, and not one intended to analyse the meeting itself. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t brilliant. It was my first encounter with the Borough Commander, and I have respect for Cllr Ali. It was nice to see Richard Osley’s opinions added to the mix, a voice problematising and questioning some of the assumptions and narratives being articulated, in that won’t-quite-go-away kind of way. But I think there’s a bigger question we have to ask.

I don’t know how other local authorities or communities have responded to the riots. I don’t know whether what Camden has done in having these conversations is beyond or short of what others are doing. But it did strike me on the journey home, that we should be very clear about one thing. These summits are not about finding solutions. They are not about seizing an opportunity presented by the seismic but all-too-temporary moment we experienced in the evenings of early August. That’s not intended as a criticism: they should be measured against what they’re intending to achieve. I’d certainly prefer they were happening than they weren’t. But, they are at best an opportunity for a collection of people to air their views, and to air views that may well be fed back into the various meetings which have been set up. This is not a bad thing. But it is not more than this.

Any sensible person who has taken the opportunity to sit back and observe the quite frankly endless cascades of analysis and comment since the riots happened will be well aware that the causes, explanations and justifications being given are a dime a dozen. Even those with a certain (sometimes party political) aversion to particular analyses and positions should be able to understand that the truth resides across a wide range of causes and symptoms. For example: Is it a poverty-related issue? Yes. Is it a values-related issue? Yes. Is it an isolated instance? Not really. Is it inexcusable criminality? Well, sort of. I mean, yes. But that sort of feels like an easy answer.

The riots give us a rare and once-in-a-generation (hopefully not more) opportunity to genuinely reflect and to fashion an ambitious, visionary and integritous response to the direction in which our society is moving. If we were serious about this response, we would for starters be taking at minimum a month to engage every demographic across the borough we could think of, through all sorts of fora: community meetings, surveys and questionnaires, innovative stakeholder consultation initiatives, going door-to-door, inviting opinion pieces, setting up online spaces. We’d be casting the net far and wide, and we’d be organising what we were learning into different categories: Questions. Opinions. Analysis. Randoms.

We’d then be looking at how we could explore these findings further. Why not group them into several major categories? Why not look at the research and reflections on these areas published elsewhere? Why not engage expert organisations in these categories around their opinions? Why not hold a lecture series or discussion panels in which these subjects were outlined and debated? Why not bring them together in a way which sought to understand the different and complex factors at play and how they have contributed, interacted and resulted in the riots?

And then, the ‘where next’. Perhaps this is the biggest sacrifice we need to accept when we can only afford to invest minimal resources in such a process. It would be extraordinary if the entire purpose of this process was to develop a manifesto for change in Camden. To explore the very holistic and wide-ranging requirements of us as a borough – individually, in our communities, in our businesses and organisations, in our council – which need to be thought about and addressed. The cuts, the Future Jobs Fund, sponsoring a young person, ensuring the Education Commission is engaged in these debates, challenging VCS organisations to and civil society to adopt deliberate approaches which support communitarianism rather than individualism. Real suggestions to real causes developed through real discussion.

Of course, this is an ambitious remit and not one which we feel is affordable given the terrible constraints on public spending we’re currently facing. There are also legitimate critiques of this back-of-an-envelope suggestion. What can be done about areas which typically are the responsibility of central rather than local government? Where does the resource for this process come from? Does our political system allow space for questioning rather than asserting? But we should be clear. Discussing, understanding, analysing and responding to this challenge cannot be done meaningfully in one, two or three Camden summits. If the riots are to become a turning point, a learning moment: then we should be bucking a trend and investing in a process which does it justice. This evening reinforced my sense that we have some very impressive people in Camden. How can we afford not to take the opportunity?


How did youthwork contribute to the riots?

The dust has settled on the riots, more or less. It’s a shame, because dust should never settle so quickly on so great an upheaval. In the end there was a brief window for us to wrestle with the glimpse we caught of something quite enormous bubbling beneath the surface of our society, before politicians grasped the nettle and subjugated this remarkable happening to their own agendas. To be honest, I suspect the only reason it didn’t happen more quickly was because everyone was on holiday. Either way, the propagated narratives are crystallising and debate seems long gone.

In my blog during the riots, I speculated on the wide-ranging suggestions as to their origin and cause. From MTV Base to fatherless families to consumerism to a lack of gun ownership, we had the lot. Of course, I regarded some as much closer to the mark than others. But if there was one thing which was conspicuous by its absence, it was the fact that no person, or institution, or organisation which I heard came forward and said: this was my fault. Or our fault. Or at least partly. Nobody claimed responsibility, at least not for themselves.

Of course, that isn’t to say it didn’t happen anywhere, or behind closed doors, or in intense discussions in think-tanks or Westminster or around the dinner table. Simply that I didn’t come across any such confession myself. But I have a confession. It’s based, of course, on a certain understanding of the riots which accepts certain theories and rejects others. For example, I don’t think MTV Base is a helpful place to start. I can see that the offerings of MTV Base as reflections of a wider culture, in a certain context, without the discipline of critiquing and reflecting on what is coming through the TV, over an extended period, with a number of other factors which exacerbate the impact of select messages, might be problematic. But to start with it? Ludicrous. My confession starts with the role of organisations like mine, which work with young people.

Some of the most sensible analyses which I have seen are reflected in the excellent book ‘Whatever It Takes’, written by Paul Tough, who takes the discussion about riots/poverty/criminality/insert-word-here beyond the see-saw of Left and Right and into the grey middle, which common sense tells us will always yield a more holistic truth than can be found at the extremes. He rejects arguments that ‘criminality’ is exclusively the terrain of moral decline (right) or systemic poverty (left) and indeed Harlem Children’s Zone, the extraordinary experiment and organisation led by Geoffrey Canada, creates a model which seems to move beyond this decades-old debate on urban poverty in the US into a programme which transforms the odds for an entire community’s children, not the ‘one in ten’ who can be saved with what Canada describes ‘the Superman approach’. Of course, there is much more to understanding both the moral decline (or more helpfully put, the values debate) and the systemic poverty pieces. They have their own histories and analyses, enriched – if that’s the right word – with economic and social narratives which have further entrenched their effects. Phillip Blond tweeted that the riots were the upshot of neo-liberalism and social libertarianism. Whilst I find myself unconvinced with some of the conclusions drawn along the way and how they translate into future policy, I think this interview provides food for thought.

So what’s the confession? Well, I’m a youthworker by trade and have been working with young people for about 13 years. We’ve been everywhere for the past few weeks, youthworkers. Giving interviews, sharing our thoughts, explaining the riots and perhaps most importantly, thinking about how we respond. It’s quite a novel experience for us as a community. We’re usually seen but not heard, except for when someone needs a soundbite on the cuts.

I remember when I qualified as a professional youth and community worker in 2002. I was at the end of a boom in the industry where supply was starting to outstrip demand. A few years before, a number of new youthwork training programmes had sprung up (in addition to the few which had been running for years) to respond to a burgeoning market for ‘professional’ youthworkers: people who had diploma-level qualifications, would work full-time and were in high-demand due in part to policies coming out of government. The people I trained with were a mixed bunch: a diverse group – age, gender, ethnicity, background, outlook – with a common passion for transforming the lives of young people and their communities. It’s one of the reasons we were fairly laid back about the relatively chaotic course administration and the absence of the benefits usually associated with going to university: we just wanted to make a difference.

But it seems that youthwork, somewhere along the way, lost its soul. As supply outstripped demand for serious youthwork jobs, hundreds of short-term, part-time, stat-led initiatives sprung up all over the place. Youthworkers were a dime a dozen, and a sort of lowest-common-denominator youthwork emerged. Perhaps the discipline simply struggled to move forward, to understand itself outside radical Leftism when society and policy changed. New Labour policies and the subjugation of youthwork to state surveillance and economic unit production activities (a question which was hotly debated in the 1980s and before) further confused a professionally naive workforce intent on securing funding and maintaining activities regardless of cost. Mixed in with the political cocktail of quick-fix solutions and sexy numbers, many parts of the sector has seen a near-complete loss of professional integrity over the past ten years. Let me be clear: this is not a dig at one government. I have no doubt that youthwork would have been seen and utilised in the same way regardless of the colour of government. This is about the hard place which youthworkers occupy, between the hardest-to-reach young people and a wider society impatient for peace.

Let me give an example. Most youthworkers understand that, whilst there must always remain a drive to improve effectiveness and efficiency, the nuts and bolts of our trade are fairly common sense. Long-term relationships beat short-term relationships. Young-person-centred conversations beat funder-stipulated-conversations. Community-based initiatives trump centralised or super-centre initiatives. And this is in relation to impact: to making the difference which whether you’re a neighbour, a funder, a councillor or a youthworker, we all agree on.

But we have not maintained these working practices. There is pressure to bring young people in through the door (even if they’d rather meet outside). There is pressure to record their behavioural changes (with their token endorsements). There is pressure to gain them ‘qualifications’, whether or not these are meaningful in the employment market or are what they really want to do. And this has led to incentivisation, increasingly coercive approaches to engaging young people and underming the core values of informal education which lead to an individual voluntarily, responsibly and productively choosing to engage with mainstream society and to be bound by its (mutually beneficial) social norms. To paraphrase, youthwork has increasingly been guilty of encouraging young people to engage for what they can get, rather than investing in the best ways to inspire personal growth and civic responsibility.

Please don’t get me wrong. Funding requirements are partly to blame, but so are we (and this is only one area in which youthwork has compromised). It is not enough to resent administration and to point to the virtuosity of our work as an adequate basis for its continuation. The fact that youthworkers are often nice people doing nice things does not mean we should be invested in. If we are unhappy with what is required of us on this front, if we feel that the existing methods of evaluation are inadequate for capturing impact, then we should be at the front of the field for developing models which do exactly that. A criticism which has been levelled at the industry (and apparently me) is that our ‘positions depend on the continued creation of [these] dysfunctional miscreants who wreak havoc’. We should be clear: when people invest in youthwork, they invest in impact, not in nice activities. We want to solve problems, not maintain them. And we should be at the forefront of explaining that.

Youthworkers have been on the frontline for many years. Almost all of the young people involved in the riots will have had a youthworker or contact with one, especially in London which is saturated with provision. The question is whether this provision has been high quality. This is the difference between simply having ‘somewhere to go’ or having a significant adult who builds a long-term, trusting relationship and understands their mandate for facilitating personal growth, social education and civic responsibility. It is the difference between taking a certificate home for the sake of ticking a box or investing the time, energy, commitment and resources in a young person which not only allows them to build dreams and futures but communicates to them their worth and our commitment.

Youthworkers are not, of course, responsible for the riots in any sort of all-encompassing way. I have sought here to reflect on what we as a sector might do better in the future, not to absolve or ignore the plethora of other causes which need to be explored (and taken responsibility for). As the last line of defence, we should ask what has happened to the midfield. And we should ask whether youthwork is best positioned solely as the last line and not as the attack. But while there is the dreary squabbling and co-opting of the riots for agendas far and wide, we must seize them as a wake-up call. The impact we have had is not enough, and we must own that. If we are to have the sort of impact which brought many of us into this line of work we must sit down honestly and openly and be prepared to criticise our own practice as well as the policies and approaches which have exacerbated this problem. We must reclaim the power of youthwork as having a transformative capacity which empowers young people to claim fuller, happier and more responsible lives. And we must lead the way in capturing, explaining and securing investment for exactly that.

The 100%.

‎’There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society, with a large segment of people in that society, who feel that they have no stake in it; who feel that they have nothing to lose. People who have a stake in their society, protect that society, but when they don’t have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it.’ Martin Luther King, Jr.

There has been much analysis of the past extraordinary week in London and across the country, as we start to get to grips with several days of rioting, looting and social unrest. In a funny way, it has seemed as if the rest of life has been put on hold as we observe the emergence of an extraordinary narrative, albeit one which we struggle to pick apart given its complexity and variability.

And complex it undoubtedly is. Few people would disagree with the MLK quote above in principle, but whether it should be judged on a micro, personal level or or on a macro-economic or social level, there appear to be a huge raft of factors which need to be considered. Of course, that’s not stopped a cascade of opinion covering all sorts of different angles (and conjecture) pouring out across the debate, even as we are still discovering what has happened, who has been involved, how it has progressed and so on. Let me give a few examples.

Criminologist and ‘youth culture expert’ Professor John Pitts says the looting is ‘fuelled by social exclusion’. Mary Riddell in the Telegraph blames an indifferent political class and in particular the compounding factor of major recession, citing the fact that Tottenham has 10,000 people on Job Seekers Allowance and 54 applicants to every available job. Behind this scenario, she quotes J K Galbraith on the parallel circumstances of the 1929 economic crash: ‘bad income distribution, a business sector engaged in ‘corporate larceny’, a weak banking structure and an import/export imbalance’ and reminds us that Adam Smith ‘recognised…a well-ordered society [cannot] develop when a sizeable number of its members are miserable and, as a consequence, dangerous’. Stafford Scott in the Guardian suggests ‘deep problems in our youth were being ignored as a black problem’ and goes on to point the finger at ongoing historical social injustices, government cuts, withdrawing Educational Maintenance Allowance payments, the raising of tuition fees and high youth unemployment as factors ‘add[ing] to their sense of isolation and lack of a stake in society’. Philip Blond blames social libertarianism and neo-liberalism.

This is only the beginning, though. Graeme Baker, the News Editor of the New Zealand Herald, blames neo-liberal dogma, consumerism and individualism. Andrew Bower levels accusations at the abandonment of morality and a pervasive culture of ‘human rights’. Zac Goldsmith MP blames policing policy. Boris Johnson also blames policing policy. Steve Brewer, writing for the Huffington Post, suggests we may be seeing ‘the long awaited proletariat uprising’. Paul Lewis and James Harkin describe what they observed simply as ‘unadulterated, indigenous anger and ennui’. A friend of mine on Facebook says ‘they just want to get stuff for free’. Danny Kruger, of hug-a-hoodie fame, blames ‘a narrative of unfairness’ emerged from a ‘wider culture…[that] has abandoned virtue and adopted the ethics of indifference, dressed as liberalism’. Melanie Philips doesn’t let us down by pointing the finger squarely at ‘a three-decade liberal experiment which tore up virtually every basic social value’, and in particular ‘[t]he married two-parent family, educational meritocracy, the punishment of criminals, national identity, enforcement of the drugs laws and many more fundamental conventions’. Not to forget the rise of welfare dependency. Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail blames immigration. Esther Addley reports anger towards a combination of cuts to youth services and stop and search tactics by the police. Ed Miliband blames gangs. David Cameron blames gangs. Labour councillor Meric Apak blames ‘the minority who simply refuse to accept that wrong is wrong’. Katharine Birbalsingh blames MTV Base.
Deep breath, we’re nearly there. Mike Butcher on Tech Crunch blames Blackberry messaging. Brendan O’Neill blames the welfare state. Russell Brand blames Margaret Thatcher. Dan Mitchell boils it down to the government’s failure to protect property and a lack of gun ownership (yes, apparently so). Allison Ogden-Newton focuses onunemployment and the social contract which comes with having a job. Camila Batmanghelidjh cites the rise of antisocial (rather than prosocial) communities and their emergence as a result of various social and economic factors. In news shocker, Ken Livingstone blames the Coalition. Michael Gove blames Labour. Harriet Harman blames the Tories. And if you want people blaming Twitter, intergenerational alienation or the demonisation of young people, please go ahead and Google them.
The mind boggles. That’s a lot of blame. Clearly, there are a lot of reasons this happened. There are a lot of people at fault. Typically, the reasons and the people to blame are different from those articulating them. Of course, some I agree with more, some less (some not at all). We must problematise each assertion. We must ask questions about what is symptom and what is cause, what is manifestation and what is paradigm. I personally thought that Will Davies’ piece, ‘London riots: the limits of Left and Right’ was excellent, and thoroughly recommend reading it. I also think that we’ve had far too much from everywhere but young people. But those are just my opinions.
Several weeks ago, when Anders Behring Breivik massacred 76 people in Norway, the world watched as its people responded with extraordinary dignity and integrity. Anger was palpable, but talk of retribution was strangely absent. In fact, many people I follow on Twitter and across the media quoted Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg with admiration: ‘Our response is more democracy, more openness and more humanity.’ Examples were given of our own and other governments, past and present, using rhetoric which was quite simply embarrassing and tribal in light of this response.
The issues which have given rise to these circumstances are truly complex and in many ways seemingly intractable. The cocktail of the individual, the local, the political, the social and the societal conflate to create a melting pot in which nobody can be proved wrong, nor can they be proved right. The anecdotal holds more power than the rational, the ability to weave words together more important than the commitment to seek truth.
It is something we are not very good at: reflecting on what has happened, taking personal and collective responsibility, giving the time required to formulate appropriate responses, learning and listening from each other. Our desire for quick fixes and aversion to reflection is matched and compounded by the unhelpful structure and culture of our politics. Our use of language is deterministic, conflictual and closes down debate. Even this conversation evidences the absence of dialogue in a fragmented society.
We must resist the desire to demonise or explain away. We must reject simplistic soundbites and externalising responsibility. We must look inside ourselves and our institutions and our shared life rather than use this as an opportunity to further promote our own mantras and long-held beliefs. This applies to us all, to the 100%. It certainly applies to the voluntary sector, to those of us working with children and young people.
We have caught a glimpse of the ugly underside of reality, and our separate analyses are woefully inadequate. If we take the opportunity to soulsearch together, we may have a chance of a brighter, better future. If not, we will never grow up.