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Young people work the estates to foster civic pride after the riots - April-27-12
Source: The Guardian - Youth Justice
You could be forgiven for thinking that in an area like Tottenham, youth engagement is a little lukewarm. But the anarchy that shook its north London estates last August masked the efforts of a small army of young people who have been changing their communities for the better.
The Haringey Young Advisors, a group of 20 youngsters aged between 15 and 21, has already "youth-proofed" the arms' length management organisation Homes for Haringey's in its handling of community involvement, engagement and estate-safety strategies.
The team has helped stamp out a growing anti-social behaviour problem and is persuading peers to get stuck in with civic duties. This is no easy task in an area like Haringey, which includes Tottenham and Wood Green and has plenty of gloomy statistics.
The local authority ranks 13th most economically deprived in the country, while Tottenham MP David Lammy recently told advisers they face the reality of 43 people chasing the same job in a constituency where long-term youth unemployment has increased by 90% since 2011.
Despite this, Marlon Bruce, a youth outreach worker for Homes for Haringey, says the advisers' work is not a tokenistic nod to youth engagement on its troubled estates. "I see them as experts in their fields. They have shaped the organisation's thinking from good practice in participation towards genuine partnership working, with young people as full stakeholders," he explains.
Being trained and paid for their work, the advisers have just held their first conference. They are now starting to offer consultancy skills to other housing providers in a move towards becoming a youth-led social enterprise.
Adviser Joy Owusu, 17, is already consulting locally. "I am in a project where we give the local community skills that I have learned," she says. "I'm also teaching councillors how to ask for funding for the local area and we are giving older people; including youth workers and others working for the council, skills we know – how to network and get funding."
A large part of what the advisers do is rally support for positive community action among their peers – something Homes for Haringey says is critical to galvanising young people so they understand the importance of civic duties and the change they can make if given the chance.
Adviser Derekston James, 20, says he can speak to his peers better than the arms-length management organisation's managers. "We have our own language that a lot of older people might find offensive." But at the same time, he says, you have to address people in the community who may be apprehensive or hostile. "You have to be able to open your mouth and make people realise you're trying to do something good here."
Owusu heads into schools to ask children what they dislike about their communities – something that always evokes a response. "If someone says they're keen on planting and growing things, we can get them involved in green areas in the local community."
On Wood Green's Sandlings estate, Owusu says young people were given the chance to feed into the new design of a park after the last one was continuously vandalised. "There's [now] more pride [in the park]. It's now being looked after much more and we're more protective of it. We've asked for community police officers to patrol that area," she says.
Some of the advisors do not start off so keen. James admits it was boredom that drove him to become an advisor, but he soon saw its potential. "We set up the first youth-led community in London; like a residents association, and everything ran through us. If we had an idea then we looked for funding for it. We opened up youth clubs and from there we created other things."
Not only has he learned the lingo of successful bids, securing £3,000 for a community youth centre and IT suite, but it was James along with advisor Remy Telfer, 21, who helped breakdown the creeping mistrust between young and old on the Sandlings estate.
"There was a lot of anti-social behaviour there. We accessed grassroots funding and took 60 people on a trip to Rochester Castle," he says. " Each young person was paired-up with a senior… there was a purpose to talk to each other. No one mentioned the incentives and within three months the environment on the estate had changed."
Bruce says that in areas where engagement is difficult, it is important to get marginalised young people involved.
"They are part of the community we are trying to change for the better. If you are making policies about them, you have to speak to the people it affects."
He says people in youth centres and those signing on are already engaged. "It is the ones we can't reach that way, the gang members, drug abusers, young single parents, prison leavers," he says. Trying to find common ground and building trust, with individuals that already feel marginalised is challenging.
But the best results come when he sees these youngsters attending workshops and focus groups to air their opinions in front of others – a process that can take years.
For now, it is imperative that housing providers face up to the bleak but very real prospects for their young residents. Michelle Reid, chief executive of the Tenant Participation Advisory Service, which has given the advisers several national awards for their work, says it is young people who will be hardest hit welfare reforms and the continuing housing crisis.
"This is not just about asking young people what they want to change; it is about integrating them in the process and recognising their time and skills … good providers need to harness creative thought now and create solutions that work with young people to plan for that future now."
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