Back in January 2015, I started mentoring a 12-year-old boy called Jhemar at an after-school club in south London. I would print off a page of poetry or lyricism at the library and catch the bus down to Brixton Hill to meet him. Jhemar titled our work book ‘The Book of Wisdom’, and in its pages we dissected the internal rhymes of Nas, the social realism of Jehst and Kano, and the postcolonial identities of John Agard and Benjamin Zephaniah. Jhemar was upbeat and likeable, but he found it hard to concentrate at school, and would get in trouble for speaking out of turn. To empty his mind of busy thoughts, he wrote raps, which he would perform to me, as if on stage.
A few months later, I started volunteering at a community centre in another part of Lambeth, where local teenagers would gather, and won funding to launch a discussion group there on Friday evenings. The most loyal participant was called Carl, a bright, smiley 14-year-old who took pride in being an athlete with a vegan diet. He soon opened up about his father leaving his family home and being permanently excluded from school. For him and his friends, the youth club was a ritual of comfort and support, away from the dangerous, overpoliced roads, the discipline of teachers and the negative influence of others on his estate.
Around the same time, I started working as a mentor at an academy in Elephant and Castle. On the application form for my programme, students were asked: “Why do you want to study at university?” One of them, called Demetri, scribbled: “To understand why so many boys in my community carry knives.” I invited him for an interview. Demetri explained that, months before, a student in the year above him had been stabbed to death metres from his front door. I encouraged him to apply his academic subjects – geography, sociology, philosophy – to his experience of London life. He pondered how gentrification was changing his area and became interested in Michel Foucault’s ideas about surveillance. He helped me to set up an intervention for younger students at risk of exclusion, which would later inform his application to study criminology at university.
Jhemar, Carl and Demetri are three characters in my book, Cut Short: Why We’re Failing Our Youth – and How to Fix It, a story whose chapters break off into interviews with experts about a range of themes: education, social media, criminal justice, public health. It’s a testimony for the life-saving value of youth work, an argument against the government’s policy of austerity, and my purest attempt to explain and respond to rising serious youth violence.
The stories sketched above started off in an ordinary world of innocence and hope. But it wasn’t long before the city’s unforgiving forces dragged their paths into the dark unknown. In November 2017, Jhemar’s older half-brother, Michael, who he idolised, became the 42nd minor of the year in the UK to be stabbed to death. In the summer of 2018, Carl started carrying weapons to defend himself from rivals, and sold drugs so he didn’t have to keep asking his mum for money. We met at the community centre every few weeks, but the daily protection and brotherhood offered by gang life beckoned. Demetri kept his head down, studying for his exams, mentoring younger students at his school. But despite our best efforts, several of them were excluded for carrying knives in their blazer pockets. He eventually made it to Goldsmiths University, but a number of his friends would be arrested and sent to prison.
These zoomed-in anecdotes belong to zoomed-out trends, like dabs of paint on a portrait canvas. British society not only fails vulnerable young people: many of our systems actively harm them. The most academic students in inner-city schools, those who are able to toe the line, win the education market’s game. Students who struggle to keep up, behave or follow classroom rules – disproportionately those with special educational needs (SEN) and unstable home lives – get easily ground down and, at worst, disposed of. Alongside stagnant wages, rising rents, inflated living costs and hollowed-out public services, the Conservative government has repeatedly opted for punishment over prevention as a response to rising violent crime amongst children.
Between 2015 and 2019, most measures of serious youth violence rose year on year, from the number of people arrested for carrying a bladed article to the number of hospital admissions caused by stabbings and shootings (they briefly fell with the Covid lockdown of 2020, before rising again across 2021). Yet across the same period, more school exclusions took place than ever before and more people were sent to prison – amongst the young, a wildly disproportionate number of whom were Black – as funding for early years, youth and mental health services were slashed at unprecedented rates.
The less the state communicates to its youth that they matter, the less they believe it themselves. During our meetings, as I sensed Carl descending into a precarious existence of knife fights, trap houses and strip searches, he would refer to feeling like his life held no value. So he took greater risks with it. “Why do you think boys like me are involved in all this mad stuff?” he asked. “Nobody cares about us, that’s why. I have to help myself. I have to do crazy things to stay alive. The more I do them, the less crazy they become.” He told me that the only time he ever felt safe and calm enough to explain his predicament to an adult was with me and other staff at the youth club. This is precisely why the closure of more than 100 youth clubs and the halving of funding for youth services in London since 2011 has been such a visceral tear on the fabric of urban life. These brick-and-mortar institutions, safe havens for young people fearing for their lives, are gone. They aren’t coming back.
Youth violence happens most in communities where children are neglected, abused, isolated and excluded; habitually shamed by figures of authority and one another; and overcome with intergenerational trauma inherited from their elders. Unsurprisingly, most violence is committed by boys and men. Male students are far more likely to be excluded from school, and the overwhelming majority of people caught in the criminal justice system are men. This is why Cut Short, and my youth work more broadly, focuses on comprehending and intercepting the young male experience. By providing safe, one-to-one and group spaces for confused and traumatised boys to open up, it becomes easier to detect and challenge toxic masculinity, misogyny, sexual violence and bravado. This is, of course, not to disregard the female experience and perspective – far from it. Aside from their experience at the receiving end of violence from boys and men, girls and women are often the primary unsung preventers of, and responders to, instances of male-on-male violence. They take phone calls when their male counterparts need someone to cry to. They lay the flowers on the pavement following a murder.
Social media presents a perpetually respawning web of invisible problems for carers, educators and policymakers to grapple with. The heightened capacity for provocations between teenagers online to convert into real-life altercations is a worry. But the misuse of digital platforms isn’t confined to young people. Standards are set by the adults in charge. Much of my current advocacy work is concerned with fighting the exploding tendency for prosecution teams in British courts to use typed conversations, photographic and video imagery, and written or performed musical lyricism pulled from a young person’s smartphone, or YouTube, to secure their conviction, often in the absence of other substantive evidence. The therapeutic roots of hip hop and distorting aims of online influencers are being ignored.
This reinforces the already gaping social and racial inequalities present in the criminal justice system. In almost all cases I’ve worked on over the last 18 months, the (violent) lyrics of poor, Black young men have been mistranslated by older, whiter, culturally-blind police officers in order to present spoken word and music as a moral wrong in itself, to frame words written as metaphor and hyperbole as literal admissions of guilt. This is done to construct a simplistic ‘gang warfare’ narrative and paint an exaggerated, presumptively violent profile about the accused. Unless this flawed conveyor belt is halted, its logic challenged, which is expensive and time-consuming, it slips by unnoticed, behind closed doors, widening the criminal net and therefore scooping up more and more boys of colour into the revolving door of prison life.
These are, of course, just some of the issues at hand. There’s no universal cure for such deep curses, no magic wand. But pressure makes diamonds. The most striking, sustainable solutions for preventing youth violence are borne out of bottom-up need. Communities affected most by social breakdown have the answers. Young people deserve a therapeutic or creative forum in which to talk through their traumatic experiences – the police officer who knelt on their back and muttered racial slurs in their ear; the classmate stabbed outside the school gates – without being judged, punished, or rushed to attend their next lesson. They need to see themselves as valued, but also powerful – capable of defining their own freedoms and carving out their own trajectories.
The three young men whose stories unfold in Cut Short helped me as paid researchers to weave their respective narrative threads into the book: colouring in scenes, fleshing out thoughts, refining dialogue and argument. This collaboration not only meant I was able to produce what I hope is a work of authenticity. It also allowed each of them to have their voices heard. For them, writing the book was, in itself, a medium of youth work, a way of making sense and seizing control of their world.
Jhemar resisted every urge to take revenge for his brother’s murder. He has since turned his family’s pain into a fierce determination to make change in his community. Now 20, he delivers regular workshops in schools across Brixton, provides consultancy for social media companies about the safety of their young users, and trains the Met police to conduct respectful stop-and-searches. He writes his thoughts and observations down in raps every day, and takes regular trips to the studio to record them. A thriving career in music lies ahead.
After receiving months of focused, multi-agency support from different organisations in Brixton across 2019-2020, Carl was able to leave street life behind. He is still healing, but having picked up athletics again, he now competes in regional competitions across England and aspires to make it to the Paris Olympics in 2024. He proudly insists that his team members read Cut Short so they understand the journey he’s been on.
Now nearing the end of his undergraduate degree, Demetri is a youth member of the Walworth Town Hall Community Space management board in Elephant and Castle, which gives him a say on the rapid development of his local area. He has recently been granted funding by the Blagrave Trust to establish his own after school club for local teenagers.
The paperback of Cut Short was published this summer. It contains educational questions for mentors, carers, students and reading groups to hold conversations about the themes and events of each chapter. It isn’t just a story: it’s also a resource. I recently partnered with Nurture UK and the London Violence Reduction Unit to design and launch Pattern, a storytelling intervention for male students at risk of permanent exclusion in London schools. The programme combines trauma-informed youth work practice with reflective writing exercises to encourage boys to relax, collaborate in solving problems, communicate their frustrations on the page and feel more positive about their school week. I’ve been delivering it with youth worker, rapper and writer Franklyn Addo as part of my community interest company, RoadWorks LDN. Demetri supports us as a classroom assistant. Each group we work with produces an anthology of writing, which is then printed and distributed to their school community. Instead of mere jokers, the aim is to remind them, and everyone else, their student body and staff base, that they’re kings.
A long road lies ahead, with many systemic battles to be won. Wider society and the state are ultimately responsible for the most vulnerable people. But one way of urgently arming teenagers living in proximity to violence and exclusion with the tools to navigate the way forwards without harm is by supporting them to be heroes in their own stories. As Jhemar exclaims in one of the last scenes of Cut Short:
“There is always hope to do better for other people […] people don’t recognise the power of conversation. And if you are looking to get involved in youth work then please do, because I’m telling you, having a mentor was a life-changer to man! It was mad! When I reflect on things, it’s like, woah! What could I have been doing now? I may not even be here now, you get it? So please do speak to the young people around you. Trust me, you can make a difference.”