I didn’t want to write about the riots. It seemed somehow too opportunistic but there are things that have been whirring around my mind, disturbing my sleep and creating a growing sense of frustration. I feel compelled to start any contribution regarding the riots with the prerequisite condemnation of violence and and assertion that there can be no excuses. My failure to do so on my Facebook updates led to some pretty angry comments. I naively thought that it went without saying that there are no excuses for such destructive actions – that now said, we sooner rather than later need to move the debate on. We have to go beyond righteous indignation and the language of feral youth, rubber bullets and army interventions if we are going to change rather than simply contain these destructive types of behaviours. There are causes that are deeply engrained within the society we have created. We have created in our towns and cities communities of young people that are hopeless – lacking in hope. A generation that believe that they can only command dignity, self value and the respect of their peers by what they are able to wear and consume, a generation that has aspiration but no belief in their abilities to achieve the celebrity lifestyles that are so aggressively marketed to them, represented across our media in magazines, sports pages, advertising, news, film and tv. The traditional mechanisms of achievement – working hard, relevant education and contributing to our communities are no longer perceived to offer the opportunities to succeed in life. Many that exist within these communities have a belief that greed is good and taking what you want by whatever means is acceptable, is perhaps the only way to get what we’re told we need. A view that is too frequently endorsed and echoed across society and by adult role models everywhere – everyone’s on the take and so why don’t we just take it. Expenses scandals and the banking crisis have only served to expand and mainstream these notions. Popular television programmes like The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den perpetuate the principle that it’s money that matters above all else. Our power to buy and consume defines us and is the only relevant measure of success.
Our political leaders have been complicit in this messaging. Money and the ability to buy what we want whenever we want is all we apparently want. Peter Mandelson was entirely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich, the current administration and indeed the shadow cabinet seem to demonstrate that money is a critical factor in achieving a good education, good prospects, power and success. You’ve probably got more chance of winning the lottery than of ‘making it’ if you’re from a poor background, have useless parents and attend a sink school. And the evidence is flooding in that cuts are hitting certain people with disproportionate ferocity; the young, the poor and the black communities are not faring well, although they are by no means the only ones that have very nearly lost it all.
When at Sunlight I worked with lots of young people some of whom who would frequently be labelled as ‘chavs’ – a miserable term for young poor people. One young guy, just 17, had absent parents, no qualifications, a drug, drink and thieving habit and no permanent home. He was heavily criminalised – peddling stolen stuff, drugs and was happy to risk everything by robbing and dealing because in his view he had nothing left to lose and no real opportunity to get what he thought he wanted from life. This lad is now an FA-qualified footie coach and runs 4 weekly football teams. He’s now a responsible father of 2 children and an influential role model, a community leader and a friend to scores of young people in a very challenged, highly deprived community. He plays the role of parent to many. Well he does now, but won’t be able to in just four weeks’ time. The contracts he had through the extended schools programme, his employment through his local development trust, bits of additional funding he sourced through a patchwork of small grants that paid for kits, match fees and transport are all evaporating bit by bit, leading to the closure of the project and the end of his job. The temptation to return to less productive ways of living will not suck my friend back into his old ways but I can’t be so sure that the same is true for those who rely on him.
Today I visited one our members in Harlesden NW London. What Jennifer and her crew at Bang achieve is astonishing, hundreds of young people engaged in projects that meet their individual needs and talents. Jennifer is constantly having to use her creativity to crawl through the hoops and processes that her customers and funders create. It gets in the way of meeting the needs of young people. She and her team are expected to transform lives within the contracted 30 hours of contact which they get. Not 30 hours a week, not 30 hours a month but just 30 hours. That 30 hours of funding is expected to take a frequently cynical, beaten, unmotivated young person lacking in basic skills and develop them into a work-ready, reliable, purposeful person. Jennifer describes many of the young people with whom she works as people born without any known reason for their lives.
It’s easy to feel sad and pessimistic. But Jennifer asked me to do something. She asked that I search for funding that will enable young people from within our most disadvantaged communities to set up their own social enterprises. “If we all work this way in the future then we’ll be alright, if we continue to work like the banks and normal businesses then we won’t,” she says. “The good thing about setting up a social enterprise is that you can’t lose. Even if your business goes under then you still haven’t lost. You’ll have business skills, social skills, connections and you’ll understand you have a purpose and a reason for your life – I set one up because I knew I couldn’t lose.”
The government needs to be radical – they need to link social and economic policy, we need to move away from business as usual because business as usual has failed our most challenged communities for decades and has more recently shattered our economy for good. A more balanced and plural economy with social enterprise at its heart will not only radically improve the way public services are delivered but could create the opportunities and most importantly, hope. Opportunity, mobility and hope offer the only real solutions to what the recent violence has highlighted – social dysfunction on a grand scale.