Fighting back against violence
Serious youth violence is not a problem. It is several problems.
First of all, there is the obvious hurt and injury inflicted on the victim or victims of any given incident.
These can be temporary or they can linger on. They can be physical, psychological or both. Violence is a terrible thing.
Such incidents can also hamstring the lives of those who carry them out - a fact that should surprise no-one.
Moreover, there is a tendency for such behaviour to snowball; young people who commit an act of serious violence are more likely to do so again in the future.
This repeats the problem - or, rather, several problems. More victims, more disaffection, more risk of the same again.
Therefore, it is no surprise that, for those trying to tackle this problem, early intervention and prevention are key mantras.
In some ways, this is the same as everything else. It is better to stop problems from ever happening than trying to clean up afterwards.
That all makes sense, but provides little by way of illumination. Prevention and early intervention are abstractions, fine aspirations but little more than rhetoric.
How do we prevent youth violence? What early interventions actually work?
In the past couple of weeks, the Big Lottery Fund has released a report which goes some way to answering those questions.
BIG is a major funder for the third sector and has recently put some renewed focus on really squeezing the value out of the projects it supports.
By analysing the work of different projects that deal in similar areas, the organisation is in a great position to look at modern ideas and help anyone who is interested refine best practice.
So it is interesting to look at Preventing serious youth violence - what works?, part of their 2018 Knowledge and Learning Insights.
Effective prevention of young people at risk of committing violence involves a change in direction, both changing the culture around the individual(s) in question, and also building their resilience to deal with adversity, whereas those working in the sector should also strive to:
- Help families and communities to give children the best start in life, i.e. through supportive, integrated early years services and cross-sector, non- judgemental, public health approaches to violence prevention.
- Plan for the long-term and focus on achieving sustainable changes rather than quick-fixes that won’t last. Don’t under-estimate the level of trauma and chaos in many young people’s lives and the time and services required to support them.
Raising aspirations and providing positive role models is also important - both for providing alternative paths, and also boosting resilience.
Partnership working - as always - is also deemed vital in identifying at-risk young people (and training should be put in place so relevant professionals or volunteers know the warning signs when they encounter them).
When it comes to early intervention, there are several strands, with some similarities (unsurprisingly):
- Building young people’s skills and confidence to manage conflict, cope with peer pressure and make the right choices.
- Recognising the value of supportive, trusting relationships and understanding that it takes time to build these.
- Ensuring support extends into the community and builds on what is already working well locally.
- Making sure interventions for young people involved in violent lifestyles incorporate, or link with, specialist mental health support services.
- Using sport and arts to engage and promote positive values. They can be an effective element of wider diversionary or rehabilitative approaches through the development of positive values, activities and relationships.
- Finding the right time to intervene and offer ways out of violence - a ‘teachable moment’ when young people may be most receptive to making changes in their lives.
- Trusting young people as experts in their own lives - use their expertise and experience to inform and improve the design, delivery and evaluation of services. This has the potential to improve reach and ensure that services respond to the needs and wishes of young people. Create a range of levels of engagement so that young people can commit their time and inputs at a level that works for them.
The conclusions and recommendations within the report are well made but that is perhaps not where the real value is; they are very well illustrated by a series of case studies of specific projects funded by Big Lottery, and whose own input helped with the paper's evidence base.
This combination of identified themes and lessons, alongside the snapshots of different initiatives, should provide plenty to think about for people who want to tackle youth violence and all the associated problems.
This is vital, going back to those original questions above - how to prevent youth violence, and what early interventions are successful - because case studies are a great way of highlighting how the principles of successful schemes really can work.
It should also provide plenty of encouragement; these initiatives have seen some remarkable results.
The research from the Big Lottery Fund covers organisations working in various parts of the UK. One of the case studies looks at an organisation that has partnered with eight different groups here in Northern Ireland.
Fight for Peace works in 25 different countries and "combines boxing and martial arts with education and personal development to realise the potential of young people in communities affected by crime, violence and social exclusion."
It has flagship academies in Rio de Janeiro and London as well as its partnership-based global training programme (which is how it helps young people here in NI), has corporate support from companies like Credit Suisse, Ikea and Reebok, as well as the International Olympic Committee. Its methods are proven to work.
Like almost all sport, martial arts are very social and are capable of teaching teamwork in such a way that the lesson is interwoven with a sense of belonging, community and, consequentially, self worth. Therefore, it is potentially a very powerful tool.
Examples of NI organisations working with Fight for Peace include Ashton Community Trust, Colin Glen Trust, the North Belfast Area Project and the Northern Ireland Youth Forum.
The organisation describes itself thus: "Fight for Peace uses boxing and martial arts combined with education and personal development to realise the potential of young people.
"Fight for Peace supports young people in communities affected by crime and violence by creating new opportunities for them and supporting them to make the most of existing opportunities.
"In addition to providing new opportunities, our Theory of Change is based on the assumption that a young person’s behavior, situation and the choices they make, are dependent on the way they see themselves, how they relate to others, and how they see their future."
The Big Lottery Fund report notes that: "Across the 800 participants taking part in 2011, it is estimated that Fight for Peace has resulted in 165 crimes being avoided. With the cost of the project running at £580,000, evaluators believe that this model has delivered a benefit to cost ratio of £4.42 for every £1 invested.
"More than two-thirds (71%) of participants say that they are less likely to commit a crime and be a gang member as a result of their time on the project. Most feel calmer (71%) and more feel confident and ambitious (94%)."
BIG states that the programmes key success factors (in addition to the choice of sports) include:
- Long-term support: participants are involved for an average of 22 months. Around 70% of participants wouldn’t have found a similar activity in the area.
- Voluntary participation: Nothing is compulsory and young people are supported to build motivation and determination.
- Diverse engagement methods: Young people are engaged through workshops delivered in schools, they are referred by peers and youth services, and are identified by outreach workers in collaboration with police in ‘hot spot’ areas of high crime.
The research paper contains similar details on other successful projects such as:
HeadStart, a scheme which is exploring and testing ways to improve the mental health and wellbeing of young people aged 10-16 in six communities across England between 2016 and 2021.
St Giles Trust, which employs and trains reformed ex-offenders and gang members to support and mentor gang-affiliated youth.
Talent Match, a youth employability programme initiated and then designed, delivered and evaluation with young people.
Despite its level of detail the entire report, excluding its list of sources, is 25 pages long and, if you have any interest in this area, it is well worth your time.
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