‘No weapons, no balaclavas, no vapes. Thank you’ read A4 posters on the youth club walls in Lambeth, South London.
This is an area grappling with significant youth violence – and I was there to talk with young people about their experiences and hear their views. It’s a sensitive subject. And we were meeting in a room where someone had once been fatally stabbed.
‘Little faith and no trust’
That was a year ago. Since then, more than 4,600 10- to 20-year-olds across England and Wales have participated in research for the Peer Action Collective (PAC) project, sharing their experiences of violence, and their frustration at a system in which they have little faith. A system they feel doesn’t listen, and that they don’t trust. It’s hard to argue, especially in Lambeth, where the Metropolitan Police Force that exits to protect them has been deemed institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic – and given that part of the report evaluates how identity affects young people’s experiences of violence by race, gender and sexuality.
Published this week, Leading research, driving change shares sombre insights into youth violence, which come directly from young people themselves. With quotes and anecdotes, it explores the impact of violence linked to social deprivation, social and familial relationships, online spaces, and experiences of institutions including education and the police. It uncovers the impact of violence on young people as both perpetrators and victims. Importantly, the report also shares young people’s ideas for change, suggesting initiatives that could leave a positive legacy, and insights into how individuals steered away from youth violence, no matter how far along the path they were.
The report gained these insights because it wasn’t led by ‘traditional’ researchers, but by peer researchers like me; people aged 16 to 25, with our own experiences and intimate knowledge of the subject at hand. We were able to engage in a way that others have not, shrinking the distance towards understanding. For example, in Lambeth, my fellow peer researchers and I knew that many of the young people engaged in the research, like us, had to consider violence daily. We knew how, as they made their way to the youth club that morning, they weighed every decision carefully, from the clothes they wore, to the path they walked and who they walked it with, to the time they left their house, and the belongings they took with them.
Aidan, 19, was the most reluctant to speak with me, despite my repeated assurances (“No, I’m not with the police”; “Yes, it’s all confidential”). I was a stranger, yet I was asking him to trust me as much as he trusted his closest friends. “I won’t ask silly questions,” I promised. Could a ‘typical’ researcher give him that assurance – or provide the space to speak freely, with slang, entirely unrestricted?
The 10 minutes Aidan promised me became 20, then 40, until we’d spoken for an hour. His insight was powerful and carried a feeling of hopelessness. Youth violence “is an experience everyone has had, is having, or will have. And yeah, I feel it’s inevitable, I’ll be real”. This was a majority view amongst the young people I spoke with. Yet as hundreds came to take part in our local research, Aiden softened. “This whole thing is kind of beautiful, […] people need to know that it’s not just a darker path that awaits you.” Later, as we wrapped up, he admitted, “This is kind of nice, you know”. He said he hadn’t spoken about youth violence to anyone beyond his closest friends.
Realistic solutions for positive change
Meanwhile, policies and strategies are created and interventions implemented to ‘solve’ the issues of youth violence. Yet nearly everyone we spoke with said they’d never had the opportunity to reflect on their experiences, much less have a say in decisions about their lives. Like Aidan, many said it felt good to talk about their issues, address the disconnect, and voice their ideas with the hope that they might be realised through a youth-led approach.
Some 4,608 young people entrusted PAC with their experiences and opinions, and many did so with hope of having an impact that could save lives. This wasn’t tokenistic. My team and I co-created the Lambeth PAC manifesto with local young people, which is full of realistic solutions that are already influencing change and strategy in the area through meetings with MPs, councillors, and funders. Another six social action projects, guided by the manifesto, are also underway.
Aidan said, all too often, people hear a story and move on without doing anything. But I’ve seen that when young people are empowered and supported, they produce insightful research and inspire social action. Young people are the experts of their own experiences, so when it comes to addressing their vulnerability to and perpetration of violence, they must be directly involved in shaping solutions.