To many the ‘openness’ of London initiates aspirations, dreams and talents, it is a place of community, a melting pot of culture and a champion of upward social mobility. Despite these positives, for many individuals this utopian principle of London is a far reaching ideal, as a proud Londoner myself the realities of living in the backstreets of London is often ignored and disregarded in the media, policy reports and social research. These realities include the growing racial, social and structural disparities in institutional settings, the rise in homelessness, the prominence of school exclusions and the lack of opportunities for young people in inner London. On many occasions the voices of underrepresented communities in those areas are often misrepresented and misunderstood particularly on issues relating to the reformation of employment, education, healthcare, housing, security and youth services. As a result of this, there has been an array of campaigns to bridge the gap between external stakeholders, policymakers, community members in the involvement of borough reviews and initiatives. This includes strategies that involve having honest conversation with young people and their families on the issues that are important to them and their involvement on the reconstruction of local governmental policies and initiatives. Recently I was one of those community members as alongside my colleagues at IARS I was invited to partake in the Southwark Youth Service Review to provide suggestions on how the London Borough of Southwark could improve youth services for young people living in the area.
Prior to participating in the review meeting, I felt it was important to acknowledge the demographic population of Southwark and the challenges that arises within it. Like many inner city London Boroughs, Southwark is placed at the heart of London through its connection of the River Thames, landmark historical buildings and horticultural parks. The advantages of this are highlighted in the borough’s 2017-2020 strategy report which describes ‘Southwark’ as an amazing place grow up and an area of mass ‘opportunities’. The ethnic and cultural diversity of the Borough contend to this, in which 54% of Southwark’s population is ethnically White. 25% black. 11% Asian and 10% other (General London Assembly, 2017). Although I did not grow up in Southwark this trend is very similar to the borough I grew up in relation to the friends I had, the diverse demography of school I went to and the opportunities it provided in relation to education and personal flourishment. In addition to this, the borough also prides itself in investing in leisure services, sports and activities which include the development of multipurpose playgrounds, activity centers and educational training programs. Despite these initiatives, many young people within the area face many challenges which are beyond their control. According to the Child Poverty Action Group (2018) Southwark is the 9th poorest area in London and 18th poorest in England in which 30% to 40% of young people living in the borough were living in poverty. Within, the Southwark Youth Review meeting, youth workers, professionals and young people in the area acknowledged the lack of financial supports as an underlying issue from the challenges they encounter.
As the meeting was a focus group led meeting, the youth workers, young people and other community members were prompted with questions relating to the needs of young people and the response mechanisms in fulfilling those needs. The questions aligned with the strategy point of Southwark council which entailed the council’s commitment to the health and happiness of young people, the active civic participation of young people, the safety of young people and the opportunity for personal and professional development. All participants were asked to converse within the designated groups (groups A, B and C) to identify some of the key issues within the borough and identify the most pressing issues. Across the board examples of these included the needs for more funding in youth services, more funding in security and protection, easy accessibility to mental health services, safe areas to hang out and employment opportunities such as vocational courses in computing, arts and music. These questions and discussion made me reflect on my own childhood and the opportunities that were available to them in relation to youth services and employment opportunities. I had a lot of sympathy for the young people in relation to their anxieties of the contentious environment they were growing in and the working class struggles that were ignored. Growing up in inner London I witnessed firsthand the closure of youth club, the reduction of after school clubs, the closure of local libraries and the rise of knife crime.
This issue was at the forefront of many of the discussions from the youth workers and young people on how reduced funding in services have hindered opportunities, restricted access and increased disinterest in the community. An examples mentioned by professionals was the issues of ‘gentrification’ and the implications it presented in relation to child poverty. The term gentrification is acknowledged as a form of ‘social cleansing’ which involves economic development that conforms to the middle-class norms (The Huffington Post, 2018). The high cost of housing was a contested example as many young people expressed how they were forced to move out of their childhood homes because their parents couldn’t afford the rent or the landlords wanted other ‘richer’ tenants. What was surprising was how they expressed their difficulties in moving homes and the settling in process, in terms of how safe they found their new environments and the access they had to youth services in the borough. It is very easy to forget how significant life changes such as moving homes can have on a young person’s life; it can lead to isolation which can spiral into mental health problems such as anxiety and trauma. Although, the outcomes of the Council’s strategy state the needs for the health, happiness and security of young people, the response in relation to social policy and welfare has been an issue of concern for many professionals in terms of providing stability and maintaining trust in the young person’s life.
From the meeting notes I gathered, a common theme that was highlighted from all the participants involved was the vagueness of what the term ‘opportunity’ and how they came about. This was underpinned by the issues of engagement and retention for the most disadvantaged of individuals in the community such as their safety when travelling to the youth services, the frequency of activities and the long term opportunities they would provide. This bought me to reflect on the position of IARS as a youth focused organization on their contribution to providing effective youth services in and around Southwark such as:
1. Certified provisions (via YouthPass and ESC certification) to a minimum of 60 young people of marginalized backgrounds. The accredited training programmers will cover the themes of employability, entrepreneurship and citizenship which aims to empower young people to become active participants within their communities.
2. Youth led community awareness events that will engage young people and professionals through training programs that center around the themes of employability, entrepreneurship, legal literacy and citizenship. These events will aim to amplify the learning and knowledge generated in the sessions/
3. Work shadowing and mentoring opportunities for 20 young marginalized people. They will be observing a professional in their jobs to gain a better understanding of their roles. This will offer insight to young people about their specific professional roles which will inspire them to continue with their education,
4. 275 volunteering opportunities and 20 structured internships at the IARS offices- This will provide volunteering opportunities in event organization, conducting research, contributing to policy reports, communications and campaigning. This will provide the opportunity for them to learn new skills in an environment that encourages personal and professional development.
5. Youth award ceremonies which will be delivered in Southwark to reward and celebrate achievements of young people. This is to promote positive citizenship and inspire young people to continue their positive work commitments and contribute to their communities.
Despite, the cost effective, opportunistic and inclusive nature of these provisions, one of the main issues IARS and many other stakeholders face revolves around the outreach of these initiatives into the different communities in the area and the capacity of volunteer services This includes the consistency of programs and the involvement of community members in tackling inner London issues together. In March 2019, Southwark Council launched a new funding scheme to help alleviate some of the pressure’s community-based organizations encounter. These funding schemes include the Positive Futures Fund which helps community groups to set up youth projects in the borough. Just like the work of IARs, the projects do not just intend to support young people but make them central to the decision-making process on issues on young people like knife crime, health and wellbeing. The work of IARs contends to these initiatives as an organization committed to elevating the voice of young people and ensuring that they have a say in their future and shape thy services they want to use. Therefore, I am interested in working as a project assistant on the Southwark Project to work with other organizations in the coproduction of youth services.
General London Assembly (2017) London Datastore. Available at: https://data.london.gov.uk/dataset/gla-population-projections-custom-age-tables. Accessed: 26/03/2020
Child Poverty Action Group (2018) Child Poverty in Southwark. Available at: file:///C:/Users/hp/Downloads/Southwark%20(2).pdf. Accessed: 26/03/2020
The Huffington Post (2018) Diagnosing Gentrification. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/diagnosing-gentrification-health_n_5a7c3af9e4b0c6726e0fd9ec?ri18n=true&guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly9jb25zZW50LnlhaG9vLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAALtHeGb_NTAN2mm1Qj3CvplXHLrhH2yS9RztuvZi1Rr8by3qjBrjTWoNZQBimsI2ANVswRwGGsZT4WvzEjiHgy36Axz4UOSrBfjZlf-URBMR5yQzi-f9byKTLO0_QJtbS46ShTSoH4aoA3u1ymABnoMXEzRiGwgeDeYTXTVsw3cK. Accessed: 26/03/2020