My community in south London lives in the shadow of knife crime. Young people have been killed on our street and the threat of violence continually affects the young people we know and care about. As a father of three children, including two teenage boys, I am more anxious than ever about their safety.
Like all enduring social problems, knife crime is complex. If it wasn’t, it would get solved quickly. I find this model helpful in thinking about the combination of causes of the violence:
Of course, a key factor is the most obvious form of poverty – a basic lack of resources. Low income, insecure employment, zero-hour contracts and the lack of affordable housing all play a role in feeding the inequality which disaffects young people.
But in addition, there are the community resources which support and guide young people in the right direction. Exclusions from school may help improve exam statistics, but the cost is paid by communities affected by disillusioned young people cast adrift from the educational system. The Police are more stretched than ever and all statutory youth services have cut to the bone.
But equally as important as resources are relationships. Appreciation for the hard work of single mothers should never lead us to downplay the importance of fathers. Too many young men do not have consistent male role-models who show them how to contain and manage their anger and frustration.
Outside of families, we don’t have enough adults volunteering in youth groups and mentoring programmes. Our busyness means that we are not involved enough in the lives of others – we don’t know who the kids are who are hanging around the street corner. Too often, our only relationship with them is one of fear.
Most significantly, underneath both of these is an underlying poverty of identity. Many young people do not feel a sense of significance or worth about their own lives, let alone about others.
Many grow up in a context of poor boundaries around their behaviour. The result is not having a secure sense of identity and who they are. Many struggle to modulate themselves in conflict situations or empathise with others. Relationships within gangs, however fractured and fluid, can provide a sense of identity.
Debates around the causes of knife crime frequently turn into a blame game. Some will put all the fault on the government or the local council because they are seen to control the resources that can make a difference.
But the debate also needs to be more personal. This is a community problem. It requires a community response. What can each of us do to make a difference?
Two factors which I see as key to making a difference are sport and faith.
A sporting chance
Over the last 5 years, I have coached a youth cricket team and run an informal football club for a group of local kids who are now 14-15 years old.
Purely in itself, sport means very little. But what sport can teach people means a huge amount. Team work, resilience, courage, tenacity, coping with disappointment and failure are all qualities young people need to learn.
Adults can assist this learning process. They can referee a match to maintain fair boundaries and ensure arguments don’t boil over. They can coach and encourage a young person to develop their skills. Adults can role-model positive behaviour, so that whatever the result, they take a lead in shaking hands with opponents and handling defeat well.
On a train this week, I bumped into the dad of a boy I used to coach cricket to. He said what a difference being in the team had made to his son’s confidence. He said ‘cricket has helped him become a man’.
Faith in young people
Churches are by far the biggest employer of youth workers in the country and they have a massive role to play in this knife crime crisis. Churches have connections, trust and resources within local communities that few other institutions do. But most importantly, the gospel message is directly relevant to saving young people from the carnage of violence and crime.
I don’t believe that young people are not interested in faith. They may not want to sit through a long, boring services which says nothing to them about their life. But that doesn’t mean they are not interested in questions about purpose, forgiveness and the meaning of life. About half of my football club now go to a group at my church which is currently running the Youth Alpha course.
Faith can help young people develop positive relationships with others and find a renewed identity which is affirming and purposeful.
We are currently in a crisis of violence in urban communities. But the Chinese symbol for the word ‘crisis’ is made up of two words: danger and opportunity.
Of course there are many dangers in the situation, especially for young people. But there is also great opportunities for us all to play a constructive role. We must have faith in young people and in do something, however small, to combat the poverty that leads to knife crime.