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An Interview with Streets of Growth

Our volunteer, Jasper, with Diane and Darren from Streets of Growth
Our volunteer, Jasper, with Diane and Darren from Streets of Growth

16 year old Jasper recently spent a week’s work experience with us. Here he interviews Streets of Growth Founder Darren Way and Director Diane Peters. Set up in 2001, Streets of Growth is based in Tower Hamlets and delivers high impact community leadership programmes helping young people move away from a life affected by social disengagement, violence and poverty.

Darren, you founded Streets of Growth. What inspired you?

Darren: I remember growing up on an estate not far from here. I had left school to be a painter & decorator and was sent to a local church where Rev Andrew Mawson was turning it into a healthy living centre. I spent time coaching young people in football and teaching parents how to paint and decorate. One of the boys asked me if I would come and talk to a group of kids who wanted him to get involved in drugs. They threatened me. In that moment I got a reality check as to the sorts of pressures that young people are under. I was fortunate enough to win a Winston Churchill Fellowship. The Fellowship provides opportunities for British citizens to travel overseas to bring back fresh ideas and solutions to today’s issues, for the benefit of others in the UK.  I went over to The Bronx, studied gangs, spoke to ex-gang members and learnt about the approach that was used to tackle the problem in the USA. Then I brought the approach back to London. We opened Streets of Growth on the morning when the Twin Towers were destroyed so it is a day we will never forget.

Could you tell us about someone you have worked with?

Diane: There’s a young woman who we’re currently working with, she’s really inspired me. I’ll call her Mary if you don’t mind – that’s not her real name. Mary’s been in care for years. She was excluded from school, left the Pupil Referral Unit with low qualifications and since leaving school she hadn’t focused at all on further education or employment. She got caught up with a gang of men, who have sexually exploited her, forced drugs and alcohol on her and tried to involve her in serious criminal activity such as holding drugs for them.  Our dedicated Youth Coach has been working with her for over 15 months. It’s been a long and intensive process and we’ve had to be there with Mary in her lowest points… supporting her but also challenging her when her behaviours are harmful and destructive to her and others.

We’ve helped Mary to make the changes she needs to. This included talking and co-operating with the police and making difficult decisions about the peers she was interacting with. You cannot underestimate how tough these changes are to make. She’s on an upward path now. She’s been attending our Street School, participating in employment workshops and is now in the second term of her college course studying Business.

This is a long road for Mary and there is still a high risk of relapse into old patterns but with this intensive approach we are confident that she will move forward in her life… a life with a positive future.

How do young people find their way to you? Do you have some form of outreach programme?

Darren: We go out on to the streets, find out where young adults hangout and encourage them to get involved. Some youth also come to us proactively – they’re involved with a gang, want to escape and change their lives for the better. Some are referred by their parents, school, social services or even the police. At the moment we have a young man who is with us as part of a court sentence, this is called containment. He was already attending our sessions and when he was sentenced, the judge recognised the benefit this had on him and so demanded that he carried on attending. But people finding us or us finding them is only the first step. It can then take several months and a lot of hard work to build a trusting relationship with a young person – this can be due to a complexity of reasons including; a chaotic home life or a history of dysfunctional relationships perhaps with their parents, peers or other organisations: indeed they often become “parented” by the gangs that they are members of.

Are there any particular factors that you see in a young person’s background that leads them to Streets of Growth?

Diane: A lot of the young people that we engage with have varied social, educational, and economic issues. Many have been excluded from school. Those who did finish school often lack good qualifications.  Then there are those who might have done a Level 1 or 2 qualification in something such as Customer Service, but it has not led them to any meaningful work opportunities.

Darren: Whether they have qualifications or not most of the young people have very poor socioeconomic networks. They don’t have people around them to support them or to help them get jobs. They can get stuck on the benefits system and then resort to crime to supplement their income. We call this the Circle of Deprivation.

Do you have any plans to expand?

Darren: We are actually about to lose this building here in Poplar E14, so we are moving to two temporary spaces. For our new permanent home we are trying to convert a block of disused garages into a youth intervention & Enterprise Zone focusing on enterprise and employability skills. Many of the young people we work with are already very entrepreneurial so it will be fantastic for us to be able to channel this in the right way.  For some people it might be disorientating when we move because they may feel that we don’t have a stable enough foundation for them to come to. When we first moved from Bromley-by-Bow, we went from the postcode E3 to E14 and for some people this was a problem. This would have discouraged some people from coming because of the problems associated with being in different postcodes. You often read about the “postcode wars” between the gangs. That’s why we spend time with young people out on the streets, in their environment, so it isn’t all about then coming to us.

Darren, you said recently that the influence of women was really important when dealing with gangs. Can you tell me more?

Darren: I was talking about the distorted perception that you have to be a tough man to change tough young men. You often get a lot of alpha male guys working in this field but some of the best gang prevention work I have seen is by women. People seem to think that women are a bit of a weakness when it comes to gangs. I completely disagree! They have less ego in the workplace and are less aggressive, so the young gang members often feel that they can relate to women more easily.

Diane:  I remember having to stand between two men; one older and one younger, who were about to kick off. I think because I was a woman standing between them they didn’t fight. I don’t think either of them actually wanted to fight, they just couldn’t back down in public. As a woman you can engage with guys in a different way.

How do you monitor your work and what do you see as success?

Darren: We use a unique evaluation system that was developed in Canada which measures every effort we use and every outcome that comes from these efforts, over a three year period.

Diane: To put it in to context, we call an “effort” any contact we have with a young person like a phone call or meeting them in person. By recording all of these points of contact we can track how long it takes people to build a relationship with us. From there, we incorporate the appropriate programme or programmes and measure every inch stone of progress. We don’t simply refer young people from one organisation to another in a tick box exercise. We take our measurements very seriously so that we can produce ‘undeniable evidence.’  

Darren: There are many outcomes that we see; from people just starting to listen to us, a young person coming to the centre for the first time or someone actually leaving a gang.  

What challenges have you faced with building up the charity into what it is today?

Darren: Setting up a business in itself is difficult. So imagine trying to set up a charity where your “product” is young people that are stuck! First of all, getting funding isn’t easy but one of our biggest challenges is getting the government to embrace different models of doing this kind of work. What works here in London might not work somewhere else. You can’t cut and paste the same model across the globe because it has to be tailor made to the community. This means that often the really big charities get funded and the smaller charities that are really ingrained in their local communities miss out.  It costs £200,000 a year to run Streets of Growth, so funding is very difficult.  However, consider that it costs the taxpayer £100,000 to look after just one young person in a Youth Detention Centre for one year. We are working with between 300 – 500 young people a year to keep them away from criminality which is a massive saving to the tax payer.

How have you worked with The London Community Foundation so far & has Streets of Growth benefited from this relationship?

Diane: Immensely! We have had a number of grants from The London Community Foundation, including from The Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund, which has allowed us to hire two more youth workers. These workers can give more time and spend more hours on each individual young person.  Also it has enabled us to build up partnerships with corporate donors and give more opportunities to our young people through their CSR teams. We don’t have a marketing or partnerships team to do this sort of work normally so, as a small charity, it is really beneficial for us to have formed these relationships. The London Community Foundation is one of the best funding bodies that we have worked with, and our association with them has raised the profile of our cutting edge approach immensely.

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