Day 2 – Community Links

April 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

Taking the Docklands Light Railway past the bright lights of Canary Wharf takes you deep into the borough of Tower Hamlets, to Newham. It’s one of the most deprived areas in the UK, with seven out of ten children living in a low-income family. We’ve come to visit a youth centre run by Community Links, one of the country’s biggest community organisations.

We walk in and a tall, shy-ish guy is moving around the room speaking to the others to quiet them down. I assume he’s a member of staff as he clearly has the trust and respect of the group, though it turns out he’s simply one of the older kids. Riki, on the right of the photo below, is passionate about the centre and about the need for a place where young people like him can build up skills and relax. He’s keen to explain that every young person in the building has achieved some sort of award, and is recognised for contributing to the centre. Many of them were involved in making a music video remake of ‘Mercy Me’ which was addressed to David Cameron to try and explain the reality of living in a place like Newham.

And the reality is that there just isn’t anything to do. The bus winding through roads with boarded up houses had taken us past the occasional corner shop and fried chicken joint, a small church or mosque, with even pubs thin on the ground. When the kids talk about being ‘on the street’, that’s literally what they mean. This youth centre, open only two nights a week, is one of the few places they can come to.

Many of the youth workers have themselves been involved in the centre as young people, knowing exactly what kinds of issues young people are dealing with. One of the staff we meet, Jason, is featured in this wonderful short film about the organisation’s staff.

Although the work here is very different from the advocacy NGO world that I’m used to, I recognise some of the tools used to help young people connect and work together. One youth worker describes how once a pupil is allowed back into school after a fixed-term exclusion, she asks everyone else to sit in a circle around them. One by one, every young person says something really positive about the person sitting in the middle. Slowly, the walls of anger and resistance and protection start to disappear, and these hard young people start to melt, as trust and friendships are built.

Precisely this is what makes these centres so special – young people from different schools, different ethnic backgrounds, different worlds, can come together and have fun, learn and be together. From what I saw, although part of the reason to be there for an evening may have been the drum kit, basketball hoop or dance space – the real reason is to be in a safe space where healthy relationships can be built.

Yet already three Community Links centres have had to close due to the cuts. More are scheduled to shut their doors – including the one we visited. The council, which has supported the youth clubs, is being forced to make cuts to the tune of £70 million. A Robin Hood Tax would pay for that in 1.5 days.

Young people are told they can go to the next centre, two or three stops away on the DLR. But that means leaving a safe patch of the city, and going into another ‘postcode zone’, where the threat of violence means that for most teenagers, going there in the evening is impossible.

I ask them what they think about people working in the nearby financial sector taking home six-figure bonuses, secretly hoping they’ll show anger or resentment.

“Fair play to them” says Aaron, the guy in blue. “I’m sure they worked hard to get the grades. Yeah, fair play.”

But of course the whole thing is entirely unfair. Aaron and the others have never had the privileges of a first-class education, or parent-supported internships, that the overwhelming majority of those inside Canary Wharf have had. How can we afford to be getting rid of some of the only places where aspirations and skills are built in the face of such inequality?

As we leave the centre, a police van and the fire brigade pull up to the Leisure Center next door. Someone has tried to set it on fire.


Richard, Aaron, Stuart and Riki

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