“SE15, SW9; is that why people are dying? Because of a couple of numbers? A couple of letters from the alphabet?”
I heard these words at an XLP Arts Showcase some years ago and I will never forget them. Their power lay in the fact they were spoken not by a politician or even a youth worker, but a 15 year old girl personally affected by the culture of fear that pervades some of London’s streets for many young people. The words remain as relevant and poignant now as they have ever been, with the Metropolitan Police publishing that three people were killed or seriously injured by knives every day in London in 2016.
As young people are struggling to find that sense of belonging amidst the challenges of educational failure, family breakdown, poverty and mental health issues, a postcode can provide identity. Sadly however this mentality can cause untold grief as conflicts and tensions arise with other neighbouring areas.
Kelly, who used to be on the edge of gangs, told me once that hearing about other young people carrying knives led her to carry a kitchen knife if she had to walk through a rough area. She said, “I’m not that type of girl, but I wanted to feel safe, especially if I was in a different area. I wanted to feel protected and that meant either being in a gang or carrying a knife.”
I sometimes ask the young people we work with why the conflicts started and none of them know. It is a reality they have grown up with and, irrespective of its beginnings, the fear remains very real for them. These young boys and girls often do not feel able to even travel on a bus through a rival area for fear of the consequences.
Any mental health expert will tell you of the effect that this constant paranoia can have on your mental wellbeing and understanding this context can help reveal what lies behind their behaviour.
In London we are in the very fortunate position of being surrounded by a huge level of diversity, in backgrounds, religions and outlooks. However we should never forget that there is more that unites us than divides us. Sadiq Khan, as London's first Muslim Mayor, is in a great position to model this attitude of uniting and not dividing and I hope he takes the opportunity. True faith will always want to serve the common good and this offers great potential to see this capital changed for the better.
In my experience, prejudices and fear exist most strongly when people are isolated from each other. Sometimes at XLP we take young people from different areas away together on a camp; at the start of the week the tension is always palpable but before long they find that despite their postcodes they have lots in common. By the end of the week they have often made long-lasting friendships. To achieve lasting peace in London we must break down the ‘them and us’ mentality and get to know the ‘other’ in our communities, whoever they are. This challenge applies not just to our young people but to all of us.
Patrick Regan OBE
Founder & CEO of XLP