Girl power

19th September 2008 at 01:00
Changing hearts and minds on gang culture

Eyes fixed firmly on the floor, Alieh walks to the front of the group. Faces turn to her, chairs scrape into position and the chatter subsides. Still looking down, Alieh lifts the microphone and launches into "Amazing Grace".

It's one of those moments that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Not just that her voice seems too big for a 12-year-old with the microphone, or that she silenced a group of her peers with the first note, but also that the only reason Alieh is here is because she has low self- esteem.

Alieh is one of 30 girls from south Manchester brought together for a four-day conference at Urbis, the city's exhibition centre on urban life. As well as taking part in creative and team-building exercises, the girls are introduced to their mentors - women who will work with them over the next few months.

The project, dubbed Reclaim, has set out to raise aspirations in some of Manchester's most deprived communities, but it isn't just for pupils with low self-esteem. It is also targeting girls with links to gang culture, drugs or crime, or who have behavioural problems.

One girl has a relative awaiting trial on gang-related offences, another lost her father to drugs when she was four, others are persistent truants or regularly in trouble at school. The common theme is that all have been nominated by their teachers because of their potential for leadership.

A similar project was aimed at boys last year. Conference organiser Ruth Ibegbuna, director of learning at Urbis and a former teacher, believes girls can be just as affected by crime and gang culture.

"There is a lot of emphasis on boys, because they're the main victims and the main perpetrators of crime, but girls are at risk of being drawn into it, too," she says. "Maybe not as the people who fire the gun or carry a knife, but they have the pressures of being the sisters and girlfriends.

"It's all very well to tell them to steer away from crime, but you have to give them alternatives."

Ruth approached five secondary schools in the south of the city, asking each to identify six girls who could benefit from the programme. The schools were asked not to send friendship groups, or girls who might prove too disruptive.

The conference involves a series of speakers and group activities. On day one, the girls looked at stereotypes and heard from women who had been successful despite unpromising beginnings; day two revolved around organising and staging a party for children at local primary schools. Today, day three, the girls are taking part in workshops on drama, fashion and MCing, while tomorrow, the final day, will be given over to preparing a group manifesto. The idea is for the girls to draw up a declaration of their aims (see page 16), which they will distribute around their communities.

Sinead, 13, has come straight out of a drama workshop, playing a jealous bully in an improvised - and pretty realistic-looking - scene. She is a pupil at Chorlton High, and has grown up surrounded by gangs. "I don't see them as that, though, because I've known them since I was little," she says.

Sinead admits she's regularly in trouble at school, mainly for arguing with teachers, but she's aware she is a natural leader. "I've got it, but sometimes I don't use it in a positive way."

Her ambition is to be a lawyer. "I know I can do what I want if I put my mind to it," she says, before adding ruefully: "It would be a bit unexpected for me to make something of myself."

The girls' project is based closely on its predecessor, although the boys did drumming instead of fashion. But key changes include more emphasis on getting parents fully involved and pitching it at Year 8 instead of Year 9. "If you really want to offer choice, you have to get in there before their mindsets have been decided upon," Ruth says.

Deanika, 13, was initially reluctant to come, believing it was "a kind of brat camp", but three days in she's glad she did. "It boosts your confidence if they think you've got leadership skills." She is also a pupil at Chorlton High and is frustrated by the common perception about children from the more deprived areas of Manchester. "They see us as people who are going to fail." Schools are not exempt from stereotyping, she believes. "If you're white you get pushed that extra step, but we all need pushing."

Deanika confesses to being regularly in trouble at school, but at least for today she is inspired. "I've had real ups and downs at school, but this has opened my eyes. Just because things aren't going so well or you don't have the best background, doesn't mean you're not going to make it."

Frances echoes this feeling. The 13-year-old, a pupil at Manchester Academy, has encountered her fair share of prejudice as she comes from the Moss Side area of the city. When her mum was in hospital, the family of the woman in the next bed asked for their relative to be moved.

Frances admits to being in regular detentions, but the past three days have shown her there is another way. "It's made me realise I should work harder and taught me to believe in myself. There are opportunities. If you don't take them you might not get the chance again," she says.

That's exactly the sort of response Ian Jameson, head of Year 8 at Chorlton High, was hoping for when he nominated five girls to take part. "I want them to come out of it fired up about themselves," he says.

Ian chose girls based on their leadership qualities in the hope they could become role models for younger ones. "Young women in south Manchester are subject to all sorts of pressures that mean they're at risk of underachievement. Hopefully this can have some trickle-down effect." Insight and advice from these girls is likely to be more credible than from adults, he says.

Despite their sometimes difficult backgrounds, Ian says the girls share one other thing beside leadership potential: they all have high aspirations; expectations that are shared by their families.

"This is a way of connecting aspiration with reality, giving them a route from being a young person at Chorlton High School to their future," says Ian.

He feels it is important to be realistic about what can be achieved over the four days, but perhaps more important from Ian's point of view is the three-month mentoring support offered by the project.

"I realise not everyone will make the same progress, but mentoring by people who are volunteering is a big resource to buy into," he says.

Ruth is also keen not to raise expectations too high. She says Reclaim is not about creating model citizens, but about showing there is a choice. "We can't guarantee that these girls are going to stay on the straight and narrow for the next five years, we can't hold their hands for the rest of their lives, but we can show them that there are alternatives."

But it has had an immediate impact on Keonshai, a 13-year-old pupil from Whalley Range High: making her think about changing her behaviour in school. "I'm not a bad kid, but I do get in a fair amount of trouble. I think Reclaim will change how I am towards other people and how I put myself across," she says.

Fresh from her singing triumph, Alieh, who goes to Trinity Church of England High, is basking in the confidence boost she has got from the conference. She recalls how earlier she was asked to list five good things about herself. "I wrote: `I can sing, I've got an outrageous laugh, I'm up for a challenge, I always like joking and .' I forget the other one."

There is something else she can take away from Reclaim. Her ambition is to study medicine at university and, from what she's heard over the past few days, there's no reason she won't get there. "They tell you never to give up and to get back up. It doesn't matter who you are or where you come from, everyone is special and we all have a voice."

As listening to her impromptu acappella can testify, that much certainly is true.


Much of the responsibility for trying to maintain the girls' initial enthusiasm lies with the mentors. The 15 women are recruited through newspaper adverts to offer advice and support to the girls. They are asked to give an initial commitment of three months, although the relationships could continue after that.

Sonia Stewart, a local government officer, is one of the volunteers. She was brought up in Moss Side and knows the importance of having good role models. "These children get labelled and they start to believe they can't achieve anything. They think nobody believes in them."

She says the change in the girls, even over the first two and a half days, has been dramatic. From being reluctant to speak out or get involved on Monday, they are now eagerly taking part in activities. One word answers have been succeeded by animated conversations.

"They need that encouragement and extra bit of motivation," Sonia says.

Far from finding it daunting, she says it is a challenge to show the girls how to use their leadership skills. "Often, they know they have them, but they don't see them as important."

The chance to instil self-belief was a key factor in persuading Coreta Edusey to volunteer. The physiotherapy student is clear about the message she wants to pass on, "If you have a goal, don't let anybody stop you trying to achieve it."

Keran Campbell, a driving school administrator, sees her role as taking the girls out of their comfort zones. "I want them to know they can do things that they might have been afraid of doing before. I want them to know that they are capable."


- Respect yourself.

- Don't be a stereotype, do something useful with your life.

- Step up to the challenges and back down from confrontations.

- Live by the positives rather than the negatives.

- You can learn a lesson from anyone, young or old.

- It's not where you come from, it's where you're going.

- Don't let brick walls stand in your way.

- I can't is just another way to say I won't.

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