Teenage gangs: Enlisting the gang leaders to act as Unity Peacemakers

21st August 2009 at 01:00
UK pupils are drafted in to help end factional violence in their home town

Original paper headline: When two tribes go to war, enlist the gang leaders to act as peacekeepers

It may not be Iraq or Afghanistan. They do not go in wearing helmets and bullet-proof vests or carrying machine guns.

But pupils in Peterborough are nonetheless attempting to act as a peacekeeping force between warring factions in their home town.

The teenage pupils have been drafted in to work as Unity Peacemakers, a scheme intended to break down racial tensions between rival groups.

Gang leaders are enlisted by the youth workers who run the scheme in the hope that others will follow their example.

The scheme was conceived by Mahebub Ladha, director of Peterborough Racial Equality Council, after a local white teenager was murdered by a group of three Pakistani youths.

"People get caught in a riptide," he said. "There's pressure in terms of gangs, territories, certain communities, whether white or Pakistani. They bring with them a lot of history of building fortresses around themselves, just despising each other.

"But when you start scratching the surface, you realise what nice young people they really are."

Gang leaders from all ethnic backgrounds are promised residential trips to London in return for taking part in the scheme. They then participate in team-building exercises together.

Youth workers use examples of current or recent conflicts, such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland, to emphasise the importance of ending unquestioning cycles of violence.

Jason Horne, Unity Youth Project worker, said: "There's definitely resistance. One of the guys laughed at the idea.

"But it gives them a chance to communicate with each other rather than just being on the street and having immediate animosity. They can see that their personalities are actually really similar."

Peacemaker's have the power

The aim is for peacemakers to spread their new-found tolerance to their peers. So when friends suggest an attack on another ethnic group, the peacekeepers refuse. Because most peacekeepers are group leaders, their opinion carries weight.

Essentially, says Mr Ladha, this is a way of harnessing gang culture for the prevention, rather than the perpetration, of violence.

"You can snap an individual stick," he said. "But if you put them together in a bundle, it's very, very hard to snap.

"People stick together in a gang because they feel less vulnerable. But you can apply the same principles to breaking out of that cycle of behaviour."

One 16-year-old peacekeeper agreed. "Because I didn't know any black or Asian people, we just had stereotypes and that," he said.

"After your training, you notice conflict more. Now, when people make racist remarks, I say, `there's no need for it'.

"I make them make up, take my friends away from that situation. Then some friends follow my example, because they obviously see the bigger picture of what's going on."

Some of the turnarounds have been even more dramatic. Violence between two rival gang members had previously put one in intensive care and another in a young offenders' institute. Now they work together, spreading the message of pupil peace.

Another 18-year-old peacekeeper was recently stabbed in the street. His response was to tell his assailant: "Don't think you're bad, just because you've done that."

"We might take 12 lads for training, and never see two of them again," Mr Horne said.

"But the other 10 will be committed, and are role models for their peers.

"Then the next generation will look to them for ways to behave and act in future."

Breaking the cycle

Teenage gang or group leaders are targeted by Unity Youth Project workers to join Unity Peacemakers.

  • Youth workers flatter pupils' egos, telling them they have been chosen for their leadership potential.
  • Pupils participate in team-building exercises, with different ethnic groups working together.
  • Pupils discuss their similarities, as well as talking about examples of sectarian conflict.
  • They return to their schools, where they refuse to get involved in racist bullying or violence.
  • They also discourage friends from racist bullying.
  • Because they are group leaders, their friends follow their example.
  • As a result, more and more teenagers begin to question their own kneejerk racism.
  • The cycle of racist violence is broken.

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