- In order for communities to be strong enough to tackle extremism, the idea of community cohesion needs to extend beyond the current narrow boundaries
- The labelling of youth as ‘risky’ typically creates conflict between young people and authorities (particularly the police) and generates intergenerational tension as the young person kicks out against the label.
- The response to troubled youth has often been negative and punitive: to increase controls through informal, formal and legal structures rather than by addressing the contextual causes of anti-social behaviour and early on-set criminal activity.
- Things have moved forward significantly in recent years to reduce stigma and curb the previously heavy-handed policing of young people.
- Marginalised and stigmatised young people have a lot to teach us about how society accepts and rejects, includes and excludes.
In the aftermath of the horrific Manchester Arena bombing, Andy Burnham, mayor of Manchester, talked about the “tangible sense of togetherness” that we felt in the city. But as the ‘together’ moment passes, and time moves on, how can we keep hold of that visible community cohesion and ensure that we continue conversations about unity, resilience and strength? The short answer is: involve our young people, and in particular, involve those young people who are disengaged and not usually heard.
The Manchester Mayor’s Independent Commission for Preventing Hateful Extremism and Promoting Cohesion Commission brings together public and voluntary sector organisations with community members. Its main focus is clearly to tackle extremism, as the title suggests. This is certainly a key area of concern and is pertinent in the light of the Manchester attack. But the Commission also aims to promote community cohesion more generally and has provided the people of Manchester with an opportunity to address a wider issue here.
In order for communities to be strong enough to tackle extremism, the idea of community cohesion needs to extend beyond the current narrow boundaries and confront a wider, and equally pertinent, issue: our connections with some of our young people. This is an ideal opportunity to develop community cohesion by bringing in those young people who are typically marginalised and frequently seen as a social problem. They offer an essential insight into the experiences of the marginalised at the heart of disengagement within our society and offer possibilities for the future of cohesion. At risk of sounding over-sentimental, as the Whitney Houston song lyric says, the children really are our future.
‘Risky’ young people?
My focus as a researcher has been on the experiences of young people who are stigmatised, challenged and marginalised by a system that sees them as ‘risky’ due to their backgrounds. This includes young people seen to be at risk of criminal behaviour because they come from neighbourhoods labelled as ‘deprived’ or have grown up in the care system, and those identified as vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism because they belong to groups constructed as suspect through government, media and public discourse.
The labelling of youth as ‘risky’ typically creates conflict between young people and authorities (particularly the police) and generates intergenerational tension as the young person kicks out against the label. Sometimes this can manifest as anti-social and criminal behaviour reinforcing the ‘problem’ label and perpetuating the myth of the ‘risky youth’. In times of austerity, the problem magnifies, criminal and anti-social behaviour increases and tensions rise. The concept of troubled youth in troubled times is well documented in sociological and criminological literature and with reports by the Joseph Roundtree Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies projecting a rise in relative poverty and relative child poverty, it seems that troubled times are set to continue.
The response to troubled youth has often been negative and punitive: to increase controls through informal, formal and legal structures rather than by addressing the contextual causes of anti-social behaviour and early on-set criminal activity. The disproportionate criminalisation of these groups of young people for relatively minor offences has been widely reported. The Howard League, for example, evidences the excessive criminalisation of looked-after children. This is corroborated by research from the National Association for Youth Justice (NAYJ) alongside other key characteristics of children in conflict with the law, including relative deprivation.
It’s easy to see how the labelling and pre-emptive criminalisation of groups of youngsters could result in a criminal conviction for many young people, and lead to a cycle of poverty-of-opportunity and criminal behaviour. As the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions demonstrates, the youth justice system itself is a cyclical trap. Meanwhile the populist press have a field day reporting on the out-of-control, anti-social behaviour of Britain’s young people which, in turn, feeds into their marginalisation and stigmatisation.
So, what is to be done?
The good news is that things have moved forward significantly in recent years to reduce stigma and curb the previously heavy-handed policing of young people. Greater Manchester Police, for instance, in line with the pro-diversionary recommendations of the Taylor review, are taking action by encouraging more amicable conversations between officers and young people on the streets, dealing informally with minor incidents and avoiding adversarial initial contacts. These lighter-touch policing approaches are important for community cohesion and help to build up trusting relationships between otherwise marginalised young people and the police. See the examples demonstrated in an evaluation of community and youth engagement policing in Canada and in ‘Empowerment Conversations’ between young people, their parents, and the police, trialled in Norway.
Similarly, relationships with staff (voluntary and paid) at local youth clubs and voluntary sector support groups also play a key role in the softening of intergenerational tensions. As part of a large European research study (PROMISE), I’ve been speaking with young people across Greater Manchester about the impact of these groups on marginalised young people’s lives. They discussed the ‘life saving’, ‘life changing’ opportunities that these groups present, the solid relationships that have been formed with peers and staff, and a sense of belonging and acceptance that many hadn’t experienced before. Sadly, as austerity hits, these organisations are becoming squeezed and many face losing their funding. The impact of their work is lessened through reductions in staff and opening hours, presenting fewer of these positive opportunities for young people.
Young people have a lot to teach us
What is clear from the research to date is that positive relationships and open conversations are central factors in encouraging young people to engage with their communities, particularly those who are the most vulnerable to exclusion, marginalisation or exploitation. Marginalised and stigmatised young people have a lot to teach us about how society accepts and rejects, includes and excludes. As part of my research I aim to understand how and why stigmatised young people can become disengaged from society, and uncover some of the ways they demonstrate alternatives to engagement through resistance, resilience and resourcefulness.
Manchester’s new Commission provides an opportunity for us to draw on our burgeoning knowledge about youth belonging and social engagement as part of the wider goal of promoting community cohesion and that ‘tangible sense of togetherness’. A more cohesive society must be inclusive and try to give a voice to everyone, including the most marginalised. It may be the most marginalised that have the most pertinent things to say about exclusion.
We should be listening.