This morning I went to visit the St Matthew’s Big Local project in Leicester, to see how they are using some of the grant money I allocate to divert youngsters away from crime. As I was arriving, half a dozen burly teenagers were leaving.
“See you Saturday then, lads”, called Ish from the doorway. “Don’t forget I want you playing as a proper team.” Ish saw me approaching and grinned. “Hello, Rupert.”
We settled down to chat about the various projects that the Big Local has running. Apparently I had chosen a good time to visit. The team had just finished doing some in depth research with the people who use their services. A total of 56 locals aged between 15 and 21 had been interviewed about their views of the services on offer – what was working fine, what could be improved.
“We’re still analysing the details,” Ish told me. “But its already clear that sport is a big hit. That’s what draws most of the teenagers here, though it is often the other things that keep them here.”
One popular recent session had been and educational slot about how the police use their stop and search powers in Leicester. A local police sergeant had come along to conduct a series of role play scenarios with a group of 40 teenagers. “It was great,” Ish told me. “The lads all started out with the attitude that the police pick on them because they are Black, but by the end they saw things differently. Some even wanted the police to have more powers of stop and search than they already do. One lad had been stopped and searched just a couple of weeks earlier. The sergeant was able to explain why he had been stopped and that took the sting out of it.”
The Big Local makes a real effort to draw teenagers away from what Ish called “the wrong routes”. They don’t just do sports lessons, but also take the teenagers out to do useful community work – such as gardening for elderly residents or clearing litter. That gives the teenagers some sense of pride in their area and investment in keeping it nice. They can look at garden with neatly trimmed hedge and say “I did that”.
The temptations are all around, according to Ish. Drug dealers and other criminals target vulnerable teenagers – those neglected by parents and maybe failing at school. They offer them a dream of easy money and luxury items such as trainers or watches for not much effort. “Just hold this packet for me a couple of days” they say. And to start with that is all there is to it. But once the youngsters are involved they can’t get out – they are blackmailed into doing more and more until they are hardened gang members. The Big Local fights against this, giving the teenagers another route to community respect and earning money.
The Big Local achieves all this with a team of part time staff and volunteers. They make a point of recruiting from the local youths – starting them off as volunteers with no set hours per week and no specific duties. They are then moved on to be “change makers” who go out into the community to do productive work. A lucky few get to be Staff Volunteers. How many teenagers are we talking about? About 100 volunteers and a dozen Staff Volunteers, I was told.
I left with a renewed respect for the Big Local in St Matthews and the work that they do to keep youngsters away from the wrong routes. Long may they continue their work.