With people still searching for answers to last month’s riots, youth worker Emeka Egbuonu’s first book, drawing on his experience of running workshops at Hackney youth project, the Crib, couldn’t have come at a better time. Consequences – Breaking the Negative Cycle (published September 23) offers advice in tackling gang culture and youth violence as well as encouraging ambition in young people. On Tuesday night (September 20), Egbuonu was nominated for an award at City Hall’s Peace Awards. But, growing up in Hoxton, he admits life could have turned out very differently for him.
Speaking in-depth to EastLondonLines, Egbuonu reveals what inspired and motivated him to embark on his journey, which has prompted the respect and attention of politicians and commentators alike. He also explains how he thinks society can help young people and what he hopes to achieve in the future.
Professor David Wilson, of Birmingham City University has said that Egbuonu’s book “fills a criminological gap, and brings fresh insight into what we all should be doing in the wake of the English riots to help young people bridge the gap between school and a law-abiding adulthood.” Meg Hiller, Labour MP for Hackney and Shoreditch, has publicly echoed Wilson’s view that “communities need people like Emeka”.
What makes Egbuonu’s book different is his personal experience of the youth project. As a teenager, he joined the Crib, while aspiring to be a footballer. When his football dreams were thwarted by injury, Egbuonu didn’t let it thwart his ambition. He went to university, after which he returned to the Crib – the place he had found encouragement and support – and became a volunteer. There, he realised his vocation: to guide youngsters, some disenfranchised and without positive role models, and find ways to instill in them a sense of worth and ambition while challenging actions which might lead them into the grip of gang culture.
“When I came back to the Crib after uni, I saw I could make a difference. I was not much older than the kids at the project. I knew I could get through to them, and have an impact. It wasn’t just about reversing the negative track some of them were on; it was equally important to encourage those on the right track to stay there and not respond to any negative pressures around them,” Egbuonu explains.
In 2009, Egbuonu founded a programme of seminars called Consequences. He now leads workshops all over Hackney where young people meet to discuss the importance of ambition and inhibitors to achieving ambitions. Over time, he has established strong relationships with the many young people who attend the programme.
“Trust and consistency are key,” he says. “I have less of an impact when I run workshops where I don’t know the people. The reason is obvious. They need to know me to trust me, and this takes time. Once the relationship is set, we can have more open dialogue about things that they feel are important, and I can get them to think about constructive influences and routes to achieve whatever goals they have.
“I focus on the positive. It’s not about saying ‘don’t do this, or that’; it’s a different message. It is ‘here is what you can achieve; think about it, and think about how you can get there. Everything you do has consequences, do what you can to make them positive consequences. That is within your power.’”
On the one side of the youth agenda, Mossbourne Academy in Hackney is being hailed as an unprecedented success story and is now in the top one per cent of schools nationally with clear discipline policies and high expectations of its learners. On the other side, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, “gang-buster ” Bernard Hogan-Howe, is pledging zero tolerance for those who misbehave. Egbuonu is clear which strategy is the more effective.
“Quality education undoubtedly has a stronger impact on young people in the long run. The police deterrent by comparison has very low impact,” he says. “But the ‘zero tolerance’ attitude in schools also needs to be managed carefully. There is no point in throwing kids out of school for bad behaviour. Statistics show that a high rate of kids who have been excluded from school end up in the prison system. Looking at the bigger picture, you can see a bigger problem in this strategy. More can be done in schools than exclusion.”
But Egbuonu knows that it is not an ideal world, and there is not one course of action that will make the young and disenfranchised in society avoid lives of crime and punishment, and seek out gainful employment. “Everyone has a part to play. I do my part. The educational system can do its part, and businesses too. I can’t create jobs, but I can help people who think they can’t be ambitious to apply themselves better and to take advantage of the opportunities available to them.”
Barriers to real opportunities are, however, also found in the mindset of the young people at Egbuonu’s workshops. Egbuonu is acutely aware of the sense of entitlement that has paralysed the current generation of youths, and of the notion perpetuated by celebrity media that wealth and glamour are there for the taking.
Egbuonu speaks of his own 11-year-old brother, who he has warned against this way of thinking. “I said to him: ‘You don’t have to seek out those (celebrity influenced) role models. Look around you, your role models could be plumbers, cab-drivers, or local business owners. Find the positives in people, and use that positivity to go where ever you want to go.’
“This is where communities and local businesses are so important. Young people should be able to have work experience in businesses, however small, where they can be mentored by people who are established in the communities. It not only gives them life experiences and better employability, but it enriches the community spirit. This is priceless.”
Earlier this year, Egbuonu travelled with some of the participants of the Consequences programme to “gang capital” LA, to understand the historical reasons behind the formation of gangs and rivalries, and also to learn more about intervention and prevention practices. It is there he learned the true value of community. He said: “Ex-gang members and their ex-rival gang members united for the greater good to speak to young people about the choices they could make.
“I saw firsthand the importance of engaging constantly with young people who are vulnerable to the wrong choices. I learned that we could never give up on those people, however deep into the negative cycle they were in. If these hard-core gang members and their rivals could come together and help others, then reforming is always an option no matter how bad things are. The most important thing is that they themselves want to change; with that, the rest can be accomplished.”
“If businesses allowed staff to spend half a day with young people at school to talk to them about what they do, properly engaging them in discussion about the realities, the possibilities – and allowing questions, not preaching to them – this would help them much more than a ‘careers day’. Someone might be a doctor because his dad or his uncle is a doctor. But what about those kids who don’t know anyone who is a doctor, a lawyer, or who is in IT, or whatever? Half a day every so often would be nothing to the large corporations, but the impact and consequences for individuals and society might be huge. This is something I want to push for next.”
Egbuonu speaks like a man on a mission, quietly confident but not complacent. He wants to turn Consequences into a screenplay to widen the net for his message. He has more work to do, and has been invited by Wilson to speak in October at a Birmingham conference about understanding the riots.
As to being motivated to carry on this work, Egbuonu is resolute about his role, and persuading others of theirs. “It’s not about what people say. It’s about what people do. Everyone has a role. Everyone can do something.”