How we are tackling violent crime by listening to other young people

Jessica Tunks, 18 years old, shares the story of Streetbase in Waltham Forest – a project to tackle violent crime that shows the value of young people’s voices.  

Polling data from the 2019 general election suggests that turnout was the lowest for voters aged 18-24, with less than half of eligible voters in this age range taking part. Additionally, 16-24 year olds are the age group least likely to have confidence in local police.

Statistics like these have led to many commentators pointing out a disconnect between young people and the authorities that govern them. However, this does not necessarily mean that these young people are uninterested in politics.

Evidence of a youth interest in political issues isn’t hard to find. Both the Climate Youth Strike (attended by over 100,000 people) and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations have attracted large numbers of young people, excited about the prospect of voicing their opinions.

A scroll through social media would show you just how often younger generations share information about political issues. If you still weren’t convinced, Streetbase Waltham Forest could provide you with endless anecdotes about young people engaging with issues affecting their community.

About Streetbase Waltham Forest

Based on a model that had been running successfully in Southwark for several years, Streetbase was established as part of the borough’s effort to tackle violent crime.

Funded by the local council, the Streetbase team (all aged 16-24) are trained (and paid) to run workshops, attend local government meetings, and carry out patrols of the local area, speaking to young people.

Each Streetbase patrol consists of four young people (one of whom must be a ‘Lead’ over the age of 18) visiting ‘hotspots’ for youth activity. Once in these ‘hotspots’, they approach young people, and try to engage them in conversation.

The nature of these conversations depends on the purpose of the patrol: they may be about interactions with the police, they may be about activities the young people are interested in. So far, the programme has engaged over 1,400 young people.

What makes politics daunting to young people: representation, accessibility, and action

A Streetbase patrol

So, if young people are happy to express their views on political issues at protests, on social media, or on the streets, why aren’t they expressing these views in the polling station?

Three key factors are missing from politics that can make it daunting to young people: representation, accessibility, and action.

If young people look at politics and see it as an area largely dominated by older people from very different backgrounds to them, it might not be easy to convince them that they should engage, or that they will be accepted if they try.

We need to demonstrate that people of all ages, with all kinds of life experiences, can play important roles in political discussions. This is an idea that is fundamental to the structure of Streetbase.

As Katy Thompson, the coordinator of Streetbase Waltham Forest says of her team:

“These are young people who’ve come through the criminal justice system, who’ve struggled with poor mental health, who’ve been through the care system. These are the voices that are really valuable, but they aren’t always put to the forefront enough.”

Young people like this, with direct experience of some of today’s most pressing political issues can give us incredibly valuable insight on how policies are impacting people. To encourage them to speak up about the things that concern them, we need to make sures these conversations are accessible.

For most young people, the word ‘politics’ triggers images of debates in fancy Parliament rooms held by politicians in expensive suits, using unfamiliar jargon. This shouldn’t be the case; these conversations should be for everybody.

Valuing youth voices

A key factor in the success of Streetbase is that it approaches young people, rather than waiting for young people to come to it. Conversations can be had anywhere, and only take a few minutes.

Additionally, the similarity in age creates an environment where young people feel able to express their views without fear of judgement. However, for young people to have faith in the legitimacy in the aims of any kind of engagement with the authorities, the information they provide has to have an impact.

Gulcin, an active patroller in Waltham Forest, notes that one of the most common questions she gets asked when conducting the surveys is, ‘Is any of this going to make a difference?’

It is all very well to have these discussions with young people, but if nothing is being done with the information collected, they are nothing more than a box-ticking exercise. Young people are aware that, too often, youth engagement is tokenistic, and doesn’t actually go anywhere. To attract a youth voice, that youth voice needs to feel valued, and to feel valued it needs to be listened to.

Responses gathered from young people on Streetbase patrols are always fed back to the council. Information on their interests is added to a database that connects young people to opportunities being offered in their area (904 referrals have been made so far).

Their opinions on issues, such as stop and search or community safety, are quoted in council scrutiny meetings, meaning that the conversations had with young people on the streets help make decisions and shape policy.

Youth engagement and empowerment

I’ve been a member of the Waltham Forest Streetbase team since its formation. Every patrol I’ve been on has resulted in interesting conversations with young people who are far more engaged in politics than many give them credit for. The skills and confidence I have developed have been invaluable to me and I know that in saying this, I also speak for the other members of my team.

The approach to youth engagement and empowerment adopted by Streetbase shows how communities can influence local planning and decision making. Waltham Forest council has invested time, training and money into a team of young people passionate about promoting change in their community. In doing this, they have managed to reach hundreds of other young people who might otherwise never get the chance to be involved in these discussions.

To truly empower a community, it is necessary to engage with all of its members. The youth voice is there, we just need to make sure we are listening.  

Jessica Tunks, 18, is a resident of Waltham Forest and a member of her local Youth Independent Advisory Group, as well as the Young People’s Action Group at the Mayor of London’s Violence Reduction Unit. Last year, she was a senior winner of the Orwell Youth Prize for her piece ‘Knifepoint’.

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