Last week, the Mayor of London announced plans for the development of a Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) in London. This sparked me to write a blog suggesting that it’s going to need all of us to make it happen. Most importantly of all though, I said that it needs to have young people at its heart. There’s been an overwhelmingly positive response to this post and it seems many of us are motivated to make it happen. But what do we really mean when we talk about “young people at the heart”?
Well it doesn’t mean youth consultation. Nor does it mean a series of roundtables (definitely not). Nor a taskforce, a matrix or a task and finish group. These are, in fact, wonderful tools for keeping young people at arm’s length. And for keeping warm and cosy and on familiar ground. Young people come to us, we listen (or not) and then we go off and make the “real” decisions in a new meeting without them. We become masters of “adults at the heart” and “young people on the periphery”. And we reinforce the disempowerment which put young people in their position in the first place. Not to put too fine a point on it, we become part of the problem.
So then, does putting “young people at the heart” mean swinging to the other extreme, doing everything that young people demand? This is the question I get asked on a daily basis. But of course, this would be once again missing the point. Yes, it would be flipping the paradigm but it would still be failing to understand what this is about. And, in any case, it isn’t what young people want or need.
Putting young people at the heart means doing things TOGETHER. It’s about shaping and deciding things TOGETHER. And above all, it’s about having equal voices and respect for what each of us brings. You can see from a mile off when it isn’t done. Not just because things don’t quite feel right - but because they don’t quite work.
I wonder if one of the reasons we struggle so much with this concept is because it demands time and thought. Let’s be honest, it can sometimes just be outright inconvenient to involve young people. It can feel slow and cumbersome. Perhaps we also struggle because putting young people at the heart requires us to make ourselves vulnerable. It compels to recognise the fact that we may not know all of the answers. We might need to ask young people for their help, just as they might need to ask us for ours.
But this is why we are here. It’s why our jobs exist. Serious youth violence is about young people. And we can’t solve it unless we work with them. We don’t have time not to.
The Mayor has opened the door to the possibility of doing things differently with his announcement of a London VRU: the beginnings of a public health approach to youth violence here in London. And London's leaders now need to enable it to happen. Which means, in part at least, that they need to let go - and put young people and communities at the very heart of everything we do. All we need is the permission and the support to do it.