Challenged by a 12-year-old boy to do something about the youth gangs plaguing a north London estate, two friends came up with a novel solution that transformed their community.
It started with two children fed up because their mother insisted they couldn't join friends in the park after teenagers had been stabbed there. TJ Barrett Dunn, 12, and his sister Sheneisha, 13, challenged their mother Abena, a youth worker, to stop talking about knife crime and start doing something.
“We wanted to go play like normal kids but we were scared, because we knew that even nipping to the corner shop could get us killed,” says TJ at the Hub, a community centre on the once notorious Stonebridge Estate in Brent.
“One night we were watching the telly and they said the age of knife crime victims was going down and down. I said, I could be next, mum. I feel like I'm living in a cooking pot. All our lives you've dragged us to activist meetings, but they don't seem to do anything. Why can't you adults come up with something that works?”
Sitting with TJ's 44-year-old mother that night was Michael Saunders, 53, a recording engineer and his friend, Lasana Fulu, 50, a community radio broadcaster. The two men grew up in Brent but had once been youth workers in New York.
“We'd seen what didn't work in America and how the approach in London — criminalising young people for antisocial behaviour and blaming youth culture — was failing for similar reasons,” says Mr Saunders. “That night TJ and Sheneisha made us look at our consciences — to stop criticising from the comfort of our sofas and make our youngsters feel safe again.”
The project that emerged was an innovative group called the British Londoners Business Community, which has been praised for its approach to tackling gang violence and under-investment on the estates of Brent.
Since their formation last October, the group have held four “community unity” meetings on different estates to tackle knife and gun crime, and address wider social and economic problems. It has been funded wholly out of their own pockets but a £5,000 grant from the Evening Standard's Dispossessed Fund will allow the BLBC to expand their outreach meetings.
Mr Saunders says: “What's unique about us is that unlike most programmes tackling youth gangs, we don't just target the teenage foot-soldiers. Instead, we get the parents, grandparents and gang members together in one room and we challenge them the way TJ and his sister challenged us. We tell them that the cost of their complacency is their children's lives, and that putting the blame on other people's youngsters' and expecting the police to solve the problem won't work — that they must take action themselves.
“Once these parents start talking, many discover that they knew each other as children. Now their kids are in rival gangs. Everyone worries that their kid could be killed, but we make them see that gang violence is so unpredictable that their children could just as horrifyingly become the killer as the victim. By galvanising the elders to be an active part of the solution, we help them take control.”
How do they assess whether it's working? “There was an incident a year ago just as we were planning our first meeting on the Stonebridge estate,” says Mr Fulu. “Some teenagers on Stonebridge had grabbed a boy and beat him up. He'd run to the Church End Estate, gathered 50 friends, and they'd returned on bicycles, randomly beating up other young people.
“Brent was ready to blow. It was only a matter of time before we'd be burying more of our sons. We couldn't turn to the police, because they only come once the crime is committed. We used our community radio stations to appeal for calm. And we went door-to-door, meeting the alpha male and female gang leaders and their parents — and inviting them to a community unity meeting — where we were able to defuse the situation.”
Residents among the 120 people who attended that first meeting attest to how groundbreaking it was. One parent, Ashley, said: “There were mothers who'd lost children to street violence sitting next to mothers whose children were in jail, all of them trying to make sense of what's been happening and talking, probably for the first time.
“By the end there were lots of mothers crying. But the way Michael led it blew me away. He is very astute and has a calm authority that makes people listen. He took the conversation straight where it needed to go.”
“For too long, people have said, it's enough killing” but then felt powerless to change things,” says Mr Fulu. “We see our job as organising and fronting the meetings. Then it's up to the community.”