Category Archives: youth

Listen, Understand, Respond: A Foundation for tackling Serious Youth Violence by Selina Stone

Over the coming weeks and months I have invited key professionals to write a piece on my blog about ideas on how we can combat the Gangs and Serious Youth Violence issue in the UK. Our first guest blogger is Selina Stone who looks at the importance of listening to the voice of the perpetrator to help us develop strategies in combating the gangs and serious youth violence issue.

Listen, Understand, Respond: A Foundation for tackling Serious Youth Violence by Selina Stone

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” – Stephen Covey

In the area of Serious Youth Violence there are many voices to be heard; the newsreader relaying the media story, the police condemning the crime, the victim’s family demanding justice. There is a place given to every voice, except the voice of the one who has committed the crime. In general, we do not recognise the importance of listening when it comes to those who commit acts of violence. Why should we care what they have to say? Because the key to an effective response can be found in the act of listening; not to reply, but to understand.

So what do I mean by ‘listening’ and why is it so essential?

The temptation for any person who wants to create change is to begin with ideas of what needs to be done. This tendency exists because we assume we already understand what the problem is. We have various means of informing our understanding; we can read statistics on the current picture, we can depend on our own lived experience or the reflections of those who have gone before us. All of these sources of understanding take us away from the reality that regardless prior knowledge, nothing is more important than the stories of those whose lives we want to see transformed.

‘Listening is the process through which speech and information is retrieved by an individual before proceeding to storage.[1]

As a community organiser at the Centre for Theology and Community, I depend on 121 meetings to drive the social justice issues we choose to tackle at the grassroots. Before we consider setting an agenda or strategy we begin by listening to the stories of the people who live and work around us. The listening campaign uncovers shared concerns or issues, helps us to clarify a clear objective and to identify leaders. Rather than exerting political power over communities, grassroots organising seeks to develop relational power with people. It is through listening that we uncover what makes people angry, what their self-interest is and who the leaders are who can make change happen.

So how does this relate to youth violence?

Each young person has a story that explains why they think or feel the way they do and how they have ended up where they are in life. The process of storytelling allows them firstly to recognise themselves. A person is able to acknowledge their life journey with its defining moments and influential relationships in order to understand how they have become who they are. The sense of identity and self-understanding this brings causes each of us to have the confidence to imagine the kind of future we want for ourselves.

When we help a young person tell their story and we choose to listen, we give them the respect and dignity due to all human beings. It is an act of humility on our part to listen, acknowledging that in that time and place, what the other person has to say is more important than what we want to communicate.

“(Some young people may have) difficulties understanding and expressing emotions, or (display) challenging behaviour as a means to communicate feelings.”[2]

Aside from the stories of individuals, we must also become experts at listening to the collective story being told by the young generation, including those engaged in violence and crime. Nonverbal communication is as essential to informing our understanding as verbal communication. Young people communicate individually through their choices of dress, their facial expressions and their life choices. Collectively, they communicate through their common interests, trends of behaviour and attitudes which become defining aspects of their generation. Before we seek to address social trends and impacts of serious youth violence, we must be willing to listen to the individual and collective stories of young people. Only through this act of humility will be equipped to reply effectively to young people and to wider society.

So what we can do?

This ‘listening to understand’ needs to take place in our families, in our friendship groups, in our faith communities and in wider society.

How well do we understand the young people in our homes and families? How much time do we spend time listening to those who attend our churches, youth clubs or mosques? How well do we understand the young people we are friends with? Do we take time to listen to young people in prisons or detention centres? Do we know the young people in our neighbourhoods?

Through a regular commitment to 121 conversations we can discover the stories of these young people and work with them to redefine their lives with a brighter future. Violence does not have to be the final voice in the lives of our youth.

Selina Stone

Twitter: @Selinars1

Selina Stone is a church based community organiser working to develop the capacity of churches to work on issues of justice in their communities. Her PhD research is looking at the significance of justice in Pentecostal understandings of salvation and mission. Selina currently works for The Centre for Theology and Community



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3 things I learnt from the death of #Shaklius Townsend

Last nights drama My murder was heart wrenching, thought provoking and all too familiar. Unfortunately for myself, colleagues and friends this was our first experience of losing a young person we were working with. From a personal perspective, My Murder was very, very difficult to watch. I remember the day we heard that Shak had passed and the numbness that spread through the office and the support we had to provide for one another. After watching My Murder last night and going through a multitude of emotions, I came to a few conclusions. These conclusions are from an inside perspective. A perspective which was not shown last night but one which I feel needs to be shared. Below are 3 lessons that I learnt from Shak’s murder.

1. The need for Clinical Supervision for Youth Offending Service


The first thing people say when you work with young people in the field of serious youth violence is that there is a likelihood that you may lose a young person to murder. It’s just the way it goes. Thanks for the warning but how about some support for workers when it does actually hit the fan. When Shak passed workers gathered together, cried together, prayed together, encouraged one another and supported each other to the best of our ability. Yet, there was no outside space where staff could unleash their emotions with out fear of being diagnosed with mental health issues. I can not understand, in a field where staff regularly witness testimonies of rape, robberies, violence, face abuse and on the rare occasion have a client murdered that there is not regular out side 1:1 or group clinical supervision. It’s not enough that youth offending staff have monthly task orientated supervision with their line manager. Nor is it sufficient to be offered one session of counselling after such a horrific and traumatising event. Regular outside supervision, with trained clinical psychologists is the key. I believe if youth offending service staff are offered this, productivity and well being will improve. With the high level of case loads YOS staff deal with, this is the least local authorities can provide.

2. The Media are part of the problem


Let’s get one straight. Shak was on his way out of gang life. I think My Murder depicted the everyday struggle of a young inner city youth battling with his surroundings very well. Shak was no angel but I remember waking up on Sunday morning to the News of the World front cover above and feeling physically sick. Firstly, the picture with the knife was an old picture. Secondly, workers will testify he was so focused on trying to stay positive and move on with his life. However, the front page of he News of the World did not show this. A mother had just lost her son to an ambush. Where was the sensitivity? Shak was the victim, yet time and time again the media are allowed to twist the facts and create a moral panic in the UK. I do believe Shak’s ethnicity played a part in how he was portrayed. Too often its easy to come to this conclusion – Black boy + Inner city + Murder = Gang!?! Obviously Shak’s murder was pre-Leveson inquiry and pre-UK summer riots. I wonder if Shak would have been depicted as the victim in light of these two events. The unfortunate truth is, probably not. I am glad that there is now more scrutiny on how the media and in particular the written press report on stories.

3. Let’s not forget Samantha Joseph is a victim as well


Samantha Joseph did not die. Samantha Joseph was key to Shak’s death. These are the two facts where people will disagree with me suggesting she is a victim. However, if we look closely, Samantha was a young girl caught up in a dangerous lifestyle which many young women find difficult to break. Fear and panic make the most rational people do stupid things. Who could Samantha turn to in her time of trouble? Where could she get advice from? Samantha made some fatal decisions that day but I don’t believe she intended for Shak to die. For a deeper understanding of some of issues around girls and gangs I would recommend reading ROTA (March 2011) The Female Voice in Violence Project. Final report: This is it. This is my life… written by Carlene Firmin. The report gives an insight into the pressures young girls face who are caught up in gang life.

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