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Changing the story on youth violence

On the afternoon of Saturday 23rd March, around 100 religious and community leaders from Coventry met in the new Cathedral to discuss the pressing issue of violent crime, particularly among young people. The event was hosted by the Bishop of Coventry and coincided with the presence of the Knife Angel statue in Coventry.

The purpose of the event was to give leaders a better understanding of youth violence and its causes, and to help equip them to work with the young people in their communities to address the issue.  The event took place in two parts: a Leaders’ Conference followed by a Gathering at the Knife Angel, designed to engage the head and the heart respectively.

Leaders Conference

Bishop Christopher introduced the Leaders’ Conference by reflecting on the name of the event ‘Hope Rising’. The Bishop spoke about Coventry’s story of rising from the rubble of the Second World War. He compared Coventry Cathedral, a building once emblematic of the destruction of war but now well-known as a symbol of peace and reconciliation, to the Knife Angel and its ability to transform weapons of violence into a powerful statement of hope and defiance.

The Bishop then introduced the first keynote speaker, Chief Superintendent Mike O’Hara, who began by explaining that on the basis of the particular venue and audience, he would speak about violent crime in a different way to his usual statistics-based approach. Rather Mike started by reflecting on his own career and the cases where he had first encountered youth violence. He spoke movingly about the look of fear and confusion that he had seen in victims’ eyes, emotions which had sometimes manifested as aggression. Mike expressed his desire to speak about the ‘humanity and fear that sits behind the headlines’ and the ‘young people behind the numbers’ that are in need of support and direction. He then continued to outline the Police’s approach to violent crime, the so-called public health model, where root causes of violence are identified and ‘treated’. He praised the ‘fantastic work’ already underway in Coventry but insisted there was still more to be done. He concluded by calling on religious leaders to help raise awareness of the dangers of carrying weapons, to help parents and families to build stronger relationships with their children, and to provide young people with the opportunities to develop their emotional, social, and work skills to better equip them for integration into society.

The theme of wanting to see the individuals behind the headlines of ‘knife crime’ or ‘youth violence’ was echoed by Mr Rashid Bhayat, CEO of the Positive Youth Foundation, who challenged the audience to try and see contemporary society through the eyes of a 14-year-old child. Rashid outlined the various ways in which society in our ‘new era’ had become a confusing and even hostile place for young people, where they could be labelled ‘intimidating’ when in public spaces and ‘lazy’ or ‘anti-social’ when in private spaces. Refusing to dwell on the negatives, Rashid outlined his vision of hope for the young people of Coventry where their achievements are celebrated and the word ‘youth’, currently tarnished and branded (sometimes literally) with connotations of violence, can be reclaimed for good. However, Rashid was clear that this was a ‘call for action’ and spelled out various ways in which community leaders can support their young people, through training mentors, providing safe spaces for dialogue, and giving support to families.

The final speaker, Ms Victoria Shelley, Headteacher at Blue Coat Church of England School but representing the Coventry Secondary Headteachers’ Executive group, began by reminding the gathered leaders of the vulnerability of children. Children, Victoria continued, are vulnerable to domestic issues such as poverty, abuse or poor mental health, but also to societal dangers such as grooming and gangs. She implored leaders to be able to ‘spot the signs’ of vulnerability including changes in behaviour, or new gifts, phones or clothes, and to respond to them by working together in partnership. She spoke of the various sectors of society which are needed to work together to raise a child, not just parents or even schools but also police, faith groups, social services and social media providers. As an example of this she highlighted the work of ‘Family Hubs’ that provide early help for vulnerable children in diverse areas such as mental health support, training for parents and assistance for those struggling with abuse or drug or alcohol misuse. In order to make this collaborative model of support for vulnerable children effective, Victoria highlighted the need for sharing of information and best practice, as well as educating children about social issues through their curriculum, for example by means of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) programme. In addition, leaders had to be prepared to work alongside their young people to ‘shape the solutions together’.

The keynote speeches were followed by opportunities for the assembled leaders to get involved with the discussion. A Panel Q&A saw panellists questioned on topics including the effectiveness of the various plans, policies, systems and programmes put in place by authorities. One particular point that was shared was the importance of simply making children know that they are loved and valued. This sentiment was developed in the subsequent Group Discussions and feedback in which leaders were encouraged to record what they knew was already taking place in their communities to tackle violent crime, followed by what key messages they had taken from the conference and what actions they would take to help address youth violence in their communities. One leader wrote powerfully when they asked ‘what systems and structures are in place to make the unloved child feel loved?’ Leaders picked up on making mentors, role models and youth work available to young people to a greater degree than is currently available. Others wrote about the outreach initiatives already taking place in schools to address youth violence and the importance of a ‘connection before correction’ attitude to young people. Others advocated providing ‘struggling’ parents with the knowledge and skills needed to better help their children. Others drew attention to ‘bad media’ and spoke about finding ways, such as positive social media campaigns, to ‘encourage every citizen of Coventry to think more positively about children and young people’. In the Plenary Feedback, the proverb ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ was quoted as being true in Coventry today.

Gathering at the Knife Angel

After a short break for refreshments, leaders were invited to gather at the Knife Angel for a time of reflection. Bishop Christopher, in front of some 200 invited leaders and members of the public, introduced the gathering before handing over to R&B choir ‘Soulful’ who performed The Black Eyed Peas’ thought-provoking track ‘Where is the Love?’ a song about the anguish felt in the face of suffering. The choir then introduced a rap they had written entitled ‘No Winners’, telling the story of a young man who had sought to be the ‘king of the streets’ and had found himself on both ends of a knife.

This was followed by a time spent listening to a family’s heart-breaking story of the loss of their son and brother Daniel to knife-related violence in the summer of 2018. Representing the newly formed Daniel Kennell Foundation, Daniel’s mother and sisters spoke of their grief, but in a demonstration of great courage, also shared of their desire to help the families of other victims of violent crime in Coventry. Bishop Christopher then led a clearly affected gathering into a time of silence to remember Daniel Kennell, Fidel Glasgow, Jaydon James, and others affected by violent crime.

After this, Soulful performed a final song, a cover of ‘Hope’ (by Twista ft. Cee-Lo) adapted to the theme of knife-related youth violence, during which those gathered were invited to write their hopes on the Cathedral steps using chalk. The theme of hope out of lament continued as the Revd Gareth Irvine, Vicar of St. Laurence’s Church in Foleshill, led the gathering in the words of a Declaration of Hope he had written originally for the funeral of Jaydon James. The Declaration finished with all gathered at the Knife Angel saying together that ‘we will each play our part. We will not be afraid. Today we choose to believe in hope’. Bishop Christopher concluded the event by commissioning everyone assembled to ‘go in peace and hope’ for the future of their city.