Words by Florence Robson
After speaking on a panel at The Conduit about violence affecting young people, we talk to youth practitioner and founder of Milk and Honey, Ebinehita Iyere, about the root causes of rising violence, why we need to speak to young people about grief and the pressure facing young women and girls.
What do you see as the key root causes of rising violence amongst young people in the UK?
There are various root causes ranging from the education system, exclusion rates, access to mental health services – all the things we see in the media. However, we don’t talk enough about how cuts in youth services have impacted the lack of safe spaces for young people, as well as the lack of opportunities that they actually want and need. These cuts have not only left youth workers jobless but have also negatively impacted communities that relied on youth work to survive.
Another root cause is a lack of emotional awareness. We don’t teach young people how to process emotions like fear, loss, shame and grief. When you mix austerity with a lack of emotional intelligence it creates violence, which in turn leads to a mental health crisis. It’s easier to criminalise a child that’s been impacted by knife crime than it is to offer them emotional support.
Finally, when we talk about root causes, we also have to talk about ripple effects. One instance of violence in a community is one too many; it seeps out and is re-enacted in different ways.
Who should be responsible for teaching emotional intelligence to young people?
It’s the role of society as a whole; our education system, our healthcare system, our justice system – all the systems responsible for young people’s wellbeing. If they embedded emotional intelligence practices in their work, it would be easier for young people to do so too. We shouldn’t wait until something goes wrong to talk to young people about these things. Rather than lecturing young people about ‘dropping the knife’, we need to ask them how they felt at their first funeral or when they saw their friend in a hospital bed. We spend so much time telling young people what they shouldn’t do rather than processing with them how they could avoid doing it.
You do a lot of work to ensure that women and girls are included in conversations around youth violence. Why is this of such critical importance?
In London, knife crime is deemed as a ‘black boys’ problem’. The question I’ve always asked is: “If black boys are dying, what is happening to black women?” They’re losing brothers, cousins, uncles, sons, their first love. What’s more, the boys are putting their emotion and trauma into the girls and the pressure of carrying that burden emerges in different ways. A lot of girls I work with have unstable relationships at home and they’re not behaving at school, because they’re spending so much time trying to ensure that their boyfriends and friends and brothers are okay. Many of these girls are from BME communities, in which emotional processing is not at the forefront. That’s why I’m trying to develop culturally competent, therapeutic ways of working with these young people.
Why do you think society has a blind spot around the impact of violence on girls?
It’s easier to speak about women as the victims, the ones who are being exploited. The heroine stories we see in the media are almost always centred around women who are white and blonde. It’s very rare to hear stories about girls affected by violence in which they’re not powerless. It’s easier to combine the criminalisation of a man with the victimisation of a woman, to make the story sound worse.
In your view, what are the key steps we need to take when it comes to mitigating violence affecting young people?
Firstly, we need to change the language that we use when we talk about violence. Using terms like ‘tackling violence’, ‘combatting violence’ and ‘youth violence’ isn’t helpful. Young people internalise the language and narratives we use around violence. The more we talk about ‘knife crime’, the more we glamourise the object and move our focus away from the people who are actually affected.
Secondly, government investment to support communities is obviously important. That includes re-professionalising youth work and more investment in therapeutic services that are equipped to support young people who witness, perpetrate and are surrounded by violence. I’m a big believer in therapeutic ways of working with young people, drawing on things like art, music and dancing, along with wellness. I talk to them about mental health in ways that make sense to them, using a holistic, transparent approach.
Thirdly, the police need to form better relationships with communities across the board. When I grew up, boys would go to the dressing up box in primary school and choose the policeman outfit. We have a generation now where that’s not the case. There has been an infiltration of stereotypes; officers from outside London get trained that black suburbs like Lewisham, Brixton and Croydon are ‘bad’ areas. When you look at the demographics of the police officers working in those areas compared to the people living there, there’s a clear imbalance. It leads to a situation where nobody gets along with anybody because of an inherent lack of understanding.
Are there any particular skills you feel young people need to learn?
We need to teach young people about finance because a lot of them are acting the way they do because they don’t know how to get money legitimately. I didn’t learn about tax until I was about eighteen – and I was someone who had left home early. When you think about a young person that grows up on an estate and desperately wants to get out, they’ll do anything they can. The lack of understanding of how our financial system works, alongside a lack of compelling opportunities, means that many of them turn to illegal activities because they seem like the easiest way to escape.
Why is there a lack of focus on the aftermath of violence and what can be done in this space?
People don’t like talking about the aftermath of violence because it’s not a teachable moment – there’s no clear outcome. In our society, people aren’t comfortable with work that you can’t quantify. What’s more, because there’s such a huge influx of violence at the moment, it’s a repetitive cycle and people think there’s no room to talk about what’s going on. We tend to treat deaths from violence as a crime and not as a bereavement.
Even though I’m working in this area, I’ve had to learn as I go along and I still am. Aftermath work can be very triggering and there’s no money in it – the money goes into prevention and enforcement – and that’s where I feel like we’re failing our children. I don’t know many police officers that will follow up with a parent after reporting that their child has been stabbed. I don’t know many teachers who are equipped to teach children the day after they’ve lost a friend to violence. There are so many layers to the aftermath that aren’t looked at. We need to equip people with the tools to process loss on their own, because I and my colleagues can’t always be there.
About Ebinehita Iyere
Ebinehita Iyere is a youth practitioner currently training at IATE as a Child and Adolescent therapeutic wellbeing practitioner and utilising her understanding of therapeutic wellbeing directly with young people 10-17 in custody across Lambeth for Divert Youth as the Therapeutic Diversion Practitioner. Ebinehita has experience co-producing projects and activities 1:1 and in groups with young people who are in or have experience of Health and Justice services. Ebinehita is also the founder of Milk and Honey, offering a creative and expressive safe space for young women to thrive and take ownership of Healing, Empowerment and Resilience (H.E.R). Lastly Ebinehita is a member of the Mayors Violence Reduction Unit Partnership reference group where she ensures the voice of unheard young people affected by Violence is at the forefront of decisions.