The Ubuntu Roundtable Project aims to help young people meet with local police officers to discuss issues of concern in their area. ‘Ubuntu’ is a traditional Southern African philosophy that emphasises our common humanity, our connectedness and interdependence as fellow human beings. Here Nick Crabb talks to Mark Murray, Blair Adderley and Kheron Kenardo about this unique project and their reflections from it on gang culture and knife crime in the UK today.
What made you start the Unbuntu Roundtable Project?
Mark: My brother, my friend Blair and me were walking through Brixton one night, where we grew up, when police officers jump suddenly jumped out of a van, man handled and slammed us against the wall. I just remember this horrific, negative feeling of oppression, like I was a victim or a target. They'd stopped us us for various reasons, and none of them added up. The way they talked to and treated us was horrific as well. I couldn't understand why I was treated this way, because I don't act in a rash or a negative way. This got me thinking about how many other young people go through this regularly and young people don't like the police. However, I also knew that not all police officers acted this way, or pushed negative agendas or abused their power. So I thought there needed to be some way of showing that not all police officers are hostile, and that not all young people are criminals. I wanted to find a way to teach this to both sides, and in turn enable both sides to learn from each other.
Kheron: I've also felt wrongly accused and tense towards the police. I've also been around a lot of other people with similar feelings, including law-abiding young people who have gone to school and done everything right, yet still hate the police. I was grateful to be part of this project and the conversation about why this tension exists and what we can do about it.
What did you hope to achieve with Roundtable Project?
Mark: For it to be a place where people are on an equal footing, can meet and learn about each other and have their thoughts and views represented. We wanted it to be a place of experience-based learning and knowledge sharing.
Kheron: To break down the social barriers between young people and police officers, break down the tension, and make a more cohesive and calm community. We also wanted to strip away the layers of prejudice from young people and police officers, and for them to have human-to-human conversations.
Blair: To create a sense of unity between young people and police officers, so they can see each other as people. Hopefully, this will reduce the incidence of crime and alleged police brutality. Also, for young people know their rights when dealing with the police, and to transfer this project to different walks of life, such as education.
How did the project start, and where is it now?
Mark: Our first Roundtable was at a youth club in Camberwell. There were young people from the community and police officers sat together for the first time. The tension in the room was incredible. The young people were so open and didn't hold back. The police officers were told some astounding things that night, and they knew they were there to learn and not enforce. Similarly, the young people felt they were in a situation where they could talk to and understand the police officers.
Blair: At first, the Roundtable was more of meeting to discuss the viewpoints of young people and police officers. Now, the Roundtable is a programme consisting of training sessions and two Roundtable sessions. It's become more structured, and we do a range of exercises to pull opinions out of young people and police officers.
Mark: The Tutu Foundation also became involved, which helped the Unbuntu Rountable Project take shape. Now, we first meet police officers and youth service providers, such as youth clubs and schools, and explain the programme and process. We then get people to sign-up, set a date and explain the Unbuntu core values. There are then two Roundtable meetings. The first is more hard hitting and focused on confronting the key issues in an area. The second is more relaxed and focused on bonding, with role-plays and drama. We then follow up after three months and run more roundtables if needed. These workshops have moved out ten boroughs in London, involving many different young people, police officers and issues. We are now expanding to the Midlands.
What have the outcomes of the Roundtable Project been so far?
Kheron: What people take away tends to be interpersonal and varies from person to person. Most people say they've learnt something new. It has shown that younger people can teach older people, such as police officers saying they now understand the stigma currently facing young people. Similarly, young people have said that they would now like to be police officers. Young people also have learnt that they have a voice and the power to change their communities.
Mark: The project has provided a safe space where young people and police officers can have an enriching conversation. Police officers have begun to understand that young people may enter crime due to peer pressure, family circumstances, not having parents at home, and then take a more measured and mindful approach. The project has also made young people think about their sense of responsibility in the community and encouraged them to co-operate with police officers. This has strengthened the relationship between police officers, young people and youth service providers.
Blair: We've had police officers say that they didn't know how hard it is being a young person today, and how scared they are. While we've heard young people say that they didn't realize police officers are real people. We've had young people who didn't even want to be in the same room as police officers, saying that they'd like to join the police. A greater understanding is the greatest outcome you can ask for. We also did a Roundtable session in a school and teachers said they now want to hold similar sessions between students and teachers.
Has the Roundtable Project encountered any challenges?
Blair: The main challenge is getting young people who've offended and who don't like the police to come. We also have to get young people to talk anecdotally, so they don't incriminate themselves. We also have to stop police officers from asking certain questions, remind them that this isn't an investigation and get them to hand their authority to the facilitator.
Kheron: I'd say mitigating both parties' preconceptions, and having an uncomfortable conversation about prejudice and the effect it's had on us over the years. As lot of this prejudice is based on the news, stories and what people have heard from others rather that our own experience. One of the greatest challenges was to create open-mindedness between the two parties.
How did you solve these challenges?
Mark: We have a series of activities that help people open up, breakdown their barriers and bond by discussing local issues and topics. An example is "speak and truth", where everyone has to take off their young-person's or professional's hat and be honest. We have seen police officers disagreeing with each other and agreeing with young people and vice versa. When people have to stand with whom they agree, you often see young people and police officers standing next to each other on either side of the room. So people are compartmentalized by their commonality instead of their prejudice.
Blair: We have youth facilitators, who we incentivise by giving them a paid apprenticeship and responsibility. These young people really want to seize this opportunity, more than older people, and they do an outstanding job.
Kheron: The youth facilitators have been trained in the Unbuntu values, such as listen to understand and don't listen to respond, respect everyone and treat them like a human being, allow everyone to have a say, take responsibility, challenge anything inappropriate and to hold others to account. These values are important in establishing that this is not an arena where we attack anybody. So the youth facilitators challenge the young people over their language and the police officers over their approach or way of conveying a message. In turn, young people then correct other young people and police officers do the same, stripping away any "us versus them" mentality.
Mark: Participants have also offered their own solutions to diffusing tension. From smiling more and being mindful that your facial expression that may be based on a negative, preconceived ideas, to having events to celebrate the achievements of young people and police officers, community events and games between young people and police officers.
What are your hopes for the Roundtable project?
Mark: We'd like to get to a point where the project is self-sustaining. So we can train young people and communities to set-up and run the Roundtable sessions themselves around the country. We also have the goal of making this international and bringing it to places like the US, where there are serious issues with policing.
Based on your experience with the Roundtable project, what are your reflections on gang culture and knife crime in the UK today?
Mark: I have mixed feelings, knowing friends and family who grew up in gangs and and seeing the consequences. Sometimes, it's never as black and white as "don't be in a gang". Sometimes, if you're not in a gang, you're still a victim of gang crime. I want to tell young people to not join gangs and focus on school, but that's not the reality. The reality is that when you leave your house you can be a victim or a target. It's very unfortunate the state we're in and that young people do the things that they do. But telling young people not do it isn't the solution. We need to incentivise young people not to join gangs.
A huge part of the problem is of course financial. Growing up in an environment where you don't have a lot is going to make you more likely to end up in a gang. Living standards are key, and a huge part of gang culture for me is poverty. Another part of the problem is the media. There are a lot of young people doing positive things in their community that isn't reported. The media focuses too much on the negative aspects of young people, so they don't believe that there are good things out there for them. If the media focused more on the positive, then it may encourage young people to take part in positive activities in their communities.
We need to focus on a positive agenda more. Taking things away, like their music, just gives young people another reason to be angry at the world. We need to create more ways to help young people develop. In Sweden, they're closing down prisons, because they've focused on reforming and helping people. I think we're lacking this in our society. It's easier to say they're a criminal and throw them in jail than to say they're someone who needs help.
Blair: As you know, we have a huge knife crime epidemic in the UK right now. People dying left, right and centre, and I don't think it's being dealt with correctly. In the government's eyes, the answer to more people carrying knifes is more police officers carrying guns. To create a police presence when the police are already understaffed, instead of preventative measures. Glasgow had a huge problem with knife crime, and they treated it as a problem related to health, not only crime. They used early rehabilitation, created more opportunities for people to find work and looked at education, mental health and the circumstances of each individual. A lot of the problems we're facing now are down to a lack of financial opportunity. I have a lot of friends who are now either not with us or in prison. Many have never had the opportunity to get out. Many feel like London is now a war zone. What you see now is that innocent friends or family who are in the same photo as a gang member are being targeted via social media, hunted down and stabbed. Similarly, you hear about people who've left their location on or were live streaming falling victim to stabbing attacks.
Knife crime in Glasgow was labeled as a community problem, but in London it's a black problem. I find this hard to stomach, and for me it's mostly a financial problem. It now takes six months to get referred to mental health services on the NHS in London. Wealthier people can obviously pay for private health care. Universal credit and benefits makes this problem even worse. Giving people a month's worth of money and expecting them to manage it when they've not received a monthly salary for years, if ever. It's like throwing meat in a lion's den and telling the Lion the meat has to last them a whole month. Rented council houses are another problem, why would you rent to someone who is struggling to pay rent when you can sell with London house prices? I understand the economic arguments, but there are humanitarian issues at stake. It all hinges on lack of opportunity. If we focused on preventing the real causes of gang culture and knife crime then we'd really solve the problem and we wouldn't have to spend tax payers' money on trying to treat the symptoms.
If you are interested in the Ubuntu Roundtable Project, then please visit:
Video excerpts about the project from Peace Partners' recent Waves of Change Workshop: