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Gang culture appeals to disenfranchised young people – but ‘social mixing’ offers a way out

Over the past ten years, violence among young people involved in gangs has claimed hundreds of lives and dominated national debate in the UK. There have been many well-documented attempts to counter gang culture, ranging from early years intervention to zero tolerance policing.

But authorities have yet to fully consider social mixing – otherwise known as “bridging”. Bridging is an approach which helps people go out beyond the neighbourhood where they live to create new, more diverse social networks in other areas. This might happen when they start training or volunteering, or get a part-time job.

These kinds of activities offer an opportunity to form new friendships outside of their local area. In academic terms, it gives people a chance to develop social capital – that is, accrue the opportunities and benefits that come from having a wide and varied social network. And there’s new evidence to show that this can have a positive impact on young people.

Getting away from gangs

My earlier research into what drives young people to join gangs involved interviewing a mix of 44 young people aged 18 to 25, half of whom were gang members, and half of whom said they were not gang members, based in Merseyside, UK. One of the key differences between these two groups of young people was whether or not they found opportunities for social mixing.

Those who identified themselves as gang members had restricted themselves to their local area, where in many cases there were active gangs. With limited opportunities available, the only places for young people to develop friendships were in school, and on the streets after school.

As a result, they had little choice but to get involved in the main activity around the streets, which was to join groups of young people hanging around shops and parks. Over time, the values and beliefs of these young people became bound up with gang culture that involved anti-social behaviour and crime.

These factors also gave young people a sense of belonging, identity and excitement as well as a way to earn money, as some of the older members found a substitute for the lack of employment in the local area through “grafting” (drug dealing).

A way to get paid. Howard Lake/Flickr., CC BY-SA

By contrast, non-gang members decided to commute out from their living space to seek activities in different areas: they were either encouraged by their parents, or decided themselves to opt out of relationships with peers who they deemed to be trouble-makers. This allowed them to create new, diverse and morally stable friendships, and develop more open and optimistic mindsets.

Gentrification by governments

The traditional forms of bridging, encouraged by governments in the past, have included long-term projects such as mixed tenure housing. This is where local property developers – including social housing providers – encourage upwardly mobile people to buy new or regenerated housing stock in areas alongside marginalised people with very limited choice.

The obvious problem with this idea is that it can create a divided community of “haves” and “have-nots”, with the former living in good quality new builds, while disenfranchised neighbours reside in poorly furnished, dilapidated and ageing dwellings. Ultimately, this can lead to gentrification: where long-term residents and businesses are displaced, and communities disrupted or destroyed, due to the influx of wealthier residents.

This method of long-term bridging ignores two crucial factors: trust and balance. Encouraging people from different backgrounds to move into areas where the local community has already developed a collective bond based on empathy and reciprocity, can actually create distrust of newcomers. There’s also a need to consider how many new faces are coming in: too many, and this can create a fear among established residents of being “invaded” by new people out of touch with local activities, issues and concerns.

Many communities – including my own in North Huyton, Merseyside – have as a result of social exclusion become very insular and territorial, and will not take kindly to new faces. The important step of developing trust between locals and newcomers is all too often forgotten by planners and local government, who are eager to improve neighbourhoods quickly.

Yet the bridging that was evident among the young people who opted not to join gangs in my research came not in the form of new residences or urban regeneration, but in exposure to new opinions, ideas, experiences, values and beliefs, which introduced issues such as moral citizenship, and ambition beyond the limited opportunities available in their local area.

I also found that it is possible to create bridging within communities themselves, through role models who can have a positive influence on others. For example, every one of the young people who took part in the study remembered the name of a favourite teacher, and spoke of the impact this figure had had on them.

Graduates who return to socially excluded areas can also help to internally bridge by acting as mentors. This would allow possible employment opportunities for those who have returned to socially excluded locations and found very little in terms of graduate provisions which are usually non-existent.

Over the last few years, a local charity on Merseyside has run a pilot involving bridging through social and leisure activities, which have brought in other young people and facilitators from outside areas. This has seen many disenfranchised local residents become more positive and open minded about their future aspirations. Many have come away with a new willingness to invest time and energy in a more law abiding pathway.

While bridging may not completely prevent crime among young people, it seems worth exploring further – especially methods of bridging which involve local people, and focus on addressing issues of inequality and social exclusion, rather than ignoring them.

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