Positive Images: How young people organised to change policy and build better relationships with the police

Claire Arkwright Community Organiser, Southwark Citizens

Big Education Logo

Schools In Their Communities: Taking Action and Developing Civic Life is a collaboration between Big Education and Citizen School.

Notre Dame Roman Catholic Girls’ School, in the London borough of Southwark, has been a member of Citizens UK for almost a decade. As a school, Notre Dame has been engaged in multiple campaigns over the past few years. In 2018, students started engaging around the issue of youth violence. This case-study will explore the story of a young person who has been on a journey of developing herself as a leader through building a campaign, taking action on what she really cares about, negotiating and, ultimately, winning, thus bringing about change in her local area. I will begin by telling the story of this campaign to then unpick what was learnt and what benefit this can have for other schools and their students.

Following Community Organising methodologies, and before starting any campaign, a listening exercise is carried out. Four schools, three churches and a few charities organised a ‘listening exercise’, speaking to over 2,000 people within their institutions. Each school had a group of up to 20 young people trained in how to carry out a listening campaign. A listening campaign is not just a data collecting exercise. First and foremost, it is a relational activity where you encourage the whole school community to start talking about the issues that their community are facing which means that not only are issues being brought to light but everyone within the school is being brought into the process of deciding the campaigns. Those carrying out the listening are seeking out new potential leaders who could be involved in emerging campaigns as well as trying to develop relationships within their institutions.

Once this large listening exercise had been carried out, we held a ‘delegates meeting’ where representatives from each institution came together and voted on the area that was most important to them. Youth safety came up as a priority and, within the large problem of ‘youth safety’, the more of used issue of ‘relationships between young people and the police’ came up as something that people wanted to work on. This process was really important not only to identify what they were going to work on, but also to build relationships between the different institutions – you have church members, people from charities, parents, students and teachers all debating and deciding together what was going to be their shared priority. A space was created, whereby no one person that had more authority than the other. Rather, we worked to make sure that all voices were heard to ensure that a true democratic consensus was reached. This process of working with people from a variety of institutions gave students a raw understanding of how democracy can work and a real flavour of the skills of negotiating with others to reach shared decisions.

After this meeting, a smaller youth safety team met in one of the secondary schools. At that meeting, we had secondary school students, teachers, church members, and parents from a local parents’ association. This meeting was chaired by Tehillah, from Notre Dame Girls’ School:

‘Chairing this meeting was an opportunity I thought I would never be capable of. The meeting gave me confidence and an assured hope for my community. It emotionally touched me to see the power we all held when our community came together as one as well as seeing the impact this meeting had to achieving future needs.’

It was fundamental to the campaign that young people were leading it from the start. They received training on how to break their concerns (relationships between the police and young people) into even smaller, more tangible, issues. After bringing together different ideas, the group decided to work on getting the police in Southwark to stop posting knives on social media. The group went through online posts where there were pictures of zombie knives (often with blood on them and with captions like ‘Teen caught with this knife’, etc.). From this activity – part of their research – the young people felt that there should be a more positive representation of teenagers and that these images posted were not helping the problem but, rather, potentially glamorising it and encouraging people to find bigger and more dangerous weapons.

Tehillah collected the opinions of the young people and composed a letter to the Evening Standard that was later published.

Following this early campaign success, bringing the issue to a wider audience, Tehillah was then able to get onto ITV News with another student called Josephine. They talked about the issue and their campaign.

“I am so please that I got the opportunity to express my opinions and thoughts on the negative impact of police posting deadly weapons and the effect it has on young people today. It is wrong. It is futile. I am grateful that ITV News helped me and Tehillah get this across.

Tehillah and Josephine started a hashtag campaign called #TeenCaught to reverse the negative stereotypes inundating social media. Both Tehillah and Josephine and students from other schools started posting pictures of themselves doing good things within their community, i.e. #TeenCaught doing their homework.

Capitalising on these early steps, the schools involved – Harris Academy Peckham, Oliver Goldsmiths Primary School, St James the Great Primary School and Notre Dame Girls’ School – wanted to build more momentum around this issue and see if they could meet with the Borough Commander for Southwark to get his team to stop posting pictures of knives on social media and start posting more positive images of young people. Leaders from Oliver Goldsmith Primary School, in Peckham, agreed, as an institution, to take at least one positive action every week for a duration of two months. These actions would be documented to then show to the police once they had been able to get a meeting. The students had ongoing training on how to take action which started with a community walk to look out for positive things they could do within the area. They spoke to local people, brought all their ideas back together to decide what actions they were going to take. They decided to go to different places within Peckham to thank people for their hard work. They made cards for the local healthcare centre, they brought cupcakes to the local fire brigade, etc. When the general election was called, they had a workshop on democracy and the importance of voting. Posters were made posters and leaflets given out to parents and neighbours, encouraging them to register to vote.

‘Training helped pupils to understand how their positive actions can change the community’s image of what young people do. They saw the need to engage with the local community more and most importantly to have the local police show these positive actions instead of negative images on their twitter feed. The campaign also opened a door for future dialogue between young people and the police.’

One of the key actions Oliver Goldsmith Primary School organised was to meet with police officers. To show collective support, 30 people from across the local alliance of institutions involved gathered to meet with police officers. The aim was simple but very effective: to show gratitude to the Police for their hard work and to tell them about their campaign. Not only was it to thank them, but there was also a political demand: students, parents, teachers, and others involved in the action asked to meet with the Borough Commander.

Unfortunately, the police did not really engage with this process: they were an hour late and then proceeded to ignore the young people involved, only facing the adults while discussing the work they were doing around youth engagement.

This was an important moment. Such reactions, it seems, crystallised what so many young people are used to: being ignored by adults in positions of authority and highlighted the issue at hand of the breakdown in relationships with the police.

One of the lessons, from this experience, was about power: we teach the people we organise how they can build power in order to be able to affect change and have their voices listened to. Therefore, after the police officers left, it was important that we addressed what had happened so that the students did not go away without processing their emotions but, rather, thought about what could be done to move things on.

Thankfully, not all seemed to have been negative during this action. A meeting with the Deputy Borough Commander was offered. Realising that it is always best to accept a meeting rather than establish unnecessary barriers between ourselves and those we are trying to negotiate with, we accepted the meeting.

We started planning for the meeting with the Deputy Borough Commander: we used the action with the police officers as a learning opportunity and acted out what had happened. We asked the students to re-enact how they thought it should be when the Deputy Borough Commander came to visit: how we would ensure that he knew that it was a meeting run by the students, rather than the teachers or other adults in the room. This was invaluable practice as we got ready for our next steps.

The Deputy Borough Commander came and visited Harris Academy Peckham a few weeks later. 80 of the young people planned the whole event. Students chaired the action, presenting the positive things they had been doing and showcasing why they thought the Police should not be posting images of knives on social media.

One of the asks at the event, put to the Deputy Borough Commander, was for regular meetings to be organised. This is because we know that negotiations are easier when ongoing relationships are built and developed positively. It was agreed to meet regularly with the young people and to get them a meeting with the Borough Commander who could have the final say in terms of our campaign asks.

Meetings were agreed, but a decision was not yet reached as to whether the Police in Southwark would stop posting images of knives.

The Deputy Borough Commander insisted the knives had to be posted to show that they were doing their jobs and that members of the public wanted to see the weapons. He argued the position of the police giving many reasons to justify these images and it looked as though we weren’t going to get anywhere. Then a young boy from Harris Academy Peckham said that he understood what the Deputy Commander was saying and he understood all of the reasons but that they were talking about how young people received it and how young people felt seeing these images and that he could not deny this experience. Not only did this start to shift the conversation but as we noted in our evaluation it was an amazing example of a young person respectfully but firmly negotiating their position in the face of authority.

The action was published in Southwark News and the Borough Commander was quoted saying that the posting of images was necessary.

One month later, a smaller group of students, a teacher, and a local vicar finally met with the Borough Commander. They had worked on writing an open letter which influential people within the borough of Southwark had already put their names to. The negotiating team decided to use this letter as part of the meeting, demonstrating the wider influence the had managed to build over time for, after all, it is power that would compel the response that we require in such times.

Tehillah chaired the meeting with the Borough Commander and once she had finished explaining the campaign he said ever since the action with his Deputy, they had stopped posting images of knives on social media. The Deputy had come back and said that they should think about stopping. At the meeting, the Borough Commander agreed to sign the open letter to encourage other boroughs to follow Southwark’s lead and stop posting images of knives on their social media outlets. The team was now ready to hold a celebration event with all of the churches and schools also involved.

Here are a few reflections, from the work undertaken throughout the campaign:

Sandra Schloss, from St Luke’s Church Peckham, one of the key church leaders involved with the campaign:

Winning this campaign, demonstrated how listening to those involved in issues is so important. The young people were listened to and in supporting them, we also helped the community. It felt great to win this campaign and demonstrated that speaking to the people who make the decision is necessary if we want to make a difference. I believe this also helped to build confidence in the young people especially Tehillah who led on this issue. Hopefully will encourage her to continue to use the skills gained to inspire her in whatever she goes on to do.

Tehillah:

It was amazing to see the support ranging from the students to church vicars who all shared the same passion and rage as me towards the issue of weapons being posted on the Metropolitan Police social media. I would like to thank everybody for the support and congratulate everyone for winning this campaign.

Josephine:

I am extremely grateful for the platforms and organising opportunities that I have been exposed to. Through organising, I have grown in confidence and I have become more responsible. Thank you to everyone who supported the campaign and a special recognition to Tehillah, for her non-stop hard work. Lastly a big thank you to our Community Organiser Claire for all her mentoring and support!

Who wrote this article?

Claire Arkwright Community Organiser, Southwark Citizens

Claire has been working as an organiser for Citizens UK since 2018. Currently, she works with a broad base of over twenty civil society institutions in the borough of Southwark, including six schools. Claire comes from a family of teachers and has a passion for education. She has worked in schools in the UK and abroad. Before working for Citizens UK, Claire also worked for refugee and migrant charities as a project co-ordinator.

More posts in this series

Introduction: Let's commit to a life of responsibility and action

Dr Sebastien Chapleau
‘It’s not hope that leads to action. Rather, it is action that inspires hope.’ – Neil Jameson CBE. Albert Camus’s The Plague (La Peste) was first published over sixty years ago. It focuses on how citizens from…

Provocation: Why academy trusts should employ community organisers

Neil Jameson CBE
‘We should not, must not, dare not be complacent about the health and future of British democracy. Unless we become a nation of engaged citizens our democracy is not secure!’ – Lord Irvine of Laird, Lord Chancellor …

Surrey Square: Why Community is Key

Matt Morden
& Fiona Carrick-Davies
Surrey Square is a school at the heart of the community it serves, meeting not just the educational needs of its pupils but also responding to the plethora of social issues facing local families….

Reach Academy & Reach Academy Children's Hub

Luke Billingham
A school and charity partnership working together to provide community support and to enable community action. The story of Reach Academy and Reach Children’s Hub demonstrates the significant role that schools and…

The Story of School 21's Community Choir

Emily Crowhurst
Setting up our School21 community choir has been a life-affirming endeavour. Friday afternoons in our school hall are an embodiment of our school value of community and model the power of music to promote…

Ruth (and) the Giant

Emmanuel Gotora
The end of the school year is always a hectic time, especially for primary schools. In Forest Gate, east London, the excitement reaches fever pitch as a group of energetic 10 and 11-year-olds at St. Antony’s Primary…