Meet the social entrepreneur showing government how to tackle youth violence
by Lucile Stengel
We often have stereotypes in mind when thinking about gang-related issues and youth violence. In London, 20 years old student Temi Mwale has been actively working to rethink the way youth violence is being tackled. With her own social enterprise, Get Outta the Gang, she aims to tackle violence through innovative solutions, and convince the public to drop the overly stereotyped 'gang' label. Temi was awarded the' Points of Light' 'award from UK Prime minister David cameron in 2014, and her work was also recognised by Cosmopolitan's 'Ultimate Campaigner Award'. We sat down with the social entrepreneur to discuss her journey and future ambitions.
Lucille Stengel: You have extensively campaigned to push the issue of gang violence up the policy agenda. What inspired your activism?
Temi Mwale: I was inspired by my reality, by the sense of injustice I had experienced, and I was really committed to seeing change at the policy level as well as impact on the ground.
But rather than campaigning to push gang violence up the agenda, I would say I am campaigning to get youth violence properly analysed and understood. Current policies don’t point to the real root causes of youth violence. Instead, the notion of ‘gang’ has been pointed to as a means to explain what is happening. Reality is very different: research shows that there is a disconnect between people who are called ‘‘gang members’ and those who are involved in serious youth violence. Current policy attempts to kill two birds with one stone, instead of addressing the root causes of the issue.
“Current policies don’t point to the real root causes of youth violence. Instead, the notion of ‘gang’ has been pointed to as a means to explain what is happening.”
If we want to understand the real causes of youth violence, we need to look at the intersection of all different aspects of violence in young people’s lives: being exposed to domestic violence in the home and the community, being exposed to interpersonal violence in a traumatic environment, but also being exposed to structural violence in the form of poverty, inequality, and police brutality.
LS: In 2012, you set up your own social enterprise Get Outta The Gang. What was the motivation behind setting up the organisation?
TM: I used to reply that my journey started when Kiyan Prince was stabbed outside of my secondary school at ten years old. And after that, when my childhood friend was shot and killed a month before my 15th birthday. At that time, I felt like I was being silenced, and that my concerns as a citizen were not being taken seriously. I felt that it was in large part due to my age, and I soon realised that a lot of people talking about youth violence in the media were not youth at all. Everyone had something to say about ‘gangs’ and violence and yet there was not a young face to be seen… So my motivation was to create a platform for young people to be taken seriously, to articulate their own perspective, use that insight to create innovative solutions.
“I realised that a lot of people talking about youth violence in the media were not youth at all. Everyone had something to say about ‘gangs’ and violence and yet there was not a young face to be seen.”
But now that I have had time to reflect on the past years, I realise that my journey didn’t start at ten years old. It started with being exposed to domestic violence at home, witnessing violence in the homes of my closest friends, and witnessing serious violence in the estate. The fact that violence was commonplace really shows the role of structural inequalities and personal trauma. Over time, I was able to trace this link between all these forms of violence, and that’s why I believe that they can’t be viewed in isolation.
LS: How challenging was it managing and funding a social enterprise whilst pursuing your studies?
TM: It is certainly difficult to strike the right balance, and I must confess I am still trying to perfect it. But for me, my education has played a critical role in helping me to understand these issues in more depth.
When I first started studying law at A-Level, I was in my first year of running the organisation, and I immediately saw the power of the law in engaging young people. So I started teaching criminal liability and legal principles within the workshops and programmes that I designed.
Unfortunately, the law is not made accessible to young people. In fact, many young people have expressed to me that they feel as if the law is acting out above them and asserted on them. What has become more interesting for me is teaching them the law, and making them feel like it is something they can influence and change. This sense of empowerment is critical.
LS: Get Outta The Gang is youth-led. Why is it important to involve young people at the heart of the organisation?
TM: The process of marginalisation and criminalisation takes people’s voices away. It was my belief that providing a platform for affected individuals to tell their stories, an opportunity to showcase their reality, is is empowering in so many ways. We are giving individuals the power to understand the complex and traumatic environments we live in, and to use their voice and experience to highlight the real cause of these issues to actually influence adequate responses.
LS: A big part of your work also deals with challenging widespread misconceptions about gangs. What would you say are the biggest misconceptions?
TM: In my opinion, the term ‘gang’ has become a tool for social control. There is an unbelievable lack of scrutiny, transparency and accountability in how the judicial system uses the ‘gang’ label. The police record individuals on ‘gang’ databases, and it is unclear what criteria are being used to make these databases, or what happens to the people on these databases who want to stop being labelled a ‘gang member’. And it is this data that is used in court in in the wider criminal system, leading to very unequal outcomes. It was proved, for instance, that the ‘gang’ label is more likely to be applied to black people than the rest of the population. There needs to be a wider conversation in the public arena about how it is being used and who it favours.
‘The term ‘gang’ has become a tool for social control. There is an unbelievable lack of scrutiny, transparency and accountability in how the judicial system uses the ‘gang’ label.’
LS: What would be one policy priority to tackle youth violence and gang-related issues?
TM: As I mentioned above, there is a real tendency for policy to think about individuals according to the risks they pose to society as opposed to the needs they have. Sadly, this means that individuals with complex issues including childhood trauma are not being given the support they need.
Another major issue is that youth violence and gangs are being conflated: if we accept that not all incidents of youth violence are gang related, we will have to come up with much more specific and focused policies. Policies that take into account the root causes and factors from which violence derives, and respond adequately to these issues. We won’t have much success if we keep pursuing the gang discourse.
LS: What is next for Get Outta The Gang?
TM: We have just undergone a huge transition. When we started, we sought to challenge misconceptions about ‘gangs’, to demonstrate how the term is being misused. But we have realised that we focused all our energy on eradicating the term ‘gang’ as opposed to addressing violence. At the end of the day, waging war on the term ‘gang’ won’t end violence.
The majority of the people I work with don’t see themselves as gang-involved. In fact, for them it is not a meaningful way of trying to understand the issues they face, it is just another reminder of victimisation. So, as we reshape the organisation, we are trying to transform the debate. We want people to recognise the connection between state sponsored violence, structural violence and the violence we see on our streets. We have now called ourself The 4Front Project, which symbolises our commitment to transforming the conversation : to bring to the fore all the things that really matter.