Turning young lives around: Darren Way’s story

Published: 30 Oct 2018

Author: Darren Way
Turning young lives around: Darren Way’s story

Gang Intervention worker Darren Way travelled to the USA in 2000 to research approaches that re-engage young communities from disadvantaged neighbourhoods. He has since set up a charity that has transformed the lives of over three thousand young people living in London.

The journey

At the time of his Fellowship, Darren worked for a local charity in Tower Hamlets, London, running a youth project aimed at tackling anti-social behaviour. Despite some successes, he felt frustrated that the project wasn’t addressing some of the biggest issues faced by young people, such as gang rivalry, criminality and drugs.

Darren began going out on to the streets each night to try to engage with youth and young adults involved in harmful activities. One night, a gang surrounded Darren and he found himself in a life-threatening situation. He negotiated his way out of the incident but realised he was getting out of his depth.

In 2000, he was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to travel to the USA and study successful frontline intervention models for turning around young people’s lives. He was struck by examples he witnessed of organisations who had built or repurposed their own community development centres, designing them specifically to meet the needs of the young adults they work with. The Point, an organisation based in New York, had taken over a factory site in South Bronx and were using it to help young street entrepreneurs set up business hubs.

He also found evidence of the value of professionals fully embedding themselves in the communities they are trying to affect. The example of Boston organisation Roca Inc, who created a base on a shopping parade associated with Cambodian gangs, was to prove particularly inspirational for Darren.

Below: Darren uses close-up street magic to break the ice with disadvantaged young adults

Darren Way

The results

When Darren returned to the UK, he began making the case for models that reduce dependency on youth workers, law enforcement, social workers, youth offending teams and prisons. Professionals should try to equip communities to be more accountable and responsible for their own behaviour and futures. However, his arguments challenged the status quo and were met with resistance by some in his field.

He found an ally in his colleague Diane Peters, and together they set up a new charity, Streets of Growth, with Diane becoming CEO. Taking inspiration from Roca Inc and other organisations that Darren visited on his travels, Streets of Growth made their home in a disused shop front located in a hot spot of antisocial behaviour in east London.

Over the next 17 years, Streets of Growth developed an award-winning model that now works with young adults across the London borough of Tower Hamlets. They target 15-25-year-olds who may have dropped out of education or employment or are involved in antisocial behaviour such as gang violence, criminality and drugs. They’re often the very young people that other organisations either avoid or struggle to engage with, but Streets of Growth work with them for up to three years, supporting them in the areas of lifestyle change, education, employability and participation in community development.

One example of Streets of Growth’s work is their social enterprise Turning the Tables, in which young  adults upcycle and repurpose vintage furniture, learning skills that can help them transition into the job market. Another is the community-led projects they create opportunities for young adults to play a central role in, including the redesign of public spaces and street safety initiatives.

Below: Darren running a Transition into Construction programme for school leavers ‘At risk of dropping out’

Darren running a Transition into Construction programme

Streets of Growth work with up to 150 ‘higher need and at risk’ young adults each year, for less than the cost of incarcerating just one of these young people for the same period. In partnership with the Police and a local housing association they have achieved a 45% decrease in young adult disorder across three council estates in east London in the past year.

Darren and Diane started their charity in 2001 with just £10, two chairs and a run-down shop front. They now operate from a 5,000-square-foot converted office block, employ seven members of staff and have a dedicated team of trustees and volunteers.

Darren is currently writing a book on his Fellowship and the use of close-up street magic in intervention work with harder to reach young communities who are suspicious of help from organisations. He also trains practitioners in the interventions pioneered by Streets of Growth and continues to work in partnership with the organisations that he visited on his travels.

Top photo: Darren (4th from right) with staff and young adults at Youth Build, a project based in Salem, Massachusetts, training young people in the construction industry

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