Mentoring Gangs as a Response to the UK Riots – Rhetoric and Reality

As the dust settles from the recent UK riots, policians and communities are debating the myriad underlying reasons for the civil unrest and considering appropriate responses by way of tough justice and social interventions.  An interesting post by Jonny Zander explores restorative justice and community service options.   I want to explore if and how mentoring can be part of the response to the riots and the UK gang issue.  I will look at some of the policy background and explore how mentoring can slip into the response rhetoric. I will balance this rhetoric by reviewing research into the effectiveness of mentoring upon gang culture, look for learning from existing schemes and the United States and draw some conclusions as to appropriate frameworks for harnessing mentoring as part of a multi-sided response to the riots.

Mentoring as Policy Response to Gangs and the UK Riots

David Cameron has declared War On Gangs and Gang Culture. However, a Question Time report from the Pembury Estate Hackney (a riot epicenter) found plenty of people voicing concerns that such strong rhetoric may be counter-productive or even dangerous when it comes to tacking inner city problems.  Rather, a tough stance on gangs and rioters, including long prison terms and increased police powers, will need to be balanced with hearts and minds messages and initiatives to reach out to young people.  So what form will such balancing initiatives take?  From Cameron, we have heard little of the Big Society. Instead he has declared we live in a Broken Society.  However, the show of community solidarity (riot wombles and all), mobilizing using social media, to cleanup the aftermath of the riots demonstrates that community action is already taking place and is ready to be harnessed.  Time is of the essence.

Cameron has said the government must intervene in perhaps 100,000 “deeply broken and troubled families”, where children have no role models.  Mentoring is widely perceived as a means of providing positive role models and as Nat Wei argues, mentoring should be part of the response.  On the policy side, Iain Duncan Smith has been appointed to lead a gang taskforce.  Duncan Smith, is the founder and Chair of the Centre For Social Justice, and as such is likely to be influenced by the findings of the think tank’s Dying To Belong report into the Street Gangs of Britain.  The report “recommends that mentoring programmes are available in Gang Prevention Zones as part of a prevention strategy” but highlights the dangers of mentoring if not delivered effectively.  The report also recommends that youth services be outsourced to third sector organisations.

Government spending cuts continue to be a part of the debate over the causes of the riots.  There is some evidence that cuts are already having negative impacts upon mentoring schemes with a reduction of referrals to mentoring services in Willesden, threatening closure of the service.  Rhetoric around the importance of mentoring as part of the response will seem hollow if cuts mean services cannot be properly provisioned.

Other policy reports also include mentoring as a means of balancing the strain on the justice system. The Young Foundation report Turning the Corner co-authored by Rushanara Ali (now Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow) and Anton Shelupanov seeks to find ways to reduce crime through innovation.  The report recommends a wrap-around package for offenders incorporating mentoring, employer initiatives and training.  The authors recognize the need to support these initiatives through innovative forms of financing which may offset funding cuts. Social Impact Bonds are championed as a way to value the benefits of social interventions such as mentoring programs in terms of reduced justice system costs, such as falling prison populations and benefits.  Models such as this rely upon realistic objectives and effective measurement (not easy as the research referenced below demonstrates).

The policy research into the benefits of mentoring is therefore in place and recognises some of the challenges of implementing effective and sustainable programs.  There remains a risk that mentoring becomes a familiar but misunderstood part of social interventionist rhetorical repertoire, with policy and actions (whether by third sector or government), failing to take note of the detail within policy recommendations.  The next section will briefly explore these challenges and propose recommendations.

Learning from Academic Research Into Gang Related Mentoring Schemes

Research by academics at Manchester into mentoring of siblings of gang members University highlighted the very real danger that identifying young people as potential gang members may have long-term stigmatising effects.  Any social interventions must be sensitive to this potential impact.  At the same time, “analysis seemed to suggest that mentoring was more likely to have an effect when the clients selected were youth at risk, rather than more general populations of youth” demonstrating the potential for targeted mentoring to deliver value where needed.  However, how mentoring is delivered is vitally important and poorly delivered mentoring can have negative impacts upon youth.

The authors found mentoring had stronger effects when (1) the program had a clear theory of change, (2) empirically based ‘best practices’ were used, and (3) a strong relationship was forged between youth and mentors. Those programs that are capable of sustaining a stronger mentorship were more effective, in particular those that required weekly meetings for longer periods of time per meeting.

Further, academic research into mentoring gangs has argued that mentoring was only successful in reducing re-offending when it was part of a broader package of measures (e.g. behaviour modification, supplementary education and employment programmes) (Jolliffe and Farrington, 2007).

After school activities to be undertaken by mentor/mentee are also an important part of the relationship, but sourcing these activities can be difficult and shows the need for a multi-dimensional approach.  Activities must be available and taking place anyway (eg. Youth club, music opportunities, sport) which mentors can then exploit.  Good mentoring does not happen in a vacuum!  However, the cost of these activities can be prohibitive and highlights the issue of sustainability after the budget and time commitment of a formal scheme is finished. Families of those being mentored are unlikely to have the budget to arrange travel or other costs associated with these activities and the risk is that behaviours slip once activities stop.

It is also vital that mentoring programs do not inadvertently reinforce ethnic discrimination and are sensitive to the needs of participants, in terms of ethnic and cultural identity.  Academics in the United States explore the cultural values of Asian Americans which may influence their propensity towards successful mentoring outcomes. The authors are tackling difficult issues with danger of racial stereotyping. However, ignoring the incongruous terminology, the article provides a useful insight into the complexities faced by mentors when dealing with the development of their mentees’ identity.  The academics argue “it is important for mentors to understand themselves as racial/ethnic beings and attend to how their own racial and cultural socialization experiences might play a positive or negative role in developing an effective mentoring relationship.”   In layman’s speak: mentors’ own attitudes impact upon their mentees.  They also propose certain values/behaviours which they call ‘non-cognitive variables’, which if explored, measured and achieved through the course of a mentoring relationship, can have positive impacts upon identity. They are; (a) positive self-concept, (b) realistic self-appraisal, (c) understands and deals with racism and other “-isms, (d) preference for long-range goals, (e) availability of strong support person, (f) successful leadership experience, (g) demonstrated community service, and (h) knowledge acquired in a field.

These models may provide guidance for mentors to help mentees explore who they are and help mentors better understand a process to help mentees forge an identity which diverges from gang culture.   The question is how to train mentors with the skills needed to take such a considered and humble approach to mentoring to achieve these kind of positive outcomes with young people at risk.

A report by QA entitled ‘Children and Gangs’ take this further by recommending ex-gang members become mentors and had this advice:

“The professionals consulted maintained that alienation from society, the effects of unemployment and lack of positive role models are significant drivers in relation to gang endurance. As such, they recommended recruiting ex-gang members or ex-offenders to work as mentors to guide young people towards more constructive lifestyles. Crucial to the success of this intervention would be employing those who a) can relate to the experiences of the young person, and, b) are committed to building relationships founded on respect and honesty. Moreover, given the chaotic lifestyles and inadequate parenting of many of those involved in gang activity, it was felt that mentors must be trained to recognise the importance of being a consistent and dependable adult in a young person’s life. Participants suggested that the role of mentors should not only involve steering the young person towards education, training or employment, but should also involve subtly broadening their horizons by taking them out of their local area to visit other parts of their city /  the country.”

Hanging over all these proposals is the need to ensure that mentoring through these complex issues is a long-term solution with measurable outcomes, which enables mentees to continue activities or mentoring relationships at the end of a formal scheme. As the Audit Commission (2009) recently highlighted, schemes require funding to ensure that they are sustainable in the long-term.  After looking at a small part of the academic literature available, it soon becomes apparent that rhetorical statements from policy makers which seek to capitalise on popular sentiment around mentoring, need to be based upon sound understanding of the risks and complexities of effective mentoring.

Learning from the United States

Politicians are also keen to learn from the lessons of the US with Bill Bratton being called to London to share advice from his experience of restoring law and order after the riots of LA. He said he would share his experience of combining tough tactics with community outreach to reduce US gang violence in a bid to prevent recurrences of the violence in the UK.  Another opportunity for collaboration has arisen with the announcement by New York City of the Young Men’s Initiative which will spend $127 million (including major contributions from Mayor Bloomberg and George Soros) on programs to help young black and Latino men in the city.  Mentoring features prominently in these programs, alongside education and employment initiatives.  Critics of the appointment of Bratton, point out that societal solutions to societal problems cannot simply be transplanted from the US to the UK streets.  Time will tell, but there are without doubt opportunities for sharing of learning, techniques and results of programs.

Learning from Existing UK Mentoring Schemes tackling Gang Issues

There are a wealth of mentoring schemes in the UK tacking criminal justice and gangs more specifically.  GateMate offers a map of UK mentoring schemes for ex-offenders.  In London, existing mentoring schemes tackling mentoring include – TAG mentoring and Potential Mentoring. Boris Johnson’s mentoring scheme under the patronage of Ray Lewis and Operation Connect in Waltham Forest are examples of state sponsored schemes working in inner cities.

Any future social interventions, designed by the government or third sector, need to consult those in the know (including of course young people themselves) and share resources where possible.  As providers of an online platform to help manage mentoring, we at also emphasise the need to explore the potential for cloud computing and social media platforms to assist in the implementation of effective mentoring programs.  Blackberry Messenger and Twitter played a significant role in enabling the civil unrest and these technologies should also be part of the solution.


As a response to the UK riots, mentoring can play a valuable role whether directed towards gangs or communities at risk.  However, mentoring programs must be properly designed and resourced and sit within a wider package of measures including education, training, employer lead schemes and community based activities. Innovative models of public and private sector funding such as Social Impact Bonds, are likely to be needed in the current climate as a lack of funding could mean that mentoring schemes are at best under-achieving and at worst dangerous to participants.  Let’s start sharing resources and experience in this area both face to face and online and build on the great work already being done.  Paul

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5 Responses to Mentoring Gangs as a Response to the UK Riots – Rhetoric and Reality

  1. Paul says:

    I work as a volunteer mentor having been trained by Kids Company in London who then connect me to a teenager to mentor.

    The training is good, a CRB check is done and KidsCo oversee the relationship, so I would recommend this to others who feel moved by the riots to do something tangible such as mentoring.

  2. Great article! If you’re interested in male mentoring as a concept, you might be interested in what we are doing at abandofbrothers. Give me a shout if you fancy meeting for a coffee and a chat sometime.


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