Ciaran Thapar on lockdown’s impact on Britain’s at-risk youth
Generation Covid: The author of the critically acclaimed book Cut Short explains what two pandemic years have done to young people whose lives were already precarious.
The pandemic put everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, at risk.
Physically, mentally, emotionally, financially: we were all imperilled in some way. But what of at-risk youth? Kids from unstable backgrounds, living in challenging environments, lacking proper support networks, vulnerable to being the victims (or practitioners) of anti-social behaviour, or worse. When schools and colleges shut, social settings vanished and the UK retreated indoors, what happened to those young people?
How bad was lockdown for them?
Ciaran Thapar knows better than most. The youth worker and writer started mentoring kids seven years ago, while studying for his Masters in Political Philosophy at the London School of Economics. A volunteering role at his local Brixton community centre grew into a vocational, professional commitment, with Thapar “immersed in working with young people in South London”, mostly boys. As he explains, “those at risk of violence and exclusion are disproportionately male”.
As well as partnering with local authorities and educational establishments, Thapar founded RoadWorks LDN, a community organisation that aims to “reduce social exclusion amongst young people through storytelling workshops and mentoring”.
Since the beginning of Covid, under that banner, the 30-year-old has designed, delivered and pulled together funding from various sources for three youth programmes which, as he puts it, “have each sought to respond to different problems faced by young people”, with a focus on 15 to 21-year-olds.
The first of these, dating back to the first lockdown, is Drillosophy. This seriously knowledgeable music fan describes it as “music-themed critical thinking videos with accompanying downloadable facilitator resources… This was to arm parents, carers, youth workers and teachers doing remote engagement, with the tools to have meaningful and stimulating conversations with young people who might be dropping off due to school closures, et cetera.”
Another, instituted during the third UK lockdown of early 2021, was Diversions, a music industry mentoring programme. “After a rigorous application process we chose and supported 10 young creatives from underrepresented backgrounds: one actor, two writers, five rappers, one vocalist and one producer.”
There were weekly mentoring sessions and guest visits from industry experts, including artists Toddla T and Finesse Foreva, and journalists Tara Joshi and Aniefiok Ekpoudom. “The entire programme was done remotely over Zoom – it was like running a digital youth club,” underpinned by grants of £2500 to spend on their creative practice. As he puts it, “they’re all smashing it now”, pointing out how mentees Edwina Omokaro and Milli-Rose Rubin are both now published in gal-dem.
Finally, there’s Pattern, “a critical thinking and creative writing programme for teenage boys” that’s in its pilot stage ahead of a full launch in September. Thapar is currently delivering this with youth worker, journalist and rapper Franklyn Addo (whose book A Quick Ting on Grime, due in September, looks ace) at a sixth form college in Walthamstow, East London. “Its design is directly based around the chapter themes of Cut Short, leveraging critical conversations about youth violence with young men, while giving them space to write creatively about their feelings and experiences.”
Cut Short: that’s Thapar’s other remarkable achievement of the past two years. His book, subtitled Youth Violence, Loss and Hope in the City, was published in June last year. Based around four case studies (including that of Demetri Addison, another contributor to Pattern), and rounded out by Thapar’s serious boots-on-the-ground knowledge, research and experience, Cut Short is essential reading for anyone interested in young lives and the challenges they face in our towns and cities. And we all should be interested, right?
Critically acclaimed by everyone from Tottenham MP David Lammy (“Lays down a transformative path to peace”) to Candice Carty-Williams (“A devastating and beautifully-drawn tribute to the young boys that the media turns into statistics of knife crime”), the book is coming out in an updated, Covid-facing edition this summer.
“Showing how we are all connected to this tragedy, Cut Short is a gripping, urgent, sympathetic and often painful portrait of a society fracturing along lines of race, class and postcode. It is a blueprint for positive change, and a book we desperately need.”
That’s his publisher’s marketing spiel, but no less true for it.
All of which explains why we were keen to meet Thapar, in a cafe in the middle of Battersea Park, to get his take on how the last two years have impacted the kids in his network.
Good to talk to you, Ciaran. The paperback version of Cut Short has a new subtitle: Why We’re Failing Our Youth and How to Fix It. Are there specific learnings you’ve drawn on over the last two years of Covid that have fed into this updated edition?
Definitely. Everyone’s got their own iteration of Covid’s impact. It forced everyone to stop, so I did that. I took stock of the impact of being a youth worker on my mental health and my personal life – and then took stock again about re-entering into youth work, stronger and with better systems.
That includes a lot of thinking about: if you’re not in a room with a young person, but you still want to make sure that you’re having an impact on them in the conversation, how do you do that? How do you reach people in the community? It might not be ideal that you’re not in person with them. But there are definitely innovative ways you can use in the digital world and use remote engagement.
There are passages in the book that I’ve written deliberately to make it very accessible to a young person with low literacy skills. And each chapter will now have three or four prompt questions that are responsive to that chapter’s theme. So [Covid] has bled into my thinking about this.
Have at-risk youth been fundamentally more at risk in the last two years?
Without a doubt. But that requires a nuanced answer. It’s easy to get caught up – and it’s necessary to get caught up – in the impact of Covid. But it’s also easy to let that distract from the fact that a lot of these issues have fundamentally been going on for years, generations. There is a danger that, if we blame Covid, which is a politically neutral entity, that can pull away from [considering] the structural problems that already existed.
Nonetheless, I think, yeah, they have, for lots of fairly obvious reasons. Those young people that were already being excluded from school; felt the need to carry a knife to defend themselves; were involved in illicit drug dealing to pay for lifestyle, or even just feed themselves; being influenced by certain people in that community, elder people in the community, other people like them in the community who were trapped in similar systems…
So they’re dealing with all that…
Yeah, and not being intervened with by the teacher, or the youth worker, who now themselves have to deal with Covid – and who potentially have kids, their own parents to deal with. It’s all a knock-on effect across a whole system that was already struggling.
What do you remember of the early days of lockdown?
I remember the day when [former Metropolitan Police Commissioner] Cressida Dick said words to the effect of: there are less boys stabbing each other now, which is a silver lining [of lockdown]. And it is a silver lining, you could argue that.
But there’s [the case of] one of the young people I mentor. He’s fine and super-resilient – fortunately a lot of the work that I and others had done with him meant that he had enough adults to support him. But the same week Dick said that, he’d had one friend shot in the leg. Another friend had died, stabbed to death. Another friend had just come out of prison.
And, of course, Covid was the only conversation in town…
Covid distracted everyone so much that it was basically impossible to make sense of what actually was going on outside on the roads. It was already very difficult. But now everyone’s in their flat and everyone is trying to psychologically deal with this madness. And understandably, as the head of the police, all your statistics are showing that there are less things going on. And probably there are. But also, actually, there was a lot of other stuff going on that wasn’t picked up during the period of time.
Is it also a ticking bomb, because of the pent-up frustration of all those months stuck at home?
Certainly. And that goes to the second thing I was going to say: 2021 saw the most number of teenagers killed in London ever: 30.
With Covid, everyone, understandably, had to turn even more inwards, maybe [be] selfish, and people were feeling desperate – it’s harder to pay your rent, it’s harder to look after your mum. Loads of things became harder. So understandably, people maybe have less of a capacity to care.
So then that large number of deaths happens in 2021 and it kind of passes us by. And it’s interesting: if that had happened in 2017 and ’18, when knife crime was all over the news, the response would have been pretty crazy.
Would your sense be that that figure directly correlates to a year of being stuck at home, and life being on hold, because of Covid?
I think it directly correlates with what was going on before. But Covid obviously didn’t help.
Can we say, as best as we can tell when the data is relatively recent, that Covid accelerated and intensified those pre-existing trends?
I would say so. [But equally] public health is now accepted as a lens through which we can understand violence. A young person doesn’t pick up a knife because of one reason. They pick it up because of lots of different reasons that might blur across their school life, home life, public life on the streets, social life – that’s accepted as a way to understand it now.
Then suddenly it became the most important thing – Public Health England were the people getting up on our televisions every day and speaking to us [in coronavirus briefings], right? So it gave that language an airing and a voice. Which is probably a good thing. It probably increases empathy and it maybe humbles certain people. But I do wonder how sustainable that is. Because we care for a few weeks and then [it fades].
Is there any sense that the agencies you deal with are going to receive the greater resources required to deal with the after-effects of two years of Covid?
As a really general point, it is worrying how many pre-Covid leading charities, youth clubs and bodies are now definitely struggling. I can say that for a fact. Some people have weathered the storm and are doing great. But without naming names, I can think of some organisations that are finding it difficult. And that is just because of funds being diverted elsewhere.
How worried now are you about the kids in your network?
Part of my Covid experience as a youth worker was, as I said, pulling back, taking stock. Basically downsizing and focusing on quality. I was running around trying to do everything, like a lot of people were. And I feel like what I’ve got much better at is keeping in touch with a smaller number of young people, and doing that really well.
So, right now, because of my ability to be there for the 15 to 20 young people that I’ve stayed in regular contact with, over the last two years, every single one of them has weathered the storm and is doing OK. But mental health has gone up and down. The career aspect of things is going up and down. Going to uni is really, really hard. It’s just a completely different experience now. But I don’t worry, per se, for the individuals I’m looking after now.
What about the kids you’re seeing at the sixth form college in Walthamstow?
More of a worry. With the young people who are under 17, you can see in subtle ways how they’ve just been through a mad two years. I worry for them.
Is it a greater challenge for those younger people, who’ve missed a greater proportion of their life, and are also at key socialising or socialisation stages? That is: will the impact be more pronounced on younger teens than older teens?
I think it’ll probably be equally challenging, but for different reasons. If the proportion of your life that’s been taken away by this catastrophe is big, it makes sense that it’s going to be proportionately more impactful in your mindset.
Even with things like memories: we experience things and have memories of them, and they give us either stability or trauma. So if you’ve suddenly been deprived of positive memories for quite a long period of time – and you were already being deprived of them because you’re already hustling, already dealing with [stressful] day-to-day living – yeah, it’s gonna have a massive impact for the younger teens.
As we head into a spring and summer with (hopefully) more freedom than we’ve had in the last two years, is there anything that you’re optimistic about in terms of the kids you deal with and the issues they face?
Lots of learning has taken place about the importance of public health and [things like] the importance of looking out for your neighbour. And I’ve never felt more optimistic about my own personal youth. There is an optimism inherent in the fact that society is returning to normal to some extent, even if there are lots of social problems. I think the ability to intervene is probably strengthened in lots of ways. But that’s notwithstanding the fact that the ability to retain funding and compete with other social issues is as high as ever.
And is there a better sense of the importance of people coming together to work together to overcome challenges?
Even just the ability to talk to someone about holistic support – that as a simple premise is easier to do now, because everyone has recognised [how important] that is. In terms of discourse, conversation, argument, I feel really good about that.
Thank you Ciaran. More power to your elbow.
Cut Short: Why We’re Failing Our Youth and How To Fix It is published by Penguin in paperback on 30th June