VIP (Voices in Partnership) is a youth engagement group based in Waltham Forest. Working with a small group of 8 young people aged 14 to 19, the young people help to shape the work that takes place in the Youth Offending Service to ensure that it meets the needs of the cohort. The VIP group interview candidates for jobs, train staff members and design interventions for other young people.
The VIP also contributes to national consultation with the Youth Justice Board, Ministry of Justice and Youth Custody Service. Many of its members progress on to other youth engagement services such as the Youth Independent Advisory Group, Young Advisors and the Mayor of London’s Peer Outreach Team. The group have contributed to the design of secure establishments and participated in a campaign to challenge employers to offer a fair chance to young people with a criminal history.
The current cohort are passionate about using creativity to improve employment prospects and work in partnership with several agencies across London to ensure young people receive a high quality service that increases a sense of aspiration, confidence and tailors interventions that get young people meaningful and relevant opportunities for work and education.
In summer 2019 Snape Maltings welcomed 8 VIP members on a 5 day residency, culminating in a public performance on 24 August.
I wasn’t born here. I first came to this country several years ago, and my life has been on a bit of a rocky path since then. I went to school got my GCSEs, started at college to study sciences… and then something happened that I don’t want to talk about, but which meant I had to pause my education and work with the Voices in Partnership group to straighten my life out again.
I want to share my story, but keep it anonymous given the difficulties young people can face once they have experienced such issues.
When I was growing up there was lots of violence around me. Really vicious violence. I could often hear gunshots, and seeing dead bodies was normal. It was horrendous at such a young age. I used to live in a big house with a big family. But we had to leave very quickly for our own safety. Most of my family is now spread around Europe. I came to Britain, and went to Norlington School in Leyton. It was tough fitting in. I spoke English okay, not perfectly, but well enough to hear some of the nasty things people would say about me. It was hard to fit in at first because I was different. My parents helped — they told me to keep going and that I would fit in eventually. They were right. But despite doing well — I was studying Applied Science at college — I ended up in the Waltham Forest Youth Offending Service.
I still remember when Sherry — who leads the Voices in Partnership group — came to me and said she wanted to work with me. She said she wanted to show me that I could see life from a different point of view. At first I had to take a step back. For the previous two years I’d had people say this to me but not follow through, so I wasn’t sure. But Sherry seemed different and genuine. I had a leap of faith and said ‘why not?’ And I’m so glad I did. She took me to places I’ve never been to and introduced me to people I wouldn’t normally speak to. It was eyeopening for me — going to the Town Hall and beyond. Realising that they’re was more to life beyond Walthamstow.
This summer we went on a week long musical residency in Snape Maltings, Suffolk. When I first heard about the opportunity I thought ‘here we go again’ — I’d been on a similar residency earlier in the year for two days as part of Eastside Story. Sherry told us it would be for a whole week and I was taken by surprise — a week seemed a long time — but once she’d explained what we would be doing it seemed promising. When we got there we were all quite shocked. The accommodation wasn’t what we were use to, with spiderwebs in the corners of the room, and some of the group wanted to go home! But I was keen to stay — I’m the guy that says ‘let’s go for it’. I know that you only live once.
On the first day we met the team who would help us produce the music. We were all a bit reluctant to put our hands up to perform, so Sherry took the bull by the horn and the group played for us to try to inspire us to write some things. I couldn’t believe how well she could sing! I had goosebumps when she was singing and thought, if you can do it everyone can do it. I’m not a big songwriter but I contributed with a guy called Jeff to help DJ and learnt how to work the auto-tune. At first it was confusing but I wanted to know how it worked — I’d always wondered, it was interesting for me. I’m always wondering how things work in the background when everyone is focused on the performer. Others were doing their own things, writing their own parts of the music. One guy was writing a spoken word piece. It was lovely to see everyone marrying together.
Some of the guys were a bit more reluctant to perform. Sherry would be around them, encouraging them to try it and see what happens, giving motivational speeches. We gave a final production at the end of the week. I was in the background DJ-ing; trying new things to learn new skills. I wanted to make sure I hadn’t wasted the week. I tried to get involved as much as I can. One guy could play the drums so well — we were all shocked. It was great that everyone was showing their hidden talents. Everyone brought out the other side of them that we usually don’t see.
We had a good crowd for the final show. You could tell that they are used to their usual, professional performances. But we brought in something different, something from Walthamstow. At the start they seemed quite quiet, but you could see people smiling and enjoying it, and then we got them more involved — half way through the show we got them to participate and by the end they were dancing with us. Afterwards we came together and said well done to each other. Everyone was buzzing that day. I was asking if we could extend the stay — we really enjoyed it. I recommend that it’s done again — 100%. It helped to get away and go somewhere else, somewhere outside our comfort zone.
The future for me is a bit of a question mark, but I want to make sure that my voice is heard. We need to see a lot of changes. Many of those making the decisions about our futures don’t have the experiences that we’ve had. The politicians on the telly — they are not from where we live; they don’t see what we see every day. I want to be on the front line. I want to be involved. We should continue to promote activities for kids that they don’t usually do — things like the retreat to Snape Maltings. I’ve been doing a lot of community work, helping play sports with kids, and giving out food to the elderly at Christmas. And we need to bring back youth clubs. There used to be lots in Walthamstow. That’s where lots of kids used to spend their free time — go there, catch-up with your mates, have a laugh and go home. But now kids are free, and I think it’s easier for older people to groom them to do things they shouldn’t. We need those spaces for kids to play games, football, do a cooking class for example. Longer-term, I want to get into pharmacy — it’s something that I was hoping to do via a biochemistry degree before I got caught up in trouble. Now I need to find another route in.
But I’m determined to get there.