Young people in the UK are often painted in broad strokes, dismissed as layabouts and criminals, and burdened with the blame for last year’s riots. Theron Mohamed looks behind the scenes at On Road, a youth magazine attempting to alter these harmful perceptions.
On Road magazine is produced by Fitzrovia Youth in Action (FYA), a Camden charity dedicated to giving young people the chance to bring positive change to their communities. FYA has been organising community events for over a decade, including the Camden Unity 5-a-side Cup and the Whitfield Street Party.
FYA’s Media department produces and distributes the free On Road magazine. Four issues are released a year, and more than 5000 copies of each are delivered to schools, libraries and youth centres in Camden. Department coordinator Reshma Biring says:
“The riots disrupted mainstream views of youths, so now all young people are perceived as bad. In addition, government cutbacks mean that youth services are disappearing, and young people have fewer places to hang out and express themselves. At On Road, we let Camden’s young people call the shots. They write the magazine, so it reflects their local community and the issues affecting them. It allows them to make a positive, lasting contribution to themselves and their community.”
Each issue of On Road has an overarching theme, and the magazine’s contributors are free to write about any topic that relates to it. Past issues have covered subjects such as conflict, health, drugs and alcohol, and identity. The latest edition was released on Valentine’s Day, and focuses on relationships. Produced by more than 25 young people, it offers a mixture of romantic and harrowing stories, covering topics from Facebook relationships to sexual exploitation. It features articles from other organisations in Camden including Tender, a group which promotes equal and respectful relationships, and Mosaic, an LGBT youth association.
Hamza Ali, 24, grew up in Camden. He’s been an editorial assistant at On Road magazine for six months, and believes working here could help him to realise his career hopes. He says: “I want to become a journalist, and working at On Road gives me hands-on experience in writing, editing and layout design. We’re trusted to get stuck in.”
He also points to the benefits On Road brings to its production team and audience. He says: “Contributors can express themselves, and they gain real hard skills that are invaluable to success in the media: designing, writing, editing and investigating. On Road’s readers can learn about topics they knew nothing about, from a different point of view.”
Andre Schott, 42, is a founding member and current director of FYA. He sees On Road as one element of an overall approach to creating positive change in Camden. He said:
“We work with both young people and local residents, and try to form relationships with them and earn their trust. Our goal is to make the residents look at young people in a much more positive way, and On Road is an important part of that.”
Andre believes the key benefit of the magazine is that it helps the young people involved become more employable. He said: “They gain skills, confidence, and achievements to add to their CVs and talk about in university or job interviews.”
Young people across the UK are faced with weak career prospects and a high chance of unemployment, and Camden is no different. Andre said: “Young people are very pessimistic about their future. They’re worried that they can’t afford university or find a job.”
Similarly, Hamza believes the lack of jobs is the greatest challenge for Camden’s young people. He said: “There are just no jobs out there. It’s crazy. A long-term career is close to impossible.”
Explaining the riots
Last summer, there was widespread looting and rioting in north London. Young people have been demonised by the mainstream press, and FYA have now redoubled their efforts to improve perceptions of Camden’s youths.
Chloe Obazee, 21, has been a volunteer in FYA’s media department since July. For On Road’s Identity issue, she wrote an article attempting to explain why the riots happened, and why Camden youths took part.
“It’s a mixture of frustration and opportunity. Many young people are irritated with their lack of prospects and the lack of jobs. They’re encouraged to go to school and do their best, but they’ve realised that their best may not be enough to get them a job. Others saw an opportunity to get goods, cause mayhem and get their own back at the police.
“During my research, I spoke to someone involved who justified looting by stating that the government doesn’t really care about him. He felt let down by them, and said that if there’s an opportunity to steal something that he needs or wants, he will take it,” said Chloe.
Andre wasn’t surprised by the violent outbreaks. He said: “There is a sense of hopelessness and poverty among some young people, and sooner or later that’s going to lead to unrest. They’re frustrated, living in one of the richest countries in the world, and being denied opportunities to do something productive.”
By contrast, Hamza believes last year’s riots fulfilled young people’s need to be active rather than passive. He said: “People are living in cages, where the bars are a lack of jobs, a crappy education, everything that’s wrong in their lives. If you give them easy opportunities to make money, it’s ridiculous to expect them to behave within the confines of society.”
“It’s like putting a cake in front of someone’s hungry: they’re going to eat it.”
Hamza also criticised how the riots have been handled by the justice system. Sentences handed down to those caught and for things said on the social networking site Facebook were overly harsh. “It’s unbelievable that we punish people for saying things on Facebook with four years in prison. Robbing someone with a weapon doesn’t carry that long a sentence. The real strength of society is that it allows its members to speak out against things they don’t like, and these verdicts infringe on that,” said Hamza.
The use of social media during the disturbances has also been exaggerated. It was the messaging service on Blackberry phones that was more significant in organising and planning the riots. And although the majority of the rioters were aged under 24, they made up a tiny proportion of young people in general.
The riots placed renewed stress on relationships between young people and the police. Many young people feel targeted or stereotyped by the authorities. Chloe said: “I think it’s still an issue. The police aren’t very sympathetic: they subscribe to the ‘hoodie culture’ view of young people – they assume rather than listen, which causes friction.”
Much of what I heard from the young people I spoke to has been backed by research carried out by The Guardian newspaper and the London School of Economics. Reading the Riots found that lack of life opportunities and the treatment by the police ranked high amongst the grievances of those involved in the riots.
Young people in the UK are faced with unprecedented levels of unemployment and debt, service cuts and rising tuition fees. Increasingly, they’re also the scapegoats for society’s failings. In this volatile environment, On Road magazine fulfills a critical role by engaging youths positively and improving their reputation in the local community.
Chloe agrees, saying: “You see a lot of youths portrayed as lazy and spoonfed, but many are trying to improve their environment, their community and their lives. At On Road they can get involved and meet loads of new people, and feel that they have a purpose outside of school and home.”
However, more good work needs to be done. Chloe believes that On Road should expand across London. “It’s a good initiative which could have a broader scope. It could do very well and be very helpful to other London boroughs.”
Theron Mohamed is a freelance journalist who writes about food, culture and events in London. His profile is visible at zeitlife.co.uk