How teenagers cope with daily life on the front line
As London reels from its 119th violent death in a year, Amy Walker talks to young people about their survival strategies – and the mentors who help them
The referee Taiwo Agboola, 23, Walworth
Agboola was stabbed outside his home when he was 16. “The attacker was wearing all black, with leather gloves on, and when he rolled up to me I just froze,” he says. Months earlier, Agboola had defended a friend who was also stabbed by his attacker – this was retribution.
“I was very, very lucky to survive,” Agboola says. But his mental recovery was not as speedy, and he was later diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Threats of a further attack exacerbated his problems. “A few months after it happened, I started losing my head and wanting to go after the person and anyone associated with them,” he says.
Then, two years ago, Agboola began attending mentoring sessions with Oasis, a charity that works in hospitals to protect young people from violence. “Having someone who you can relate to, who understands you and doesn’t judge, is so helpful. Usually I wouldn’t speak to anyone about this stuff, but they hear you out.” Every fortnight, Agboola meets with his mentor, where they discuss his progress. “It helped keep me off the streets.”
Now studying for a degree in sports science, Agboola admits things could have turned out very differently. “Right now, I’m a referee and I go to uni. I have a lot of things going for myself. If I didn’t have my mentor, my support network, I don’t know where I’d be or what path I’d be taking,” he says.
The student Demetri Addison, 18, Elephant & Castle
Addison spent most of his teenage years getting into trouble, but his attitude changed when he started preparing for his GCSE exams. Around the same time, a boy from Addison’s school was stabbed to death on the estate where he has lived his whole life. “I fixed up. Life was getting too serious for me to be mucking around,” says Addison.
Despite his concerted efforts to stay clear of gangs, Addison admits it is hard to avoid the violence. “I feel unsafe when I’m out of my area sometimes. It really depends where I am and who I’m with,” he says.
In sixth form, Addison, who also mentored students at risk of exclu- sion, met Ciaran Thapar, a music writer and youth worker, who has since been offering him informal guidance. They talk about Addison’s aspirations and what’s happening on the streets. Sometimes Addison helps Thapar conduct interviews with drill artists, a music genre which Addison believes is a “symptom of violence, not the cause”.
Next year, Addison will begin a degree in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. “I think my life would have been very different without Ciaran, particularly because of the opportunities he has given me,” he says.
In January they both attended an all-party parliamentary group round-table discussion, where Thapar spoke about the link between school exclusions and the rise in knife crime. Why does he find Thapar’s work so appealing? “This stuff is what I’m around. Basically, it’s life,” says Addison.
The runner Kai Wright, 21, Ladbroke Grove
“I used to hang out with some people who were doing really negative stuff,” says Wright, who declines to go into the specifics. Four years ago, Run Dem Crew, a running group founded by DJ and writer Charlie Dark, gave a talk at an assembly at Wright’s college. The aim was to encourage young people to think beyond their estates by getting them to run a half marathon
“I wasn’t really active before but I wanted to remove myself from the people I was around in my area. It was perfect timing that I found the crew,” says Wright. Since then, he’s been heavily involved with RDC and regularly runs coaching sessions alongside Dark.
Wright suggests there is a lack of positive role models for young men from his kind of background. “I love rap but everybody loTohkis uispatpopraoppers or people that dporinaetegadtuivmemstyuff. If there’s no money itnexvtotlvheadt ,ispeboeiple aren’t interested,” hensgaeyms.ployed
Meeting Dark, howinevoerdr,egratvoeashcim someone to look up etrot.a“iCnhaanrlaiep’psrox like a dad for me. Heimagatreeatlemngetnhtor. He teaches me abeocuatuesveetrhye-the thing – about how toacbteualman and a strong leader in the community,” says Wright.
After college, Wright began working for a charity that supports young people and children with complex needs. “It’s so amazing to feel a part of something like this. In the past, I was surrounded by bad stuff but someone showed me a different way and now I’m trying to show other people as well,” he says.
Darnell McCollins, 18, Hackney
Before finding an outlet in acting, McCollins had been on both sides of the blade. As a minor, he was sent to a youth offenders institution for attempting to stab a driver who had knocked him off his bike. “It was stupidness really, I didn’t know how to control myself,” says McCollins. Two days after his release, he was attacked outside his mother’s house by a rival gang. “I was moving my stuff and they just jumped out of their car and stabbed me.”
After McCollins recovered, he moved to semi-independent accom-
modation in order to leave his neighbourhood. It was here that he found out about Big House, a theatre company that works with care leavers at risk of social exclusion. “Big House has helped me with a lot,” says McCollins. “I used to roll with a knife every day and was in a really bad space.”
As a child, he had dreamed of being an actor but had never taken it seriously. Now, he is rehearsing for Bullet Tongue, a play about the media’s often-negative portrayal of young black men.
On top of training, the theatre hosts weekly life skills workshops, on subjects ranging from finance to healthy eating. “It has helped me screw on my head and just get to it,” says McCollins.
“If I wasn’t doing this, I’d probably be selling drugs and rolling with my knife because I wouldn’t have anything else to do to fill my time. I feel like I’d be lost.”
Kai Wright, top, has taken up running; Demetri Addison, above left, is studying sociology; and Darnell McCollins, is now an actor.