- Informal mediation strategies involve ex-gang members
- Support in schools is successfully reducing levels of exclusion
A mural hangs on one of the walls inside the Osmani Trust's building in east London, where the Aasha Project is based. It depicts the story of a young man's journey from gang member to employment and a better future. The story in the mural reflects the aims of the project - Aasha in Bengali translates as "hope".
The project works with young people aged between 12 and 25 in Tower Hamlets, who are at risk of engaging in violent conflict and anti-social behaviour, committing crime and involved in distributing drugs.
The borough has a problem with violence - it is one of six in the capital that had more than 100 knife injuries in 2017 and recorded more than 300 victims of serious youth violence, according to latest data from the London Assembly.
The need to tackle youth violence has received national attention from policymakers, but Rukon Hassan, who runs Aasha and who has worked there for 18 years, says a localised approach is needed.
"We understand the community and the young people better than others due to our background," he says, explaining that "identity issues" for second- and third-generation Bangladeshi young people are a factor. "For example, they are Bangladeshi by heritage, Muslim by faith, British by citizenship and Londoner by birth," he adds.
Aasha was conceived in 1998 in response to gang activity that Hassan says resulted in many young people being badly injured. Reformed gang members worked with community leaders to organise a mediation meeting involving more than 500 local young people to prevent the violence from escalating further.
It was agreed that where local conflicts arose, issues would be referred to a committee of exited gang members to make decisions about how to resolve them.
Hassan - and Aasha's two full-time staff and four part-time staff - continue to use informal mediation strategies to resolve disputes wherever possible, but also receive referrals from statutory agencies to undertake preventative work with vulnerable groups of young people.
It works in schools and pupil referral units (PRU) to help identify young people involved with gangs. "We often help to mediate the conflicts that happen between students outside the PRU," he explains.
Tower Hamlets youth offending team and the integrated offender management (IOM) units in Tower Hamlets and Newham - which co-ordinate a cross-agency response to crime and reoffending - also make client referrals to Aasha. These young people have been convicted of at least 16 crimes and "tend to have high levels of affiliations to gangs and involvement with violence", explains Hassan.
Aasha also receives funding from Tower Hamlets Council to undertake outreach with young people living in the borough's housing estates. It uses strategies to help divert young people on the fringes of criminality, such as recruiting them as peer mentors, to help to positively influence troubled adolescents.
Trips out are used to "entice" young people, says Hassan, before involving them in workshops on conflict resolution, risk management and substance misuse.
He explains that the workshops in schools also address the risks of knife crime and gang culture.
The aim of the workshops and one-to-one mentoring is to help participants to understand the consequences of their choices and to encourage them to exit criminality and undertake workplace training.
It also runs a council-funded youth club six days a week delivering activities including sports, arts, residential trips and workshops on cooking and healthy living.
Hassan believes the mediation work is what sets Aasha apart from other charities working with gang-involved young people.
"Our staff - who come from a street or gang background - have faced similar challenges growing up to the young people we work with. It means we have a better connection with them."
In 2018/19, Aasha provided one-to-one mentoring and support to 343 young people. This includes help to identify how they have been groomed into criminal activities and strategies to exit, such as moving home to avoid criminal associates or being encouraged to change friendship groups.
Aasha worked with 963 young people signed up to their programmes through statutory agencies, parents or carers.
Of those who they worked with in schools, 97 per cent who were at risk of exclusion stayed in school and completed exams. In addition, 95 per cent of those referred from an IOM unit didn't reoffend over the six months they were supported by Aasha.