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Richard Jordan: The arts can offer a blueprint to tackle antisocial behaviour

Trevor Fox, Kevin Harvey, Rory Kinnear, Stephen Boxer and Michael Balogun in Macbeth. Photo: Tristram Kenton Trevor Fox, Kevin Harvey, Rory Kinnear, Stephen Boxer and Michael Balogun in Macbeth. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Over the past few weeks, our news has been preoccupied with the spiralling violence against young people on London’s streets this year. Among the reports of these devastating losses of young lives, it was easy to miss another story from London’s streets that offered a little bit of hope.

It was the story of Michael Balogun, who grew up on a tough London housing estate, his life a cycle of gangs and time in prison. While he was behind bars, following encouragement from a group of drama students and a fellow inmate, Balogun discovered acting.

Finding a purpose and seeing the value that it afforded him, upon release he went to drama school, and recently made his National Theatre debut in Macbeth. Balogun’s story is an inspirational one, which shows change is possible, but those who read the piece will also see the journey is far from easy.

Much reporting about the recent spate of attacks in the capital could suggest that this a London-only problem, whereas the reality is that gang culture and knife crime blight towns and cities across the UK.

Although police cuts have been blamed for the surge of attacks, there are many factors involved and maybe one that we should consider is how lack of cultural provision may have contributed. Schools have seen drama and music cut from curriculums and arts and youth organisations losing funding, forcing some into closure.

When it comes to the arts, I believe its role has never been more vital or intrinsically linked in helping to tackle and address many current issues affecting the UK. It’s therefore important that our politicians, local councillors and communities do not undervalue the social purpose this provides to a society.

There are brilliant arts organisations running initiatives up and down the country where unsung individuals work tirelessly to help their communities through creativity. Often they do remarkable things seemingly funded on air. Take the Garage in Norwich, which opened in 2004. It’s become a haven for young people in that city ever since and, through its outreach, also for the county of Norfolk, changing many lives through its creative programmes.

However, it’s also felt that it is responsible for stepping in and picking up the slack that should be being addressed by its local authority: the Garage is currently the only provider of GCSE music for the town of Great Yarmouth – none of the town’s comprehensive schools is offering it.

This highlights the vital and current work of a cultural trust, by bringing value to that community and delivering something its schools clearly are not. But we also need to look at this dire situation and consider how it has ever ended up like this.

Through inspirational leadership, the Garage has been able to spot a crisis and try to fix it. Had it not, arguably, no one else might have done so. But this places additional pressure on an already busy organisation, to undertake something that should fundamentally be afforded to young people at their schools as an automatic right to begin with.

The long-established, award-winning Borderlines initiative at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle Under Lyme is a blueprint for the possibilities of change that creative engagement can afford. Working with the local courts and police, it demonstrates how theatre can be used within a community to challenge destructive and anti-social behaviour through helping individuals to find self-worth and positivity in different ways.

It’s a programme where a young person, rather than being sentenced to detention and the risk of this becoming a repetitive cycle, can instead be sentenced to attend the Borderline programme with proven, enviable results.

Not everyone is going to complete such initiatives and subsequently work in the arts. However, through its many facets, and attitudes of inclusion and empowerment – which organisations such as The Garage, Borderline and others nationally afford to their participants – the arts can furnish many with life skills and values, while helping also to bring about change.

Government and local authorities need to be looking at enhancing creative opportunities with greater support, engagement, investment and accessibility across communities. This could arguably prove as effective long-term as simply flooding the streets with more police officers.

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