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Voices around black Britain: Lewisham

FOCUSED: Residents Pat Francis (left) and Doreen Young

WHEN THE Voice dropped in to Lewisham recently to meet members of the public, the discussion mainly centred around one thing: the youth of today.

The visit on January 21 was the first in a series of public meetings the newspaper is organising as part of our Voices Around Black Britain project, designed to help us get closer to our readers in communities across the country and find out what they are really thinking.

Lewisham was selected because it is home to one of the largest African and Caribbean communities in London.

One of the first questions we asked was what were the challenges the community was facing in Lewisham, and the overwhelming majority raised the issue of lack of activities and safe spaces for young people, and education.

They talked of children flooding the shopping centres after school and hanging outside McDonald’s, where they were more likely to come into contact with police officers who patrol the area.

POSITIVE

Many complained about the number of betting shops, fast food places, pubs and bars that were on the high street but nothing positive aimed at young people.

One woman said: “One of the problems with young people today is attitude. They need to be encouraged to do other things; try the playing fields or some other kind of activity after school.

“I saw two groups of girls fighting outside the shopping centre and were about to be separated by the police. One group went one way, and another group went the other way. I heard one of them say, ‘When the police leave, I’m going back’. Can you imagine how that situation could escalate?


VENUE: Lewisham Town Hall’s Civic Suite

“They often have two police officers standing outside McDonald’s, even before school is even out. It is as if they are expecting something bad to happen, which is unfair to young people and can be intimidating. On the other hand, it is reassuring that they are there.”

Lewisham Council does run several youth centres, and has approved planning permission for The New Generation youth centre in Sydenham, scheduled to open this winter.

The multi-million pound centre was proposed by a group of young people who argued there was a need for youth provision in the area.

But while the council voted against a 20 percent cut to its youth services budget, community organisations in Lewisham who work with young people are struggling to stay afloat.

Long-standing resident Maria Dalrymple is manager of Youth Aid Lewisham, which has been around since 1973 offering advice, information and development opportunities to young people on a daily basis.

SUPPORT

Though it is celebrating its 40th anniversary next year, the organisation has only managed to stay afloat thanks to a small grant from the local authority and the time and support of volunteers.

But as support from the community has dwindled, the organisation “is not waving, it’s sinking”, said Dalrymple.

She added: “The cuts have had a damaging effect, we now rely on volunteers, so we are having to restructure constantly just to stay afloat.

“There used to be a sports day held in Coventry, and at the end of the day black professional footballers would turn up to take pictures with the young people. I don’t see that anymore. There’s been a separation; a disconnect.


LISTENING: GV Media managing director George Ruddock with Youth AID’s Maria Dalrymple

“I really appeal to people, many of whom grew up attending youth clubs and community groups, to reach back.”

Beverly Clark moved to Lewisham after being appointed the area’s first black community librarian in 1984, as part of a scheme in the Race Relations Act that instructed local authorities to hire someone from a BME (black or minority ethnic) group.

UNDER THREAT

Although she no longer works in Lewisham, she is concerned about the numbers of libraries that have closed down in the borough, with many still under threat.

Clark said: “It is a space for people to go, particularly children after school who can go there, do their studies and use facilities like the internet if they don’t have it at home. If the libraries were to close, young people will lose the guidance they might otherwise get.

“Librarians are often on hand to help direct young people to the right books, or other services that might help them.”

Of the positive things about living in Lewisham, there was an overwhelming endorsement of the area’s welcoming and community feel.

Attendee Maxine Francis moved to the borough in 2000 from Birmingham, and told the group she had concerns about what was going on in Lewisham schools.

But the mum of three said she was approached in Lewisham, and First Fruits Saturday School, a faith-based supplementary school in Hither Green, was recommended.

Francis, who is currently training for a career in construction, said: “My daughter speaks more, smiles more and her work is 100 percent better. I would urge anyone whose children are under-performing in school to consider a supplementary school. It has done wonders for my children.”

Lewisham resident Prince Morgan, a male teaching assistant, said: “In my experience, I have found a lot of the teaching staff in schools do not reflect the make-up of the classroom, and I think children need to have role models that they can identify with and relate to.

“Some black men don’t understand the importance of giving back, but another problem is the school system seems to want to keep black men out when in reality we have a lot to offer. We are stigmatised as angry and aggressive, when really we are enthusiastic and passionate about our children getting the best education.

“I get involved in everything I can, and I try to make sure that whatever I touch it turns out well – not for me, for the children, because they need someone to encourage them.”

Dalrymple said it was her view that parents had to stop relying on schools to instil the right values in their children.

She said: “As parents, we need to do more. Make your home the school. Everything in your house has to be about encouraging learning.

“Human beings have the ability to change quickly, but for the system to change it will take time. When our generation arrived, the plan was to work and then ‘go home’. The black community mostly consisted of adults, but now the exact opposite is true. We have a huge youth population and the majority of us are not ‘going home’. Yet, we haven’t reassessed the situation and made adjustments for the long stay.

“As organisations, as families and as a community we are struggling. We need to talk about how we are going to stay here, thrive here, what new structures we have to put in place, what things we have to dump, and be brave enough to accept those things.”

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