My first month at Urban Hope

25 September 2015

Tanya writes…

I’ve noticed since starting work here five weeks ago that, walking along the street with colleagues, you can’t get through a whole journey without meeting someone in the street connected to Urban Hope. It’s a reminder of how many lives Urban Hope has had an impact on – and it is wonderful to be part of a community, and one that serves our wider community.

Each of the drop-in clubs we host here brings a different atmosphere: Monday has a chilled vibe, with different creative activities, games, chats over a toastie and a cuppa; on Wednesday we crank it up a couple of notches in both volume and energy, welcoming our junior club, and Thursday is our ‘around the table’ evening, we cook and eat together, sharing experiences. Sessions are fluid so that we can work around who comes and what situations and circumstances they bring with them.

As a newbie, it’s been beautiful to watch young people from different backgrounds, with different personalities, struggles and circumstances, being friendly and accepting of one another in a way that they might not be outside our sessions. That acceptance of difference is the opposite of what we sometimes see in the wider society – and it’s all the more precious and remarkable for that.

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On Saturday, Urban Hope hosted Community Day at the Almorah Road Community Centre. It’s a free annual fun day that we run for families living in the local area. The weather was gloomy, the ground was a bit soggy and it was unusually cold for the start of September. But, more than 150 people turned up to play games, jump about on the bouncy castle, eat burgers and sausages, play bingo, get their nails or face painted, make things or just have a cup of tea and a chat with neighbours. The youngest was just a few days old, and the oldest over 90, but everyone who came contributed in some way: some brought sausages or a home-made cake, some served tea or helped to clear up, others played with small children, and some simply turned up, smiling, and made an effort to talk to everyone there.

It’s at events like this that connections are made. We love having a chance to meet the families of the young people we work with, and also giving local people of all ages an opportunity to have fun with those who they might not otherwise encounter in their daily lives. Each new conversation or interaction forms a valuable little link in our community.

Our thanks go out to everyone who played a part in what was a great celebration of our local area and the people who live there, and a fine way to mark the end of summer.

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They say the kitchen is the heart of the home, and the same is true for Urban Hope; much of what we do with young people at drop-in sessions revolves around the kitchen, and some of our best conversations happen while chopping vegetables. Last week, what could have been a tense discussion about age gaps in relationships and underage sex was made significantly less awkward because we were all making jam tarts while talking.

On at least one evening a week, we cook a full meal and eat together around a table. Again, it is an opportunity to get people sitting down in a group and sharing stories, experiences, concerns and bad jokes in a way that doesn’t feel contrived.

Last year, the Marple Charitable Trust awarded us a three-year grant, which covers all our cookery costs. As food and eating together play such a central role in the life of Urban Hope, it’s a great example of how a relatively small grant can make a huge difference to our work.

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Each year we take a group of young people away for a weekend of outdoor activities. Urban Hopeful Kihyce, 13, is a big fan of residentials (you can just about see him in this photo reaching the top of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’) and has been on three now. He told us why he likes them so much:

“You can be someone who hates working with everyone else and over the three days you learn about teamwork and interaction, and you can talk to people more. You’re spending time with a group of people that you’ve known at club but have never got to know really well.

This time I did ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ – you have to climb up this ladder made of logs and the gap keeps getting bigger – I kept thinking I was going to fall but the others helped me to get to the top. On my own I don’t think I’d have the courage to do it but I did it because I had people to support me.

I really like doing the activities; I enjoyed archery the most. Every time I do something I haven’t done before I feel like I’ve accomplished something. On the first residential I did, I won the crate stacking activity, and we got certificates. That felt so good, and I just wanted to go again and again. It’s so different to London; it’s like another world. And even though I’ve experienced it before, one trip is never the same as another.”

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The youth work that we do tends to look a bit different in summer. From next week, all the young people we work with will have a lot of free time at their disposal (those who were sitting exams this year will have finished a while ago). And once the novelty of all that free time has worn off, there’s a high risk that they will start to get bored. If and when that happens, we want to help them channel their energy into positive activities; things that will develop their skills, introduce them to different people, get them outside and running around, give them new perspectives on life, and be fun.

There is a huge amount to do in London but, for many young people, there are barriers to accessing much of it. Part of our job is to help them make the most of all that their city has to offer them by taking them to museums, for walks along the South Bank, and to see street performers in Covent Garden.

Alongside that, we organise our own programme of activities. Funding from Islington Council and from FreeSport has enabled us to put some great summer sports activities again this year. We try to make sure these activities include sports that the young people we work with wouldn’t usually have the chance to try. So this year we’ll be offering free tennis coaching, croquet and rounders among other things.

It’s a great opportunity for them, and a great opportunity for us because the warm weather gets everyone out in the parks and means we can meet young people we might not see at other times of year. We have a window of opportunity over the coming weeks to start forming relationships with a whole new bunch of Urban Hopefuls. And we’re really excited about it.

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Gangs are a tricky topic to tackle in a blog, partly because so much coverage of gang culture is sensationalised and we’ve been wary of contributing to the general media noise on the subject, and partly because it’s difficult to do justice to such a complex issue in a short post. But gang culture is having a big impact on some of the young people we work with, so it’s important we do talk about it.

Here are some of the things we see happening:

– Increasingly young men being asked to do ‘favours’, carry money, deliver parcels in exchange for gifts, cash and acceptance into a group that is perceived to be powerful and that offers protection

– Young people carrying illegal weapons either because they are scared or because those weapons convey power

. . . read more


Happy endings

1 June 2015

We received a rather special postcard today from a girl we’ve been working with for a long time. She’s been mentored here, come to clubs, cooked with us, eaten with us and joined us on residential trips. She’s had a really difficult time in the past couple of years following a move into foster care: she became involved with a gang and was engaging in a variety of high-risk activities.

Having known her for a long period of time (during which her school life, home life and social services support had changed extensively), we were able to provide a consistent backdrop. It’s that long-term consistent approach that we think enables us to provide something that young people often aren’t able to access elsewhere.

Things took a positive turn a couple of months ago. She’s now been moved out of the area and is living with a new foster family where she has settled well. “I miss you loads,” read the postcard. “I’m having a good time here, it’s different to London”.The message was happy, upbeat, funny – and receiving it was a really uplifting moment in our week. It’s up on the noticeboard now.

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Hey Mr DJ

14 May 2015

Joy writes…

I know all the words to the song ‘Ignition-Remix’ by R Kelly. So do the 31- and 25-year-old volunteers in the kitchen singing. The 14-year-old boy dancing with a pool cue when he thinks no one can see him knows them too, as do the two 16-year-old girls who are ‘cutting shapes’ in the full knowledge that everyone is watching.

I’m not suggesting ‘Ignition’ is an especially life-affirming song; the lyrics don’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny. But there’s something about that track that gets everyone moving and singing. Every Thursday for the last six weeks we’ve had it on our playlist (along with Rihanna’s ‘Pon de Replay’, ‘Flowers - Sunship Mix’ by Sweet Female Attitude, and ‘All I want’ by Mis-Teeq).

The soundtrack to each session matters: loud, upbeat music makes the halls feel full and busy even if there aren’t that many people around; chilled out house music creates space for chatting; aggressive rap puts people on edge (so we avoid too much of that). Our current Thursday night playlist unifies people. It gets them singing and dancing, and laughing together.

Part of our job is to cultivate an atmosphere in which we can do youth work. We make deliberate choices about most things, and music is one of them.

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Joel writes…

Working with young people can be quite an emotional rollercoaster: excitement, frustration, annoyance, pride… they all play a part. When a young person comes to see us for the first time, we have no idea of their backstory. Our approach is always to be friendly and welcoming and show a genuine interest in them.

Young people often aren’t that friendly back. There can be a lot of hostility at the start: awkward conversations that feel like they drag on for hours, times when a young person calls you ‘moist’ or just walks off leaving you sitting on your own. But those situations offer windows of opportunity: each one gives you tools to be better prepared for the next conversation. It can take weeks or months, sometimes even years to make a breakthrough.

That breakthrough might just be smile or being asked how your weekend was, or it might be a when a girl feels comfortable enough to eat something at club after months of helping with food preparation, or a boy finally gives you his real name and starts to talk about what he wants from life. Big or small, those breakthroughs are hugely satisfying and full of hope.

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