We will be taking a break from 19th December to 3rd January.

It's been a great year: thank you all for the part you've played in it, whether you've come to sessions, volunteered, donated money or equipment, or just cared about what we are doing.

We wish you a very Merry Christmas and the Happiest of New Years.

Look forward to catching up with you in January.

Love from the Urban Hope team

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People regularly get in touch with us to ask if they can come along to an Urban Hope session; they might be considering a career in youth work, or they might be potential volunteers or funders. They are always welcome: we want members of the community to understand and get involved in what happens here, and, one of the most important aspects of that work is the connections that are made between people who might not otherwise come into contact with each other.

But, it can be a bit nerve-wracking for the team because there is a pressure to ‘show’ exactly what we’re doing, to demonstrate the difference we are making, and the truth is that youth work, done well, often doesn’t look like much. Someone visiting an Urban Hope session for the first time – particularly if it happens to be a quiet drop-in without any special activities laid on – might just see a handful of young people and adults milling about in a hall doing a bit of cooking and playing pool and table tennis.

It’s really only during the team debrief at the end of the evening that we find out what has actually happened in a session. Last week, after one such quiet session, we shared stories and heard that a boy who has been coming to Urban Hope for months, had finally felt safe enough to open up about the recent death of a parent, a youth worker had talked to some young people about their relationship with alcohol, there had been several chats about tensions with parents and at school, and some of the girls had talked with adults about underage sex and pregnancy. That first, open conversation a youth worker has with a young person who is seriously considering becoming pregnant is a potentially life-changing moment, but it doesn’t necessarily look very dramatic or interesting in the here and now.

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13 October 2015

“It’s racist to describe someone as black.”

“There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘coloured’”.

“Why would anyone mind being called ‘half-caste’?”

These are some of the things we have heard young people saying over the past week. And we’ve encouraged it, because it’s Black History Month and we wanted young people to have some proper, open discussions about what racism is.

We put some words on a table and asked young people what they meant, which were offensive and why. There was some confusion but, as a result, we had the opportunity to talk through some things: to explain that it’s really ok to describe a black person as black, that calling someone a gypsy “because you’re poor, or trashy in the way you dress” is not ok, that the word ‘coloured’ is inextricably linked with racial segregation.

When young people didn’t understand why ‘half-caste’ might be offensive, we showed them John Agaard’s poem.

…yu must come back tomorrow
wid de whole of yu eye
an de whole of yu ear
an de whole of yu mind.

an I will tell yu
de other half
of my story.

One boy told us that he’d heard a friend called a number of the names laid out in front of him on the table, but that it had become so commonplace at school that he thought it was acceptable.

The young people at those sessions were more than ready to have those conversations, and by giving them the chance to do so in a safe environment, we can help them to understand why labels matter, and what prejudice is so that they are less likely to carry it with them as they go through life.

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My first month at Urban Hope

24 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

– Young women being sexually exploited by groups of older men in exchange for ‘protection’ and acceptance

– Young women being threatened with violence unless they publicly show allegiance to a particular gang, or because male friends or relatives are involved in a rival gang.

We want to offer young people a different collective to belong to, other forms of security, legitimate ways to earn money. But how do you sell the benefits of a minimum wage job to a young man who can earn hundreds of pounds in a week with little effort, and who doesn’t yet fully understand the risks attached to that lifestyle?

The truth is that don’t have all the answers at the moment. But it’s something we’re working very hard on. There is no quick fix and we only ever see breakthroughs as a result of slow, deliberate building of relationships over a long period of time. So we keep playing pool and table tennis, cooking, having awkward conversations, getting pushed back, trying again. And, while doing so, striking a balance between reaching out to all young people (including those engaged in high-risk activity) and ensuring that Urban Hope remains a totally safe space for everyone.

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Happy endings

31 May 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

13 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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Last night was Ben and Gemma's Urban Hope send-off, and the halls were full of people who’d turned up to celebrate all that he and Gemma have done over the years to make Urban Hope the community it is today. Adults (some now in their 30s) talked about how their lives had been changed by the support that Ben had offered; there were tears as one young man told us how Urban Hope had given him a place to belong to, a family… and there was a lot of laughter and eating.

Here's an extract from Ben's speech. It sums up rather nicely what Urban Hope is all about:

“We started small, and as we grew we called it Urban Hope. We sometimes call ourselves a project or a charity but Urban Hope is not this great fancy organisation, really we’re little more than a movement, a community of relationships. And the special thing is that these relationships help bring kids up in this area. They help people find jobs, find hope, go on trips to the countryside and roll around in mud, learn to sing and play football, enjoy each other’s company, and get help with homework.

Urban Hope is about the 1,400 young people who’ve been part of it over the years, who’ve put their names on a piece of paper and said ‘include me’. It is about the 18 members of staff that we’ve had so far, and the hundreds of volunteers and the community of support we have around us. My heart is full of gratitude to all of you for sharing the journey over the past 20 years as we’ve tried to figure out how to do life together.”

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Ben writes…

I've been sorting through my files and have found all sorts of long-forgotten nuggets, one of which was a note from a few years ago based on a conversation I’d had with three 15-year-old girls about mentoring.

Their school had set them up with mentors, but they didn’t rate them at all. As mentoring is central to the work we do with young people, I was keen to find out what they thought made a good mentor. Here’s what they said, based on their own experiences:

1. Help us with our problems at school (advocacy)

2. Remember our birthdays and write a personal message in a card for us

3. Don’t tell us about your personal issues (like you splitting up with your girlfriend) and don’t ask us about ours

4. Learn about and appreciate the music we listen to

5. Make an effort to get to know us – be friendly not snobby

6. Prepare for the sessions you have with us

7. Take us out somewhere

They also said:

‘The point is to make us feel comfortable so that we can talk about whatever we want to’

‘Young people want to be appreciated by adults not judged’

‘We want to feel supported’

‘Adults can learn from young people too!’

What came across was that they felt patronised by their mentors. It’s really easy to appear patronising when talking young people or to be overly intrusive in our questioning. My experience of mentoring here at Urban Hope over the years has taught me that young people are looking for down-to-earth, trustworthy adults who don't bring too much of their own agenda to the conversation.

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Is anybody listening?

18 March 2015

Joy writes…

The other day, a young woman came into club with her personal statement for college and asked for my opinion on it. I went through it with her and suggested a couple of possible improvements. She totally ignored my suggestions, which was somewhat frustrating.

That frustration is a familiar feeling for the Urban Hope team. It's not unusual for young people to ignore our advice. We often find ourselves going over old ground – processing with young people the consequences of doing things that we told them weren't a good idea, or of not doing things we’ve recommended.

But however frustrated we get, we know that we are not here to tell young people what to do. Trying things out, making mistakes and learning from them is an important part of growing up. Empowerment, and voluntary participation are two of the core principles of youth work.

We believe that, with the right support, young people can choose well, even if they don’t always do so. Our job is to make sure they understand their options, encourage them to make their own, considered decisions, and support them in learning from the consequences of those decisions.

All this means that I will go on feeling frustrated and wondering each week if anyone is listening to what I'm saying. But, eventually, hopefully, I won’t need to say anything at all.

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We’re very proud of the achievements of all the young people who come to Urban Hope and of the dedication of volunteers who help us to run sessions each week, offer mentoring support to young people and lend a hand at events. But it’s especially gratifying when those efforts get wider recognition, which is what happened this week when Gemma Bell and Keeley Tims were given awards at the Mayor’s Civic Awards Ceremony, an event celebrating the unsung heroes of the borough. Here’s why they were singled out:

Gemma Bell – It’s no exaggeration to say that Urban Hope has been very reliant on Gemma’s support over the past 15 years. During that time, she has volunteered at countless evening drop-ins, mentored numerous young people, helped to organise dozens of events and raised £17,000 to support our work.

Keeley Timms – At only 16, Keeley has already shown a real commitment to her local community. She was nominated her for the Ben Kinsella award by her headteacher, who was struck by her consistently positive influence on younger students and her support of the more vulnerable among them. On top of regular volunteering at Urban Hope, Keeley was keen to volunteer at a local primary school – and when they initially turned her down due to lack of experience, she bombarded them with emails until they said yes. We’re looking forward to seeing where that fierce determination takes her in the months and years to come.

A big, fat Urban Hope thank you to both these wonderful women for all that they do.

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Safety Matters

17 February 2015

Alex writes…

Over the past few weeks I’ve been interviewing young people for a little publication that we’re putting together about Urban Hope and what happens here. It’s been a real privilege to hear them talk openly about issues like anger, isolation and broken relationships, and how their relationships with adults here help them deal with those things, and conversely, what makes them feel happy and valued, and how they find that here. But the phrase that came up more than any other is this: 'I feel safe here'.

We describe Urban Hope as a project that offers ‘safe spaces, positive relationships and new experiences’. We tend to talk more often about the relationships and experiences aspect of youthwork, and it’s easy to forget that for young people – no matter how self-assured they seem – feeling safe and protected is still absolutely crucial to their wellbeing, and something they value over everything else.

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George the Poet said of himself in a recent interview: "I'm from a community that doesn't often get to represent themselves".

He provides unfamiliar (and sometimes uncomfortable) perspectives on the realities of urban living. His soulful poetry is an incisive commentary on diversity, inequality and injustice – all themes that are reflected in the shared experiences of many of the young people who come to Urban Hope. Check out his work if you haven't already.

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Joy writes…

This term during our Monday evening sessions, we’ve been asking young people to go beyond the short-termism of New Year's resolutions and explore their dreams.

We started by talking about our aspirations in different areas of our lives, and about how the demands that other people and society make of us might get in the way of us achieving them. We considered what a ‘dream body’ really looked liked, and talked about the role of healthy eating and exercise. And we talked about dream holidays and tried food from around the world.

There is a practical goal underlying all this: a number of our Monday evening hopefuls are working towards GCSEs and we’re keen to motivate them. We hope that by having a dream in mind they'll keep working despite feeling stressed or unsure about what the future holds, that they will see doing the best they can in their exams as the first step towards achieving what they want in life.

The size or scale of the dream doesn’t really matter: one wants to be a tattoo artist, one dreams of world travel and another wants to make his own music track. Sometimes, just passing the exam, or reaching the end of the week without getting kicked out of class, is the dream in itself.

So, some of their aspirations are achievable and some aren’t but we want to be the people who say ‘great – and how are you going to make that happen?’ rather than dismissing them outright. We want them to dare to dream, and then make the connection between taking control over their own lives and moving closer to making those dreams a reality.

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Ben writes…

Jumping off bridges, out of planes or throwing myself down snow-covered mountains just doesn’t do it for me. But I can see the appeal – an element of risk, experiencing the unknown, the adrenalin boost you get from doing something edgy and exciting. And sometimes, I get a similar buzz from our drop-in sessions. There have been evenings where the creativity of young people making music has generated a static energy – they’ve exposed their vulnerabilities by singing, sharing storied lyrics and playing their new beats. You can’t predict or prescribe that kind of energy but when it happens it’s exhilarating.

Some of the best youth work here happens in the unpredictable space of interactions between young people for whom life is tough. There are moments of tension in our sessions: young people threatening each other with violence, bitchy comments, concerns that a young person might have a concealed weapon or be carrying drugs. Often, young people turning up here for the first time approach us with hostility and suspicion; they may not have encountered trustworthy adults before. The skill of the youth worker is to work creatively with the vibe in the room.

While it’s mostly the same young people who come along to our sessions each week, they bring different experiences and moods – maybe they’ve had a tough time at school or with a parent, or are hyped up on cans of energy drink. Our role is to establish what’s going on, and then try and work with the grain of the situation to achieve some kind of reflection, insight or learning within the group.

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