Over the last nine months, Ciaran Thapar and Rory Bradshaw have been volunteering at their local community centre in Loughborough Junction. Backed by the Brixton Fund, the Brixton Pound’s micro-grants scheme, they have established Hero’s Journey – a weekly discussion group for teenage boys. Here, they explain the story so far.
How did Hero’s Journey start?
Our involvement at Marcus Lipton Community Centre (MLCC) began in September 2015, when we were first buzzed through the front door. It is a single-floor building next to the weathered railway arches in Loughborough Junction, resting in the shadows of Loughborough Estate’s huge white tower blocks, whose lights are visible from our living room window at night.
We spoke at length with Ira, the warm, pragmatic man in charge. Over a series of visits, he told us stories about growing up in Brixton, from the 1970s to the present day – the gangs, police, raves and racism.
That month, the Evening Standard launched their regeneration initiative, ‘The Estate We’re In’, aiming to drive attention towards London’s housing estates. The first article was written by a journalist who had spent a week living in Angell Town estate, and the consensus at MLCC was that the voices of the people interviewed had been misrepresented. It was seen as another case of the British media perpetuating negative stereotypes about black young men in the inner city.
Tragically, in the same few weeks, a 16-year-old boy, Jarrell (who we unfortunately never had the chance to meet), was killed on the road outside the centre. The flowers arranged on the pavement in commemoration, weathered and untouched, are still there today.
It was a sensitive time, and whilst welcoming our interest in volunteering, Ira warned us that we would not become embedded overnight. Sure enough, the first few months mainly involved just hanging out at the centre, building trust, reassuring everyone that we were neither journalists (the Evening Standard had made people paranoid), nor undercover policemen.
In November, with help from Jacqueline Gomes-Neves, the former youth mayor for Lambeth, we won £1000 from the Brixton Fund to develop the ‘Brixton Youth Forum’. This is an umbrella term for all youth activity at MLCC (including the pre-existing girls’ group), within which Hero’s Journey functions.
What is Hero’s Journey?
Every Friday evening we hold an hour-long session (a ‘journey’), each time sparking a conversation about a selected topic. Our simple aim is to get the boys (‘heroes’) to talk regularly, openly and critically about things that relate to their lives. We frame each discussion around a cultural resource – such as a book, item of food, photograph or newspaper article.
In one journey, we brought Asian snacks – pakora, sushi and a bright selection of Indian sweets – and discussed London’s cultural diversity, challenging the heroes to compare and contrast their own respective eating norms at home (most the boys are from Jamaican households, some West or East African).
During others, we used photography books Don’t Call Me Urban (Simon Wheatley’s documentation of the roots of grime music amidst London’s council estates between 1998-2010) and the Great Brixton Photobook (a collection of images depicting moments of local history), to spark discussions about topics such as stereotyping, ‘stop-and-search’ and gentrification.
In our most recent journey, we held a debate about the EU referendum, which inspired some insightful commentary on the pros and cons of immigration, as well as some less concrete reasoning – “apparently if we leave the EU it’s gonna cost £35 for a trim!”, one of the boys claimed.
Week after week, we encounter new, curious faces, eager to participate and voice their thoughts. The group is always different (it’s size ranges from 3 to 12); most heroes attend different schools, some claim not to attend at all. Some come from stable homes, others from more challenging circumstances. Although the sparse room the group occupies each week might not have the sheen of polished oak and the comfort of green leather seats, the debates that unfold offer a more acute window into the perspectives of ordinary young people than those in the Commons Chamber ever could.
We are using the bulk of our £1000 funding to run a three-day programme in August (we have already used some of it for refreshments and attendance rewards at each journey). Our plan is to visit different places across London, enabling the heroes to engage in new experiences around the city. As part of the programme, we are also working with the Black Cultural Archives on Windrush Square to develop a journey about local history.
What problem are we trying to solve?
On top of giving the heroes space to discuss their ideas, Hero’s Journey also allows us, as newcomers to the area, to learn from, and become part of, our local community. In other words: it’s as much about our own learning curve – our own journey – as it is the boys’.
Our view is that some of the current unease with gentrification stems from the way that gentrified areas become split across the fault-lines of class and race. If you walk along Coldharbour Lane, from the backstreets of Loughborough Junction towards central Brixton, you will notice an obvious shift in atmosphere as the feeling of neglect evaporates. The various eateries in Brixton Village and Pop Brixton now appear to exist for a particular type of customer: (predominantly) white, monied twenty-and-thirty-somethings – not those who are likely to ever set foot in MLCC, even though it is just up the road.
The reality is that many of our fellow newcomers to Brixton are leading detached lives from the longstanding communities around them. They socialise at different bars and restaurants. They buy their fish, meat and vegetables at Sainsbury’s instead of the market. And in the week, they commute to and from jobs across the city, barely engaging with the civic space they live in. Through Hero’s Journey, we have been trying to disturb this status quo.
Since our initial contact with Ira, we have formed strong, organic relationships with other staff members and many of the young men and women, boys and girls, who treat MLCC as their second home. To them, the centre is a safe haven: they know they can spend their Friday nights there, under the wing of Ira and his staff. For the Hero’s Journey boys in particular, they also now know that both of us will be there each week to hear them out.
We believe that our achievements so far, more than anything else, demonstrate that with the right approach it is possible for people like us – young adult graduates, moving into an evolving urban area – to become part of our local community. The bonus is that each journey is the most enjoyable part of our week.
Ciaran and Rory
Please get in touch with Ciaran and Rory at herosjourneyml[at]gmail[dot]com if you would like to support Hero’s Journey in any way (e.g. with ideas for the summer programme, to tag along for a session, or host a session!) or if you just want to meet up locally to discuss it in greater detail.
Hero’s Journey’s logo was designed by Benjy Nugent, who kindly did it for free. It’s inspired by a tribal mask using the aesthetic of inner-city life. The photos were taken by Tristan Bejawn who will be tagging along to the next few journeys and on the summer programme to get portraits of the participants – so watch this space for more visuals from Hero’s Journey!
In November 2015, Brixton Youth Forum / Hero’s Journey received £1000 from the Brixton Fund, the Brixton Pound’s local micro-grants scheme. The Brixton Fund is funded by Brixton Bonus ticket sales, sale of B£ merchandise in the Brixton Pound Shop, and a 1.5% business transaction fee on pay-by-text B£ payments. So – whenever you play to win B£1000, grab yourself a snazzy B£ T-shirt or simply do your weekly shop in B£s, you’re helping to fund local groups like Hero’s Journey.