Andrew Marr interviews Jason Allen, who runs youthwork charity Mary’s.
Photograph by Nadav Kander.
AM: Jason, can I ask you first of all to explain a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in this work?
JA: I’ve worked on the youth project now for sixteen years. I ran Mary’s Youth Centre, and I saw a big gap in our society’s provision for young people at risk to themselves and to our community.
AM: These were the kids who got involved in gangs and gang violence?
JA. Yes, young people in their early teens. They were getting kicked out of secondary schools and having adverse childhood experiences. From there, they went into gangs, and then into criminal activities.
AM: So this is the critical moment? The teen years in school and on the edge of everything going wrong?
JA: Yes. Often they only engaged with the criminal justice system. Social services treated them as useless criminals. I was one of those people myself.
AM: Tell me a little bit about that.
JA: Growing up, my mum tried extremely hard, but I struggled in school.
AM: You’re a Londoner?
JA. I am. My school struggled to support me. Their only answer was to kick me out of the classroom. I began making bad decisions because I couldn’t’t see any other options. I’ve got mental health issues, and I got into trouble and involved in violence. I lived in an extremely low-income single-parent household ‒ a typical story. I then lived in hostels at age sixteen, next door to drug abusers. I became involved in things I would never have pictured myself becoming involved in.
When we were both thirteen, my friend Diego died after being stabbed. By seventeen, I understood that the man who killed him was a psychotic homeless man who had sexually groomed him. And by eighteen I really wanted to start working with young people deemed like I was … ‘a waste of resources ’.
AM: And you kind of felt you’d been there? You understood it from the inside?
JA: Yes ‒ risks that no child or adolescent should get into or be around. Things detrimental to me even now twenty years on.
I’m finishing a Masters in Psychology and many of my assignments are around Attachment Theory. We know now that young people who’ve had violent childhood experiences without support networks need someone consistent in their life. Someone positive.
One boy who was being aggressive to teachers at a local school took our mentoring. We noticed his pattern was bad behaviour in the mornings. He eventually told us his dad woke him up by pouring beer on him. The boy was traumatised. It took two years at Mary’s until he felt safe from neglect and abuse. He was never excluded from school. All because he was listened to by our trained mentors.
When we’re talking about teenage kids we can’t just deem them a waste of resources. The social services work wonders with the majority of young people, but a small group fall through the net. A public light has only been shone on these young people in recent years because the media finally started reporting youth knife crime.
AM: Jason, this might be an impossible question, but do you know how many people have been through the Mary’s scheme?
JA: I’m probably talking in the thousands. Mary’s Youth Centre is hyper-local but we have to reach further. Dealing with violence and gang mediations requires knowing criminal networks in a wider area.
AM: What is the geographical spread of the work?
JA: Our home and our base is St Mary’s Centre in Elsworthy Road. That’s where we run everything from. We have amazing relationships with our local schools and with a majority of young people in gangs or with mental health issues. And we work right across the rest of Camden, and Islington and Brent.
AM: Okay. People pick up this magazine and it’s Primrose Hill. A really wealthy, calm, privileged place. What are they missing?
JA: Primrose Hill is a lovely place to be. I love coming here to work. But as soon as you step away from certain roads you see poverty and social housing everywhere. Young people living in poverty make up approximately 34%. If you look at Camden as a borough it has one of the highest youth violence rates across London, and Primrose Hill is a big part of Camden.
AM: How many knives have Mary’s taken out of circulation? How many interventions are you making?
JA: We have a knife bin and this year alone we’ve gone into the hundreds of collected knives and also firearms.
AM: Can you prevent potentially violent confrontations from escalating?
JA: Yes. When the covid lockdown happened many young people were getting out dressed up as essential workers to join in criminal activities ‒ often against the young person’s own free will.
During full lockdown we were deemed key workers, so we were able to travel county lines. One time we collected three young people from hundreds of miles away who were forcibly groomed to carry drugs. They needed to come home, but they had no way of getting home.
Mary’s team, working as key workers, mediated in some very violent home invasions between rival young people in Camden borough.
AM: What’s happened since lockdown lifted?
JA: A very quick spike in youth violence. We work tirelessly to achieve impact at schools level and Mary’s work goes on 24/7 and 365 days a year. But young people are carrying knives and not understanding the implications of their actions. We have implemented more trauma-informed workshops in schools, and more bespoke mentoring programmes for referrals to us from local schools and from social workers. Again ‒ all work around prevention.
AM: Going forward, where do you think we are with levels of violence in the areas, and what’s the plan?
JA: Society may get the impression that knife violence has gone down a bit, but youth violence is still out there and continues to grow. More young people carry weapons.
We have twelve case workers trained at the Tavistock and Portland and the Freud Centre in trauma behaviour. We now know how to build strong attachments with adolescents drawn to violent behaviour and gangs, and how to mediate gang situations. Lately, an outreach team was able to talk to a gang outside a school and confiscate a machete and end the problem without violence occurring.
AM: Are people controlling the gangs still pushing as hard as ever to recruit kids?
JA: Yes and society will never eradicate crime or drugs ‒ that will always be in our communities. A community is what is going to save the community. It takes a community to save a community.
Mary’s is here to work with our young people and to create prevention. Also we support young people engaged with the criminal justice system. We say, “We will always continue to work with you. If you get sentenced to prison we will visit and support you. When you come out we’ll help you adjust back into society so you can start to feel accepted and to know you can change your life around.”
Mary’s will continue growing our work to support more young people.
AM: Really great work and congratulations on that. Is there anything else you would like to add?
JA: Thank you to people of our community who are already helping. I definitely see the difference to what this area was seventeen years ago, and even five years ago. However, we would love to have more people supporting and being a part of what we are building here.
Donate at www.maryscharity.org
Young people who’ve had violent childhood experiences without support networks need someone consistent in their life
Mary’s work goes on 24/7 and 365 days a year
Youth violence is still out there and continues to grow