Can youth culture heal communities?

Dance project in Sandwell, 2013 Picture Credit: Intermix

Two years on from the 2011 riots,  an arts project is giving young people the opportunity to voice the issues which worry them most. Peter Gibson from the Rathbone Charity says the results have been striking

Youth culture has played a huge role in the past in healing divisions and bringing about community cohesion.

In the late 1970s, when social and industrial strife was prevalent, young people from the burgeoning punk and reggae scenes began to bond.  In the wake of the Notting Hill riots they put their energies into the type of music produced by The Clash and got themselves a national profile to air grievances about unemployment, boredom and tensions with the police.


The pattern was repeated in the Midlands with the emergence of Two-Tone, a record label which with its message of “love and unity” and flag of chequered black and white, spurned one of the most memorable songs of a generation in, “Ghost Town”.

And research evidence shows how strong this role can be.  The National Foundation for Educational Research recently asked young people what activities they thought might promote social cohesion. They responded that they felt arts and cultural events could help bring people together in their local areas.

This has certainly been the experience of young people from the Rathbone charity, who have been expressing themselves through art and discovering that whether they are in Sandwell or Glasgow, Manchester or Cardiff, the same issues tend to concern them.

Prior to the project, Rathbone ran a research programme in which young people revealed a sometimes hopeless and helpless view of the current employment market. Nearly 90 per cent of respondents felt finding work was either difficult or extremely difficult. There was an acceptance that economic conditions were tought and that bosses were always going to plump for the candidate with the most experience.  But alarmingly, a third also felt that prejudice against teenagers and a lack of trust in young people was hampering their chances.

Chavs and thugs?

Almost eight out of 10 of the 412 respondents, who were aged 14-23, said they felt the 2011 riots had made adults dislike teenagers more, and the same proportion felt they were wrong to think so.

Seven out of ten felt the over-50s were the most likely group to dislike teenagers.

They survey also asked young people whether they had heard adults using pejorative language to describe teenagers.

More than six out of 10 said they had heard teenagers being described as lazy, just under half mentioned the words ‘chav’ or ‘thug,’ and  one in five had heard adults calling teenagers ‘feral.’

Students at Rathbone Bolton began their Intermix programme by trying to tackle this perceived discrimination. Funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the project is being delivered by the Odd Theatre Company – a group who previously worked in prisons and have vast experience of helping sometimes struggling young people to express themselves. Bolton youngsters used the medium of film to interview older members of their community and found surprising similarities between the two age groups. Fear of crime, concerns about a perceived loss of community spirit and worries about employment prevailed.

Feelings of isolation dominated a dark dance production mounted by young people in Sandwell, West Midlands. A lack of protection and fears around violence pervaded in a production which made a massive impact when aired at the Conegye arts centre in Tipton.

Sculpture and dance

Trainee bricklayers in Derby took to sculpture to portray the complexity of young peoples’ lives with one student creating a work called, “Onion”, which invited viewers to peel back the layers and see the real person.

But while many mediums were used and issues explored, lack of work dominated the subject matter.

Dylan Gaston was one of a group of young people who recently crossed the water from Northern Ireland to speak to fellow Rathbone learners in Old Trafford, Manchester. The 18 year-old admitted: “For some people the riots may have been about a flag, but for most it was about the craic and boredom. There’s nothing to do here, there are no youth clubs, so some young people hang about and get into drink and drugs.” No one in Dylan’s family is working and, until he hooked-up with Rathbone Belfast, the would-be joiner was so depressed about the employment market that he didn’t even apply for jobs.

In Glasgow, a film project where pensioners revealed on-screen their own past struggles to secure work (particularly in the wake of the collapse of manufacturing) began to close the gap between generations.

With a new found sense of confidence, the young people at Rathbone are now developing a Youth Forum to discuss and act upon issues locally and nationally.

See the young people from Intermix’s work at:


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