In the UK, government Preventing/Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) strategy has focused on early interventions of youth at risk of or vulnerable to radicalisation. It most often targets ‘disenfranchised youth’ who face social and economic inequalities, or the politicisation of their cultural and religious identities; i.e. white working class, Muslim or ethnic minorities. At the grassroots level, P/CVE efforts are not always about identifying an individual who is at risk or vulnerable, but rather using the available resources to access and build resilience in community members to a wide range of social harms, including radicalisation. Youth workers involved in independent P/CVE efforts seek to enable networks of trust, develop critical thinking tools and provide pathways towards employment and social agency (empowerment) within their local communities.
This article is based on research focused on grassroots P/CVE youth work. Conversations with youth workers and practitioners revolved around their experience delivering P/CVE work and navigating resources. The Bristol Horn Youth Concern and Integrate UK are two of the most visible independent grassroots organisations in Bristol, a locality not considered a ‘priority area’ by Home Office. I conducted interviews with them throughout my research to identify the strategies that work on the local level to counter and prevent the threat of violent extremism, as well as build resilience against it.
Since its origin in 2012, The Bristol Horn Youth Concern (BHYC) has supported more than 3,000 youth, mainly of Somali descent. It works actively to build trust, local networks and employability with young people, some as young as 10 years old, through meaningful daily interactions. Khalil Abdi, the director of BHYC, has gained trust from Bristol police, faith leaders and the local council due to his long trajectory of local work with asylum seekers and as a neighbourhood warden. He now dedicates several hours weekly to conversations with local youth around one of Bristol’s city centre neighbourhoods.
As Khalil explains: “We go to the Galleries, to Castle Park…we are visible. Sometimes we go there so we know what's going on…we just say hello and then walk past…we don't want to invade the privacy.” By ‘hanging around’, he makes himself known and visible to young people in the local area, as it takes time and patience to develop these relationships. Time spent with these youth then transitions from the streets to organised BHYC events with local partners, such as visits to the Bristol City Football Team.
Both organisations rely on strong, trusting relationships developed daily through face-to-face interactions
BYHC’s aim is for youth to develop bonds with the city and a sense of belonging in society, as Khalil explains: “it is very important that young people don't feel isolated…give [them the] opportunity and show them that they are part of society. We work with them and say, ‘you know that the Bristol City Council and the police and other organisations contribute to our activities?’”
Once Khalil builds familiarity and trust with local youth, he is able to expand conversations, moving from everyday topics to more complex issues such as extremism, sexuality, race, religion, gang grooming, and more. The outcome of such interactions is an increased likelihood of employability for young people due to their participation in BHYC social projects, and the disruption of lingering narratives of distrust towards police and a sense of exclusion from society.
Integrate UK is another Bristol-based organisation, registered in 2007. Since its origins tackling Female Genital Mutilation, Integrate UK has sought to develop critical thinking, leadership and professional skills through its workshops and volunteer opportunities for youth. Their remit has changed as they learn from the needs that arise in the schools they visit; although they also began working with Somali children, since then they adapted to tackle gang grooming and violent extremism with school audiences, and more recently have taken on far-right extremism.
Most members of the organisation have been recruited during school visits. Its success can in part be attributed to its highly original, creative and emotive messages made by young people, directed at other youth. As Nawaaz Hussein, a former organisation trustee for 12 years, puts it, “the tagline here is that we are a youth-led charity run by the youth.” They start off as volunteers, then become young trustees and eventually trustees. The young volunteers, from different backgrounds and ethnicities, participate in all areas of the organisation, while Lisa Zimmermann, the director, secures funding and takes care of any safeguarding issues.
Lisa explains that, “We are now starting work on right-wing extremism, so bringing together kids from BME Muslim backgrounds with kids from white working-class backgrounds in schools…each year we are going to be working with at least two schools from opposite ends of Bristol…[We’re] working gradually towards that, because every school we’ve been into that has been completely white, just in one day the difference is extraordinary…Like in one school Nawaaz went into recently, they were literally touching his beard. You know they’ve never met a Muslim”.
Nasra Ahmed, a member of Integrate UK, was awarded The Diana Award, a prestigious humanitarian prize for youth in the UK. However, when interviewed, she describes herself as having “had confidence issues,” that limited her from being “vocal” about issues she was very passionate about. She explains that Integrate UK provided her the platform to develop her confidence through public speaking. Although working in the frontline and having conversations about grooming, extremism, religion and radicalisation can be exhausting, Nasra finds further motivation in the results of her daily work: “When it comes from people's lives being changed, to people's opinions being changed, being able to engage in these conversations, I think more needs to be done and that is happening, so that keeps me going when I'm like, ‘oh, I can't do this anymore’”.
Starting from the local
Both organisations rely on strong, trusting relationships developed daily through face-to-face interactions, either on the streets or inside learning settings. These models are inclusive and open to local needs, and do not seek to predict vulnerability or risk. As a result, they build trust through local networking, develop critical thinking around recurring themes such as race, religion, politics and organised violence, and empower youth. Through such methods, they turn young people away from avenues towards radicalisation, violent extremism and wider social harms, while developing life skills.
Focusing on Prevent, the UK government’s counter-radicalisation policy, situates P/CVE efforts within a highly politicised discussion, characterized by critiques of its policy design and implementation, or the government’s claims of media ‘distortion and spin’. As a result, there is a dominant narrative which suggests P/CVE work is divided between Prevent and its critics.
However, reducing P/CVE work to politicised debates around Prevent obscures what actually takes place at the grassroots level: my research highlights valuable independent P/CVE work being done, and most often with collaboration between youth workers, local council, and government practitioners despite their stances on, or funding relationships to Prevent. Furthermore, the data supports other research showing how front-line workers reinterpret and adapt P/CVE policies to best fit their pre-existing working cultures and local needs.