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How troubled Burngreave was empowered by sport and mentoring

The Burngreave area of Sheffield may be top and bottom of all the “wrong lists” but it has recently become a showcase for the power of sport to empower and unite local communities.

Burngreave’s population is hugely diverse, with over 25 languages spoken within a small but densely-populated radius. Poverty, gangs and crime are everyday issues – but the determination of a group of committed locals to confound the area’s stereotypically deprived reputation is paying handsome dividends.

Active Burngreave, supported by the Yorkshire Sport Foundation, was originally a two-year pilot project funded by Sport England and Comic Relief. Funding has now been extended until summer 2020.

Its aim sounds simple enough: to increase participation in sport and physical activity; the key part was giving the community complete ownership of the project, including identifying needs, making decisions, organising activities and funding. They were supported in doing so by Community Development Worker, Safiya Saeed and Yorkshire Sport Foundation’s Kathryn Mudge.

“The area has its issues but the people are fantastic,” says Kathryn. “They have numerous skills, are really keen to access training, do things for themselves and better their own lives. That’s why Active Burngreave worked so well.”

One of the projects developed was called Big Brother Burngreave. Three leaders aged 17 and 18, two of whom were refugees, decided they wanted to give local youngsters a safe space to take part in something positive, with sport used as the vehicle. It was an instant hit.

The leaders completed their Community Sports Leaders awards and helped all participants develop their own skills through mentoring, coaching qualifications, safeguarding and mental health first aid training. They have run educational trips in school and college holidays, looking at environmental issues, running employment weeks with mock interviews and CV writing classes. Sport was the spark and remains at its core, but it has now developed into something much bigger.

The initial three leaders are soon off to university, but future leaders from within the group have been identified and are being trained and mentored to take over.

“The boys very much run it themselves,” says Kathryn. “Our three initial leaders were very driven by destroying the stereotypical expectation round here that they would leave school, go into a gang culture and lifestyle or be unemployed. They set the ground rules, so the young men at the session genuinely want to be part of it. A lot of them lack that support at home in terms of male role models.

“There’s so much peer-to-peer support. They talk about stress and mental health pressures; giving them a safe space to have the sorts of discussions they genuinely don’t get anywhere else. They know they will understand each other because they come from the same backgrounds.

“The three leaders have taken on lots of responsibility and dealt with it very, very well. It has taken a lot of time working on their own skills, supporting them and celebrating their success so they are fully aware of the impact of their work. Because it’s led by them it’s something people want to be part of, as opposed to something run by white, middle-class staff members who they feel little kinship with. We thought that was the right thing to do.”

Big Brother Burngreave and the wider Active Burngreave project have inevitably attracted attention from communities and organisations wanting to replicate their success. It has led to a partnership with Sheffield City Council’s Youth Justice Team to pilot the use of ‘youth mentors’.

Young people, recruited by local community leaders, will receive training and support to enable them to mentor young people who have been subject to criminal exploitation. The ethos is the same as the Burngreave Big Brother project – that the youth mentors will have greater experience of the pressures faced by many young people in impoverished communities so can provide empathy, better support and be positive role models.

The outcomes of the pilot will be fascinating, but if the impact in Burngreave can be matched across the city of Sheffield and beyond, the dedication of those initial three young leaders will have spawned something truly groundbreaking.

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