Creating champions – in the ring and in life
Founded on the troubled streets of Rio’s favelas, Fight For Peace (FFP) has now spread to 26 countries and has been operating in the UK since 2007. In London alone its distinctive philosophy for reducing youth violence engages over 1,300 young people a year.
The non-governmental organisation (NGO) runs a huge catalogue of projects and has a global web of partnerships to help achieve its aims. Among all these, there is a common modus operandi, known as the ‘Five Pillars’. They are:
1. BOXING AND MARTIAL ARTS – These sports promote respect, discipline, self-control, feelings of belonging and self-esteem, and attract young people to the programme.
2. EDUCATION – Support, opportunities and qualifications for young people who are outside formal learning environments or who have learning difficulties.
3. EMPLOYABILITY – Access to the work market via training, vocational courses and referrals to job opportunities through a network of private-sector partners.
4. SUPPORT SERVICES – A multi-disciplinary social-support team provides wraparound care, including individual mentoring, social, medical and legal referrals, home visits and community outreach.
5. YOUTH LEADERSHIP – Development of youth leaders via Youth Councils, who represent the organisation externally and liaise with staff on strategy and programme development.
Using sport as a hook, Fight For Peace takes an intensive and holistic approach to engineer an often dramatic turnaround in the most at-risk young people’s behaviours and decision-making.
Boxing and martial arts are particularly effective at captivating a demographic for whom high risk and combat are normalised. The intrinsic values and discipline of those sports also make them extremely effective tools for changing mindsets and behaviour.
At FFP’s academy in Newham, East London, many young people come along to take part in programmes voluntarily. Others are referred by social services, Youth Offending Teams or other local partners, while some are recruited via outreach work, which can often consist of simply approaching young people in known ‘hot spots’ for violent offending. They have programmes in prisons and also work with offenders post-custody or released on temporary licence (ROTL).
“Developing a strong relationship with each young person before we engage in anything substantial is paramount to the success of the programme,” says Jacob Whittingham, FFP’s Head of Programmes.
The engagement process might begin with an informal gym session, before trying boxing, judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu or Muay Thai. Then coaches and youth workers will conduct informal interviews to ask questions about the young person’s life, family and educational circumstances, their main issues, how they could be supported and what they want to achieve.
FFP’s various programmes operate on three levels:
1. ‘Primary level’ programmes are mainly preventative, using the lessons in sport to set young people on the right path. They consist of open-access sport sessions for 14-25-year-olds, with personal development and one-to-one mentoring structured around them. There are also twilight sessions for 7-14-year-olds targeting young people at risk of exclusion from school.
2. The focus becomes rehabilitative at ‘secondary level’ for 16-25-year-olds on their Pathways programme who are at risk of, or starting to become involved in, violence and gangs, or suffering personal issues. 71% are Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) and 25% have offending histories or gang affiliations. They are offered not only mentoring, but also routes into sport-related or academic qualifications and employability support. 94% of Pathways graduates progress into further education, employment or training (thanks to its strong relationships with local employers).
3. The offering is more holistic and intense at ‘tertiary level’, including home visits. In 2016, 429 young people were engaged at this level, 85% of whom were already in the criminal justice system and/or experiencing severe psycho-social needs.
At all levels the boxing and martial arts pillar dovetails with the personal development and education pillar. FFP finds participants are relaxed, reflective, readier to learn and take on information after exercise. Positive messages reflecting the ethos and culture adorn the walls. The entire environment at the London FFP Academy is directed towards participants’ personal growth, with every session linking to wider life lessons.
A policy of ‘wraparound care’ – involving not just in-house mentors and coaches, but also partnerships with social services, schools, probation officers, pupil referral units and more – is key to achieving behaviour change and reducing violence.
“You can improve their qualifications and employment prospects, but if you haven’t improved their home lives, relationships with family or community, or transformed their circle of friends, then they will fall back into similar cycles when they leave the programme,” says Whittingham. “We make sure there’s a universal understanding of where we want that young person to be and where they want to be themselves.”
Youth leadership – the fifth pillar – is also an integral part of FFP achieving its impact. It is partly based on research conducted by founder Luke Dowdney MBE into what – or more specifically who – leads young people into making poor decisions.
Giving young people decision-making roles on the Youth Council not only builds self-esteem and sense of aspiration, but also develops their leadership of themselves individually and their peers. The Youth Council acts as a steering group, representing the organisation externally and even interviewing prospective new staff members.
Young people who have been through the programmes are encouraged to volunteer and pass their experience on to new recruits. For some, the journey comes full circle with a high percentage of FFP’s staff themselves former service users. Chief Operating Officer James Baderman comments: “Seeing the transformation in them and their lives has given us our proudest moments.”
The enabling and empowering environment that Fight For Peace creates is not only reducing crime and violence with local communities, but also building stronger, aspirational characters, better equipped to contribute to society and realise their potential.
The Alliance of Sport would like to thank Fight For Peace for being part of our Ministry of Justice Review of Sport in Criminal Justice.