Reclaim Project: The Charity Amplifying The Voices Of Manchester's Youths

A 'Feral Youth' T-Shirt designed by a Manchester Reclaim Project teen to fight back against youth stereotyping

In the early hours of 9 September, 2006, 15-year-old Jessie James cycled through a small park in Moss Side, a deprived inner-city ward in Manchester.

The teenager, who was not involved with any of the local gangs who pervaded the area, was gunned down and killed. He was merely “in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

Media reports of Jessie’s cold-blooded murder angered local residents and youth workers. The press simply "weren’t interested" in the death of another black youth in an area rife with crime and drug use.

One local teacher, however, was interested. So much so they decided to take a stand to try unite the community in its grief and make a change for the better.

This teacher wasn’t a middle-class white male preaching from a pedestal, but instead Ruth Ibegbuna, a young, black woman with the simple belief there was a silver lining in every dark cloud.

Ruth Ibegbuna speaking at the graduation of Reclaim's Gorton Boys group in 2010

"I got a phone call telling me a woman was holding a meeting for 45 youths from the neighbourhood and looking for volunteers to help out,” reminisces Joe Amos, who was a youth and community worker for the council at the time. “I remember thinking she must be crazy.”

Nevertheless, Joe went along to the meeting, which evolved into a campaign, and finally the Reclaim Project. Eight years on he’s still with the charity, which doesn't receive state funding - meaning it can remain independent, but now works as a full-time youth engagement manager.

“It was an incredible event. Young people from groups across the area got together and worked out a manifesto for Moss Side. They wrote down what they wanted to achieve for the area.”

Compare the 2007 and the 2013 manifestos and there’s a palpable difference.

Jessie’s killer, who to this day still hasn’t be found, prompted the first, shockingly simple point: “Don’t let killers get away with the crimes.”

This is followed by: “Drop the guns and pick up the books; put your hood down sometimes and smile; don’t let crime take over our streets." The rest of the manifesto points reveal a community crying out for help, and an end to the gun crime which had left an innocent teen dead.

Fast forward to the 2013 Moss Side Boys manifesto and it’s a different story. Support and funding mean points include the proud “Moss Side is our home, Moss Side is our identity”, and “Be positive role models for the younger generation.”

The first ever manifesto from 2007 (left)

But the youths are still haunted by the portrayal of the events of 2006, as one point tellingly reveals: “Moss Side has moved from grass to grace with the media too afraid to come and see the truth.” Another reads: “Young people deserve more positive media coverage.”

Davine Forde, another of Reclaim’s task force, lived on the same street as Jessie James.

"I used to see him every morning. I was so angry with the media’s portrayal of his death.

"Young black boys were always seen by [the press] as troublesome. They always said everyone hung around in gangs - Moss Side even used to be called ‘Gunchester’. The media had nothing good to say about the area. We have such a great community spirit, but that was just overlooked.”

The tragic incident which left the community reeling explains Davine’s dogged perseverance to rebuild her neighbourhood - and her involvement with Reclaim.

“It is giving the young people value and self worth, telling them their opinions matter as much as adults’.”

"There was so much pressure put on areas such as Moss Side. It was easy for us all to become a caricature of what outsiders expect a black community would be.. You had to become the cruellest, meanest person you could be.. Even if you were a kid, you'd get attacked because of the area you were from.. [At school] tutors thought I was a typical 'troubled youth', the kind you read about in the tabloids."

- Reclaim alumnus and current journalism student Terry, aged 20. Extracted from Ruth Ibeguna's book 'On Youth'

Many of the youths Reclaim works with come from Gorton, and the girls from the area have made their own manifesto, which pleads with the council to "keep us in mind when you're developing the area".

"There is nothing to bring people together here," Joe explains as we pass through the area. "No pubs, churches, no heart of the community."

Empty streets lined with identikit houses and wooden fences are eerily quiet, and there's a darker story to be told. "The council had some spare money, so they decided to do up the front gardens of the council houses," Joe continues. "On the plus side, the residents have smart gardens, but it now means it's very easy to spot who lives in a council house."

Sure enough, there are houses which don't have the curved fences, meaning those who are housed by the council make easy pickings for bullies.

"There is a rift between north and south and the west of Gorton," Joe continues. "They blame this area for all the crime, as the residents there are a little better off than those living here."

Suddenly, I understand one of the points from the Gorton Girls Manifesto: "Unite the postcodes."

There is only one shop in the whole estate - a small, rundown off-licence - not nearly enough to service the local residents.

Even the Gorton Library has limited opening times thanks to council cuts. A new Tesco's, however, has since sprung up, although there is scepticism how it will bring the community together.

"The people who live here are passionate about the area, but they know it could be much better," Joe wistfully adds.

Reclaim youths spreading their message on Manchester streets

Manchester’s young people are clearly passionate about their society - and they want the world to know it.

Just last month Piccadilly Gardens, a square in the city centre notorious for drug use and antisocial drinking, played host to a peaceful protest organised by the Reclaim Project’s current cohort of 12 to 15 year olds.

As part of their activism activity weekend, the youths made their own placards and protested in public.

“People were taking pictures and telling them ‘well done’,” explains Kwame Ibegbuna (Ruth’s younger brother), who leads the charity’s activism programme.

“The youths realised people will stop listening once violence becomes part of your protest," Kwame continues. "We give kids on the periphery a voice. We’re trying to utilise their anger into a productive channel."

“We created an environment where they feel comfortable expressing their views and experiences,” Joe chimes in. “The protest was so powerful because strangers were stopping to see what these kids were saying.

“When we approach media organisations to report on what we’re doing they always say the kids here are too young. They don’t vote so they don’t have a voice. But we have to start early with them.”

It's not just the media who are accused of ignoring youths however, it’s politicians too - some of whom have openly admitted to chasing the “silver vote” and ignoring Britain’s young people.

It’s something which is an obvious grievance among the youths at Reclaim. When we have an evening session, which is attended by nine local youths, all under 15 and all giving up their spare time to be there, a common theme is not being heard.

“I wouldn’t be here if we were listened to,” says Tina, a young teenager still in her school uniform. “We need politicians who understand how we feel. They’re all the same - they’re from similar backgrounds, they’re all in suits. No-one pays attention to youths.”

By the time they’ve “graduated” from the two year-long programme at Reclaim, most have gone through a dramatic character metamorphosis.

"A lot of the battles I've fought have been internal and deeply personal. I now focus on all the injustice so prevalent in our world and want to do whatever I can to make the situation better. I hope for a revolution."

- Reclaim alumnus Jordan, aged 20. Extract from 'On Youth'.

“They’re like frightened mice,” says Kwame. “But we build their confidence and get them comfortable in unfamiliar situations. We work to challenge their negative thinking. We believe in them.”

Driving through Moss Side and the surrounding areas, it’s obvious the youths Reclaim works with believe in their mentors too.

“Isn’t that Carmel?” asks Georgia Riggs, another of Reclaim’s full-time youth workers, as she peers out of the car window. Joe promptly beeps his horn, as I watch in amazement as Carmel, a current Reclaim member who is surrounded by a gaggle of female friends, turns round and waves.

In such a deprived area plagued by crime, and as the majority of the young girls who attend the evening’s session point out, sexual harassment and “old men beeping their horns at you”, I have to admit I’m pretty impressed by Joe’s street cred. And later on that day, he leans out of the car window and shouts a hello to Caleb, a young Reclaim alumni, who gives him a thumbs up and an “alright mate” in return.

The willingness of the teens to not only engage with the charity, but also be proud of it is testament to the project’s work.

“We have some youths who can’t sit in a whole lesson without being excluded but manage to attend a five day-long workshop in their spare time,” Joe proudly attests.

It’s rather impressive, and little wonder the charity is continually expanding.

“We treat youths as adults,” continues Joe. “We listen to them. Being seen, being heard, being a change - that’s what they want.

"We try to embed ourselves in the community and not just parachute in."

The recently repainted underpass in Gorton

The project’s method certainly seems to be working.

A recent initiative to repaint an underpass in Gorton proved a roaring success, and youths from a nearby area - which is home to rival gangs - even came down to help out.

“We worked with a local residents group to include some of the area’s heritage," Joe informs me. "There used to be a huge carnival in the ward, complete with animals, so they were included in the mural. The kids had no idea and so started asking questions about the history of their home. It started a dialogue, a conversation.

“We even had kids from nearby Moss Side, where there are rival gangs, to come down and help. It was brilliant.”

Painting aside, the project’s driving aim is to end leadership inequality. It’s a fairly big ambition but is one the staff embrace. They recognise changes need to be made not just in politics, but in business too, which explains the launch of the enterprise programme. Headed up by Iain Kinnear, the youths are set challenges by real companies - and are expected to come up with solutions in record time.

“It gives them an interest, an insight into what they can do with their futures," Iain explains. "They realise there are jobs out there for everyone - not just those with straight A*s. One young person was told to come back when he was old enough for a job - the company was blown away by him.”

The teens are also put through interviews by real employers - something which Sinead Andrews, a former Reclaim youth member and now an employee - remembers well.

“I was interviewed by police officers, and thought it was funny at the time, but when you get older you realise how valuable those skills you learnt are.”

Reclaim's latest campaign encourages Manchester's female teens to break the mould and aspire for better

The project is clearly teaching Manchester’s youths to aim high and reach for the stars - something they feel they are not normally encouraged to do.

“I can’t get any higher than a C,” one teenage girl fumes at the evening session. “I’m in the foundation group in maths at school and I’ve already been told I can’t do any better than a C - before I’ve even sat my exam.”

One of Reclaim's 2013 manifestos created by the Salford Girls group reads “Doctors, not gangsters - positives not negatives". Another point states “We’re prefects not rejects”, while a third proposes: “Improve our youth clubs, improve our lives. The recession is not our fault.”

"Our house was shocking. It had no real floors, just concrete, no carpets or rugs. the front door didn't have a lock; you'd have to jam paper in to close it.. [At school] no one, not except for Mr Johnson, ever asked the question why? Why are you failing? Why are you acting up? Why are you skipping school? Why don't your parents ever come to school events?.. If you're a 'problem pupil', they leave it to other 'services' to fix you."

- Reclaim alumnae Ruby, aged 19. Extract from 'On Youth'

There are youth clubs, but they serve large amounts of young people, meaning there is no face-to-face time.

“They might play football or something but they will have no understanding of their problems,” explains Georgia.

“They won’t understand why they are in the situation they are in - or how to get out of it. It is about trying to change this and working with the young people individually.”

According to Joe, many young people are so used to aiming low they are taken aback when pushed further.

“If someone comes to us and says ‘I got a C!’ we say ‘great, but why didn’t you get a B?’. We challenge them. We ask them the questions no-one else will.

“They’re capped. When I was young, a C was a great achievement. Not getting arrested was a great achievement. Our aspirations are set so low, we have to tell young people 'you are so much more than what you have been told you can be'."

Reclaim hopes to explain the difference between power and leadership

It's obvious their tactics are working; one current 14-year-old Reclaim member, Jamie Lee, is passionate about stopping the sexual exploitation of children.

"She's met up with our local MP," Georgia proudly tells me. "And she wants to go and speak in Westminster about it.

"If they feel frustrated about something then they challenge it. That is what our leadership project is about."

There is a strong sense of justice which runs through everyone who gets involved with the programme, Joe explains. "Whether the topic is sexual harassment, racism, mass poverty, gun crime - there is such a passion from these youths to solve these issues.”

The drive the project inspires in Manchester’s youths is a tribute to the charity's success. Not only do Reclaim’s alumni return to become mentors, there were girls in Northern Manchester who had never left their community, but who are now spreading the word about their manifestos.

“One of the most powerful things I’ve seen is 12 year olds bring adults to tears with their manifestos," Joe says.

“One young person said to me: ‘we have a voice, you just help us amplify it’. I thought that summed us up perfectly. We really get people talking.

“They still blow us [the staff] away with their passion and hunger to change their area."

Even though they're up against a lifetime of inequality, these youths aren't giving up without a fight. Manifestos, weekly meetings, weekend silent protests - they're doing everything they can to change their area, and their future.

As the Moss Side Boys 2013 manifesto bluntly stated: "Young people deserve more positive media coverage."

I couldn't agree more.

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