Temi Mwale is the founder of Get Outta The Gang, an organisation that aims to tackle gang culture and youth violence using innovative and youth-led solutions. She has also been recognised as the 'Ultimate Campaigner 2014' by Cosmopolitan and received the 'Points of Light' Award from UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, in September 2014. Alongside all this, Temi is currently in her second year at the London School of Economics studying Law.
How did you convert the pain you were feeling, into passion and activism?
Well, we can spend a lot of time being emotional and talking about how painful it is but how are we going to fix it? For me, if we want this to stop we have to be very solutionist about it. Everything I have been doing has been geared to enacting those solutions and putting something place that can prevent those things happening again. Really educating yourself about an issue beyond what you see visually also gives you the ability to get up and do something about it.
Also I find when I am not acting with purpose, it’s very easy for me to slip into a depressive state. Being able to help other people and awaken them to their own purpose was what really drove me to continue doing something about the pain I was feeling.
Do you ever find everything you’re trying to accomplish overwhelming?
Yes, in short. Death is a big part of what I do, which becomes very problematic in that we do risk becoming very desensitised ourselves. Luckily, I would say I have a lot of emotion but having to feel that pain means your wounds never have the opportunity to heal. When it’s people in my local community and people who I know are suffering, it brings me right back to when my friend was killed, so it can be very overwhelming. I don’t have a defined coping mechanism; I find a lot of the time I’m that person to sit and listen to whatever another individual is going through. In essence, having purpose and helping other people helps me.
When I first started, I was thinking about gangs. I’ve realised what we are doing is part of a much bigger picture; these young people have a purpose and they are frustrated. They are not apathetic but instead they feel marginalised and particularly pushed away from this system. I’m just trying to further the progress of my community. Do I think it’s going to change over night? Of course not – when you’re trying to battle the music industry and government definitions and lack of understanding, definitely not! A lot of these young people deal with such overwhelming things on a day-to-day basis that they don’t have time to think about the bigger picture. Our job is to awaken them and help them be part of that bigger picture.
How has your organisation helped the cause so far?
The key services we deliver are:
Community mobilisation: The effects of gang culture and youth violence on local communities can be devastating. We work with people who are affected by these issues to help build stronger communities through various avenues:
We have experience in organising vigils and protests in response to violent incidents and killings.
We help communities raise money for families who have lost their children to youth violence.
We work with bereaved families and help them to heal by introducing them to other families who have been through the same tragedy. Although people can provide support, losing your child in such a violent, unnatural way – they’ve been ripped from us by someone else and it’s very complex. Hence, knowing another parent who’s been through that ordeal is really important.
We create support networks for local families who have children involved in gang related issues
We work with individuals from local communities to create local solutions to local problems
Workshops are important and we cover a lot of topics. My law degree actually comes into play here as we teach youth about criminal liability and how the law affects them. What is quite disappointing, as I’ve found a lot of young people don’t think the law is for them so it’s important for me that they understand the law is also a tool that they have at their disposal.
We run long term intervention and prevention programmes working with both groups of young men and women as well as individuals to provide a holistic service and meet all their needs from a community perspective.
We also have positive opportunities where we partner with other organisations to deliver mainly creative arts projects. We had the trailer of our short film, ‘The Struggle’, premiered on ITV. We are working on another short film at the moment as well as a music programme.
What can be done on a systematic scale to diminish violence/gang activity within troubled communities?
I feel like hope really lies on us and other organisations like us to tackle these issues and educate other people on them. If we want to stop seeing our young people being killed and killing each other, then we really have to take this into our hands. With the young people that we are working with, a lot of the time it’s really dealing with the psychological trauma that people are going through. Helping them to build their own coping mechanisms is incredibly important. We are currently in talks with mental health professionals, cognitive behavioural therapists and the likes to help develop our approach to focus on the psychological needs of our young people.
Secondly, with this notion of ‘black on black violence’, which I don’t agree with, it’s really important to deal with identity. In our current society everyone is put into a single defining bracket of Black. We have everything from third generation Caribbeans to first generation Africans all being labelled under the same roof. Cardiff University did research that showed 70% of news articles written about black boys are associated with crime; hence that’s how they will see themselves. I feel like when you’re more rooted somewhere and you know about your history, there is a lot more confidence surrounding that identity beyond what the media tells you.
Finally, we need to hold the music to accountability. There is a great TED talk addressing the reality of Black murder being acceptable in the music industry. Not only is it violence and murder promoted but it is commercialised and the executives are making a lot of money whilst the music further desensitises us on the ground to violence. We do not own the music industry and yet feel the only way to make it is to glamourize the condition we find ourselves in - that’s because the big music corporations are pushing out the ‘gangster’ narrative. Music is spiritual, uses all parts of our brain; we need to be really careful what energy we are absorbing and we need to be aware of the psychological impact of the constant use of the ‘n’ word, the objectification of women and the promotion of violence and gang culture. The value for life that you will have will diminish in a very unconscious way, which is something we need to look at very seriously.
How can people from different backgrounds get to a place of understanding violence/gang activity (as opposed to judging), not having been exposed to it?
We first have to look at the media because as people we tend to believe everything we read. What you read about gangs and youth violence tends to be sensationalised because that’s how papers sell. If we’re talking about ‘gang epidemic’ people are going to want to read about that hence that’s the only narrative within the media. Its super glamorised.
We need to debate these things – ask the question ‘why are people carrying weapons?’ and we’ll tell you that people don’t carry weapons for fun. A lot of these people fear for their safety; there’s a perpetual state of fear and anxiety that these people live in. You’re 14/15 thinking constantly that you could be killed and I think that’s a very abhorrent state for our children to be living in. One thing I find, especially with race, is that black people often aren’t allowed to be children. All these stereotypes and bias that are pushed onto people form a hyper sexualised, mature perception of a young black boy who is in actual fact just a child. Within our communities we further perpetuate this stereotypes by believing that this is all young people are and projecting this into them.
Finally speak directly to organisations like us so you can get first hand information about the people who have experienced exactly what is being misrepresented.
What does the future of Get Outta The Gang look like?
With GOTG, when I started it, I had no idea where I wanted to take it and it really developed along the way. But one of the themes that has always been consistent is that I believe in localism and youth-led approaches; this foundation I’ve created is a platform for young people to say what they think is going to be effective for their issues.
One of my main criticisms of the sector is that the older generation are not necessarily in tune with the modern experience and how young people are facing issues today. So there’s going to come a point where it would be hypocritical of me to continue holding that baton – I have to pass it on. If I’m no longer a young person and I continue to hold on to that leadership it will no longer be youth-lead as I created it to be.
So right now, I can’t really say by the time I finish my degree I’ll be able to leave it in someone else’s hands and move forward. Ideally, I would like to get to a place where I can still be involved providing counsel from a distance. That will allow the youth to make decisions freely.