In the underprivileged Sheffield area of Burngreave, young men and women wearing distinctive blue, red, grey and black t-shirts are recognised on every street corner. But this is no ordinary urban gang.
These young people are part of two projects, both run by Reach Up Youth, for local 12 to 21-year-old males and females respectively; Big Brother Burngreave and Sisterhood.
Burngreave is hugely diverse, with 25 languages spoken within a small but densely populated radius. The projects engage local youngsters from many different ethnicities, using sport as an engagement tool.
As they progress through the age groups, participants become leaders and ‘mentors’ for the younger ones, with their status denoted by the colour of their t-shirts (blue for high school age, red for college, grey for six ‘champions’ and black for three ‘leaders’).
It’s these characteristics that make Reach Up Youth perfect Local Delivery Partners for the Levelling the Playing Field project. Their philosophy overlaps heavily with our own – engaging at-risk young people from diverse community backgrounds in sport and physical activity and reducing the risk of them becoming involved in crime.
Reach Up Youth was founded in 2013 by local resident and mother of five Safiya Saeed, who wanted to improve the dangerous, crime-ravaged environment in which her one son and four daughters were growing up.
Initially funded by Sport England and Comic Relief, the Yorkshire Sport Foundation took over as funders of the project a few years ago. As a Local Strategic Partner for Levelling the Playing Field, the Foundation had no hesitation in introducing Reach Up Youth with us as ideal LtPF Delivery Partners, not least because almost all of its beneficiaries are from diverse and minority ethnic groups and because sport plays a huge part in its success.
“Sport is very, very important,” says Safiya. “We use it as the ‘hook’, whether it’s football, basketball, dodgeball, badminton, athletics, multigym or trips out. It’s how we get their attention – everything after that is decided by their needs. But without sport, we just won’t get them in the doors.”
A distinctive feature of the projects is that the young people have complete ownership over its week-to-week content. The black-shirted leaders decide activities based on local need, including training and support with issues like mental health, first aid, knife crime, identity, racism, self-esteem, insecurity and the dangers of gang culture. Girls in the Sisterhood project work through issues such as body image, identity, forced marriages, hair and beauty, self-empowerment and teamwork.
“The t-shirt system is vital to identify everyone’s strengths,” says Safiya. “It’s great that everyone looks up to somebody above him as a mentor figure, and has that feeling of protection and being a ‘bad of brothers’. If they’ve played sport together, they will never stab each other because of that bond they’ve formed in our environment.
“Local drug gangs have young recruiters they’ve planted in schools and colleges, so I put my own sports recruiters in there too, who proudly wear their t-shirts, and attract people to our projects in a more positive way.”
Kathryn Mudge, Development Manager at the Yorkshire Sport Foundation, describes Burngreave as an area that may be “bottom of all the wrong lists” but has vital support for the area’s young people through Reach Up Youth’s initiatives.
“A lot of the young people lack support and role models at home, but the projects provide so much peer-to-peer support. It gives 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.
“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. In setting up the project, we thought that was the right thing to do.”
Project founder Safiya describes herself as “the boss” (and even wears a hoodie with that title printed on the back!). She is of Somali origin, arriving in Sheffield from Dubai in 1985 without speaking a word of English. She’s a single mum who works in A&E as a support worker for victims of assault. She is delighted that the charity she built through passion and dedication is joining Levelling the Playing Field’s network of local delivery partners.
“This is exactly what Big Brother Burngreave wanted to achieve, to have this connection to criminal justice,” she says. “We need to be steering our charity towards exactly that area to increase our impact even further.
“Every single one of these young people is at-risk. Risk never leaves us as a community. Looking after one young boy around here is like picking up a rice grain. It requires funding, mental health support, mentoring, leadership, goal-setting, role models… it really does take a village, as they say.
“You’re dealing with boys who have never had a goal. You ask them what they want to do and they just answer, ‘I don’t know’. That’s when you can expose them to opportunities; sport is perfect for that. You can then get them to think about the next level up, find ways to inspire them and take them out of their comfort zone. That way, they’ve got a fighting chance.”