In Moss Side, Fathers Against Violence is helping to end the cycle of absent fathers and give new direction to young people at risk of getting caught up in gang crime.
THERE IS a famous quote by the American singer Amy Lee which says “When you go through tragedy, you can either let it destroy you and become bitter and never let it go, or you can let it make you stronger and let it make you grow.”
And that’s exactly what Moss Side father James Gregory had to do when he learned of the death of his son Giuseppe.
The teenager was killed in a gun attack, caught up in the gang violence that had plagued the city since the 1990s.
Giuseppe was just 16 when he was shot by gang members in 2009 as he sat in the back seat of a car – the victim of a bungled revenge attack.
He was not the intended target. He was simply an innocent victim who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Giuseppe’s death was tough for his friends, and the Moss Side community in Manchester where he grew up, to deal with.
But it was even tougher for Gregory whose world fell apart after his son’s death.
He struggled to find anyone with whom he could talk to about the pain he felt.
He says the pain of losing a son or daughter is especially acute when it occurs through something as unnecessary as gun violence.
“As a father, Giuseppe’s death was extremely hard for me to bear. My life changed that day” he recalls. “In the weeks and months that followed, I felt lonely, unable to share my emotions with others who could understand what I was going through. I was not in my son’s life leading up to his death, and I will always wonder if I had been would things have been different? In the midst of my grief, I also realised that there was very little support in place for fathers who were going through what I was going through.”
Gregory sank into a deep depression.
But in the midst of it he resolved to try and make something positive out of all the grief and chaos.
The 43-year-old decided to launch a support group, Fathers Against Violence (FAV) in January 2011, to help men who had lost loved ones to gang violence and youth crime in Moss Side as well as playing an active role role in tackling the issue.
Gregory was now on a mission to prevent other families from experiencing the pain he’d felt after Giuseppe’s death.
He says: “Before launching Fathers Against Violence I was working at Argos. I went from a regular job and not having a clue about how to set up something like this into running this group. But all I was focused on was that my son who I gave life to, would be remembered in some way. I also wanted to do something about the fact that when I became a second victim of Giuseppe’s death I didn’t have any support. If this tragedy could happen to me, it could happen to anybody. And if fathers could identify with my experience, then maybe they would listen to me and try to improve their relationships with their children, especially sons.”
HOPE: James Gregory, founder of Fathers Against Violence
Since the group launched, it has grown at a steady pace. In addition to the weekly fathers’ support group, FAV runs a community football project for young people between the ages of 6 and 16 called Can You Kick It? which offers free weekly coaching sessions run by volunteer coaches.
The coaches also act as mentors to help build the boys’ confidence and develop key life skills through the team work and social interaction that football involves.
FAV has forged partnerships with Greater Manchester Police and local youth clubs who identify young people at risk of getting into trouble with the law and refer them to Can U Kick It?
Local observers have commented that FAV’s work is much needed.
Moss Side became known for gun violence during the 1980s and 90s when it was dubbed “Gunchester” and “Britain’s Bronx” by the national media.
Clashes between local gangs such as the Gooch gang – named after Moss Side’s Gooch Close – and the Pepperhill Mob, which took its name from a local pub, were sparked off by competition for control of the lucrative heroin and cocaine trade.
The violence saw a rise in violent assaults and drug related murders.
In 1999 for instance, there were 81 shooting incidents across Greater Manchester as a whole with 68 per cent of them happening in south Manchester which includes Moss Side.
For people like Gregory, an even greater concern was how young people in the area who were from families where the father was not around were being recruited by gangs.
TOUGH NEIGHBOURHOOD: Moss Side
It was a concern highlighted by a 2011 report called Dad and Me published by the charity Addaction. It found that children growing up in fatherless families were found to be almost 70 per cent more likely to take drugs and 76 per cent more likely to turn to crime.
The report said: “Young people are struggling to find a sense of purpose within their families, schools, and community and believe that peers provide them with what they need. The continuing desire to join a gang, engage in antisocial behaviour and risky lifestyles combined with the need to carry a weapon as a form of protection has become the norm for many.”
And there is another issue that worries Gregory. In 1993 14-year-old Benji Stanley was gunned down as he queued for food at a takeaway in Moss Side. And when 15-year-old Jesse James was gunned down in a hail of bullets as he cycled through Moss Side’s Broadfield Park in September 2006, it highlighted how young people have also become innocent victims of gang crime, just like his own son Giuseppe.
INNOCENT: Benji Stanley, 14, was shot while waiting for a takeaway in 1993
“Gang violence has been a huge issue in Moss Side and Hulme for a long time, and has caused devastation in many families like mine” says Gregory. “What we are really trying to do through Can U Kick It? is to inspire young people to believe in themselves, pursue a life outside gangs and stem the needless loss of life.”
The success of Can You Kick It? inspired a move to turn FAV into a community interest company that also offers training and mentoring.
Last year, Gregory, now a qualified mentor and a practitioner in working with gangs and community safety, launched Access to Opportunity, a 10 week course aimed at providing employment opportunities for young people between the ages of 18 to 25 from black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.
A pilot project ran from January to June 2015 and was funded by the European Social Fund. It offered FAV a unique opportunity to help local people from BAME communities.
There are up to 15 people enrolled on each course.
As well as the group sessions, each course member is given tailored one-to-one mentoring to help them realise their life ambitions.
PROMISE: Some of the young people involved in the Fathers Against Violence project
The idea behind the new course is to adapt Can You Kick It?’s approach of boosting skills and self-esteem to help those who are struggling to find work.
Many of Access To Opportunities’ first intake are lone parents or people with learning difficulties.
Gregory says: “We help people on the course, predominantly 18-25 year olds who had given up or become overwhelmed with life, to build confidence and self-esteem, and set targets to motivate them. We developed a partnership with the Department of Work and Pensions who refer learners onto the project. After participating in the program we have been able to move many on the course forward into either employment, training or volunteering opportunities.”
He continues: “What I want the course to do is to create employment opportunities so that disadvantaged young people can work towards overcoming barriers. If we can give them transferable skills that will give them the confidence to project themselves in the wider world and I believe that is one of the key ways you tackle the root causes of social exclusion and crime.”
Plans are also being developed with the local job centre in Moss Side who want to use FAV’s accredited mentoring service and the Access to Opportunity course as a way of engaging ex-offenders when they leave prison.
NEW DIRECTION: Gregory at the launch of Access To Opportunities aimed at providing employment opportunities for young people in Moss Side
FAV’s success stories show that Gregory’s approach is working. In 2011 he won an award for outstanding contribution to the community and for campaigning for peace at the Outstanding Social Behaviour Awards, part of Manchester Peace Week.
Last year, he was shortlisted in the Best Community Organisation category at the National Diversity Awards.
And there also the lives that have been transformed by the work that Fathers Against Violence does.
Gregory relates the story of one teenage boy he recently mentored who told him how grateful he was for Can You Kick It? because without it, he would have eventually ended up in prison or dead.
“The teen understood the reasons why FAV was set up, which helped motivate him to avoid the type of behaviour that had got him arrested in the past” Gregory says.
There’s also the story of a father-of-five who, after spending several years in and out of prison, became an FAV mentor. He regretted the fact that he hadn’t been around to support his children.
Gregory, who has three other children, describes his journey with FAV as a healing process.
However, the fatal stabbing last year of 26-year-old Clarence Edwards outside the RBase nightclub in Manchester’s Charles Street is a constant reminder to Gregory of the challenge in steering what he often refers to as “the fathers of tomorrow” in a positive direction.
“The main issue with incidents like that is that they create trauma, anger. You can’t reason while you’re in that space, everything is boiling. It’s hard to bring any kind of mediation because people think automatically about revenge. That leads the whole world blind. We need cool heads to be able to make sense of these senseless killings which are affecting communities right across Britain. For some, youth violence and retaliation is all they know. They’ve not had time to think. But for me it’s all about forgiveness because forgiveness is the core reason I can stand and speak to people about what happened to Giuseppe. If I was going to be bitter about things, then bitterness would have become my drink. I found salvation through forgiveness. I’ve said to young people I’ve spoken to ‘why are you holding on to the past? If I can forgive the person who shot Giuseppe, what can you forgive?’”
Source: Voice Online