Inner-city London isn’t always easy for some of the capital’s youth, but Street Elite, an award-winning charitable programme that works to reverse the fortunes of young people on the edges of gangs and crime, is changing lives through sport and nature.
“Looking at nature is bewildering. It’s so different to London, surrounded by noise.” Ismail Mohammed is at the South Downs National Park, England’s newest national park, 85 kilometers southwest of the capital. It’s his first time in a National Park.
He’s one of several participants of Street Elite, an award-winning charitable programme devised by youth charity The Change Foundation that aims to help young people on the margins of crime and gang violence through a tried-and-tested method of sport and mentoring first, leading eventually to work, training or education.
With a growing divide between rich and poor, a lack of opportunity and direction can lead to a life of crime, where other opportunities seem out of reach. That’s why The Change Foundation created the Street Elite prevention academies, which provide young people with the skills and confidence to help them get work, apprenticeships, training or education opportunities.
For people like Ismail, the programme is a game-changer. “In London, I’ll watch football with mates, go to the mall, have fun,” he says. “But now, 100 per cent I’m going to come back to the outdoors and I’m going to recommend it to a couple of my friends.”
The programme has been running for eight years and working with predominantly male participants, aged between 19 and 25. The initiative is funded by the Berkeley Foundation, an independent grant-making foundation, with contributions from Sport Unites, the Mayor’s flagship community sports programme. Now, Columbia has collaborated with Street Elite, giving participants a chance to get out of London and connect with nature through Columbia’s own partnership with UK National Parks to promote and celebrate diversity and inclusivity in the outdoors.
For Navjeet Sira, the Change Foundation’s director of design and impact, the fact Street Elite only works with a small number of young people for the nine-month programme means their return on investment is high. “We expect quite a lot of change,” she says. And they’re not disappointed. Street Elite has reached over 500 Londoners in over eight years with an 80 per cent success rate, helping unemployed Londoners at-risk of crime and violence into sustained work and training.
“I’m 23, and when I was younger, there were youth clubs and after-school clubs. Now, there’s no money to fund these things.”
Rashida Scott, Change Foundation
“We’ve encountered young boys who were embedded in gang culture, with family members involved in the same cycle,” she says. “These young men end up excluded from school, cautioned, arrested, the works. With Street Elite, we can tell them there’s a job at the end of it, and many of them end up in stable employment.”
What makes it work is a tried-and-tested formula of intense recruitment, full-on mentoring, and encouraging fun via sport and activities. “We have two core techniques,” explains Sira. “The first is becoming a known person among community groups—attending local community/ward meeting, knowing local youth workers, and essentially being a prominent person banging that project drum, so they know who you are, what your project is. That’s where you build network and gain respect. It’s massively important.”
The second technique is having coaches and mentors who are representative of the neighbourhoods they work in. “They’re either Street Elite graduates or our young coaches from the community. There’s no substitute for this and that’s the reason why we make those breakthroughs,” says Sira. “They identify small areas, walk around estates, chicken shops, off-licences, newsagents, wherever young people are hanging out—remember, we’re looking for ones who are unemployed, and at risk of youth violence. You’re not going to know that straight-off.”
“We go to them at times when crimes tend to be committed, between 2pm and 7pm,” says The Change Foundation’s communication officer, Rashida Scott. “If they’re not in school or education, that’s when they’re on the streets doing nothing. We go to the heart of the problem and tackle it from the root.”
She feels today’s young people are not being properly cared for by the state. “I’m 23, and when I was younger, there were youth clubs and after-school clubs. Now, there’s no money to fund these things.”
“It’s really important to engage young people as they’re the future. Without them, we don’t have a future for conserving these spaces.”
Kate Dziubinska, ranger
So what happens when they find people—usually young mothers, ex-offenders and those on the edges of gangs and crime—who may benefit from the programme? “It’s ‘sold’ as a project to get involved in,” says Sira. “They agree to a weekly sports project, we give them expenses, they get some kit. ‘It will cost you nothing, but we give you something’. No catch. Just show up.”
But, she says they have to be ready to want to do this, and to find opportunities to work. The first two weeks are the most sensitive weeks. “They need to believe you,” Sira says. “You have to be grown-up with them, tell them it’s about you and your future. Many are initially intrigued, a few say ‘no’.”
For many participants, getting outdoors into nature hasn’t always been integral to their lives. But as part of the programme, several members joined Columbia in South Downs National Park for the park’s Youth Action Day, a programme that works with young people to champion the next generation of custodians who care about our protected places.
National research from 2017 showed that only three per cent of UK National Parks visitors are from a BAME [black and minority ethnic] background and just five per cent are 16–24 years old. With the belief that the outdoors are for everyone irrespective of race, class, creed or ability, Columbia is supporting a number of community groups and charities across the UK to highlight the work they do to bring the outdoors to a broader audience.
Accompanied by a ranger, the Street Elite group learnt a variety of new skills including bushcraft, den building and pine pulling, a technique to remove invasive trees from the area. It was the first time any of the Street Elite members had visited a National Park. “It’s so peaceful,” says Ismail. “We learnt how to do pine pulling, how to survive in the outdoors and create dens as shelter from the rain which is what I enjoyed the most.”
For Olivia Bennett, a Street Elite member, it was a refreshing change too. “It’s so different to London, it’s wilderness,” she says. “In London, I go out with friends, things like like bowling, cinema, swimming, mostly indoor activities.”
She says it’s a long time since she’s truly been in the outdoors. “I have a son. I’d love to show him nature, and the birds and deer and snakes out there!”
This legacy aspect is also key to these Youth Action Days. “It’s really important to engage young people as they’re the future,” says Kate Dziubinska, a ranger for South Downs National Park Authority. “Without them, we don’t have a future for conserving these spaces.”
“Outdoor activities also take you out of comfort zone,” adds Sira. “They bring out transferable skills such as problem-solving, teamwork, negotiation. It’s so important for many young people who are digital natives—the rise in poor mental health and anxiety doesn’t just ‘happen’ so there’s a great need to make young people feel good about themselves.”
Street Elite works with 60 young Londoners a year, and the programme also expanded to Birmingham in central England, where it’s mentoring 15 boys. “It’s about working in unison, a more holistic approach rather than individual,” says Sira. “Schools for example jump at the chance of an external agency to come and do this.”
She also emphasizes the important of finding a new way to talk about youth services. “We don’t just need capital investment in physical spaces, but we need to use the community spaces that already exist in a better way—we need creatives to put their heads together and innovate around outdoors activities.”
In an ideal world, programmes like Street Elite wouldn’t need to exist. But in this parallel society, where young people can often feel hopeless in the same square mile as some of the richest people in the world, it’s something of a lifesaver. As Scott from The Change Foundation says, “We tell the kids that someone will care for then, that they’re not a lost cause. It’s never too late to re-evaluate or change their life.”
Columbia is the official outfitting partner of the UK National Park Rangers and provides the gear you need to keep warm, dry and protected so you can stay outside for longer.
All proceeds from this article will be donated to The Intrepid Foundation.