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Mobilising communities to address gang violence

A teenage boy and a teenage girl stand in a graffiti-covered underpass. He shows her something on his phone.

The Dawes Unit was a specialist unit within Catch22 that addressed the harms caused by gangs and youth violence, bringing together research, policy and practice. The service produced a range of research, which addresses the problems caused by gangs and explores how best to prevent gang involvement and support those looking to exit. This publication is part of that output.

Communities have long been recognised as playing an important part in building resistance to gangs and suppressing gang violence. Mobilising communities is one of five core strategies in the Comprehensive Gang Model developed in the United States, and features extensively in Dying to Belong, the 2009 report by the Centre for Social Justice. It is also among the critical success factors identified in the Government’s 2011 Ending Gangs and Youth Violence Report which signals the Government’s determination ‘to empower communities to take action on local priorities like gang violence.’ More generally, encouraging citizen and community action is a central policy plank for the Coalition Government, with notable examples including new community rights, the introduction of community organisers, the Community First programme and the National Citizen Service. Outside Government, initiatives such as Co-operative Councils, and the RSA-led ‘Citizen Power’ recognise the benefits of action in and by communities.

This paper looks at what is meant by community mobilisation, why it matters in preventing and reducing gang violence and at 12 common elements of effective approaches. A final section considers the part community mobilisation plays in existing anti-gang strategies, and at the links that can be made with the various initiatives to promote community activism. The paper is designed to be of interest to all those working nationally and locally to put effective gang reduction strategies in place. Core messages are:

  • community mobilisation needs to run through every strand of work to tackle gangs, ranging from prevention in its broadest sense through to rehabilitation. In practice this is still relatively rare
  • to be effective, mobilisation needs to involve genuine collaboration between local residents, community groups, businesses, public agencies and others, working to achieve a common purpose and with shared understanding and respect for what each party can contribute. This involves moving beyond an ‘us and them’ approach, where communities are seen as ‘something other’ and called on to deliver agendas already set by others. It also means putting in time, and requires patience for results to occur
  • mobilisation works best where there is a range of opportunities to be involved; where people understand the part they can play; and where violence is not seen as inevitable. More work is needed to build our understanding of what works in shifting attitudes where violence is, or risks becoming, normalised
  • the current strong policy focus on community mobilisation creates many opportunities that can potentially be harnessed to tackle gang violence. More work is needed to bring these agendas together, supporting community mobilisation in areas hardest hit by gangs.