The founders of the iconic Street Pastors have launched a collaborative network to take on the violent criminals blighting London’s Black communities.
Synergy, the latest initiative from the Ascension Trust, is billed to be a multi-party collaboration – between churches, organisations, the police, the probation service, experts in their field and individuals of all faiths and none – and was launched in September 2018.
Joining members will have the space to get to know other members, build up trust, and pool resources in order to work together. Current members include: African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; Church of God of Prophecy; Micah Community Church, and St Mark’s Church Kennington, as well as individual members with relevant expertise.
The founders hope to attract further members over time.
The initiative was launched in response to the horrifying rise in violent crime in London. So far this year, there have been 89 murders in the capital, of which almost 40 were African-Caribbean victims.
The Nature of the Problem – a lack of synergy
The Ascension Trust believes that a lack of synergy within the public and voluntary sectors in tackling violent crime means that most agencies tend to work independently of each other, without sharing intelligence or resources. This inevitably results in reduplication and overlapping of efforts among neighbouring community projects.
The Trust argues that the lack of a coherent, strategic approach lessens the overall effectiveness of efforts to reduce crime and alleviate social problems. It believes that some of these groups could be much stronger by working together. By identifying best practice and specialisms among organisations and individuals that join the Synergy network, vulnerable groups, people at risk, and those in need of advice would be referred to the best outlets to help them.
A Holistic Approach to Serious Violence
The Ascension Trust will partner with agencies that specialise in family and domestic violence; education and mentoring; gangs and peer pressure. Partners will work together with vulnerable families and individuals in a joined-up manner, taking a holistic approach to the problem.
Reverend Les Isaac OBE, founder and CEO of the Ascension Trust, said: “What Ascension Trust has done is create a space for people to meet together and be part of something, but the real essence is that people are doing things on the ground; they trust each other; they are building relationships with each other, and they are working together.”
Collaborating and strengthening synergy was best done, he said, by eating together, getting to know each other, and understanding each other’s worldview. As people develop a strong relationship, they begin to ask what they can do together to help each other.
“Trust is a big thing” (Reverend Les Isaac)
Many people are protective of their vision or project, afraid that someone is going to run off with it or copy it, but, he added: “While you’re in that mood of protectionism, more young people are dying.”
Bishop Lenford Rowe, a former overseer and pastor at Church of God of Prophecy, is chair of Synergy. He described it as a collaborative approach to youth violence: “It arose out of the Synergy partnership, a collaboration of four agencies that are addressing different societal problems and contributory factors to youth crime.
“Synergy’s vision is to create a network of professionals, practitioners, clergy and others who will work together to collaborate, coordinate and combine efforts, and find solutions to the root causes of youth violence.”
He added that he was encouraged by the meetings held so far, and seeing church leaders coming together and showing a willingness to get involved.
Chief Superintendent Community Engagement Dave Springer, from the Met Police, has worked with the Ascension Trust and the Street Pastors programme in five separate London boroughs for over a decade. He welcomed the new initiative: “I understand from personal experience the value of the community having an active role within a broad local partnership helping keep people safe.
“We can all look back now on the way the night-time economy has changed for the better in that time, and apply some of those lessons to building active and successful partnerships to tackle the problem of children and young adults getting involved in gangs and violence. I look forward to working with Synergy to develop just such an active partnership to prevent the tragic loss of more young lives.”
The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, also commended Synergy: “As well as praying for London, it is essential that people of goodwill work more closely together in the urgent task of turning around the increasing cycles of violent crime which mar the life of our communities and impact destructively on so many young people. This is the vision of Synergy, and I have been active in my support from its launch in Clapham nearly 18 months ago.
“I have great admiration for Les Isaac and the work of the Ascension Trust, and I believe and hope with all my heart that Synergy will be a catalyst for good partnership working, which is now utterly vital to taking this life-saving initiative forward.”
The extent of the problem
“There are more murders in London than in New York,” Reverend Isaac.
“It’s a combination of gun and knife, but there is a knife culture among this young generation. It’s random and it’s very hard to police it. Yes, there are known people involved in gangs, but there are many people randomly carrying knives, and police haven’t got that intelligence.
“Parents are very worried about their children carrying a knife and becoming a victim of a knife, but not everything you see is gang-related. There are gang problems and adults, who are found grooming young children, starting them off carrying drugs and all kinds of things, storing guns or money in their houses for them. But there is a major problem.
“Some of the problem is drug-fuelled, because young people can’t control their temper. It’s fuelled because young children are angry; they’re victims themselves; have mental health issues, a deep sense of hopelessness. A lack of fathers in the home and poverty both play a part. It’s fuelled by a lot of things.
“We have a disproportionate number of these murders in the Black community, and there’s a lack of priority when it comes to our Black children being murdered. There hasn’t been a public outcry. This is a public health matter and there’s hasn’t been a public outcry.”
Reverend Isaac emphasises that Synergy is for people of all faiths. An organisation wishing to join must have good governance in place, while individuals have to be credible. Synergy is about the whole community and is not divided by religion or race: “We’re talking about people who have a purpose to stem, stop and eradicate this level of violence in our society.”
“The police can’t do it on their own, the government can’t do it on its own. Ascension Trust definitely doesn’t want to do it on its own, but together we can.”
Ian Joseph, lecturer in Criminology at the University of East London, said: “A project of the Ascension Trust, launched in 1993 through the ‘Guns off our Streets’ campaign, the Synergy Partnership now builds on the nationally successful Street Pastors network. The coordination of local action as a community-based, bottom-up approach to target and tackle gang-related violence is important for an effective, sustainable solution.
“As part of a national strategy currently representing over 270 local schemes, it will also promote the sharing of best practice to enable scarce community resources to be efficiently rationalised in the most troubled violent crime hotspots – many containing large Black and minority ethnic communities.”
How Synergy evolved
It was to prevent the loss of more lives that the founders of the Ascension Trust began in 2014 to question what they and the Church – and in particular the Black Church – could do. A series of strategic meetings followed, including a gangs summit in November 2014, when church leaders, the prison and probation services, practitioners and the police, began to look at the driving factors and the solutions.
In a scoping exercise the following year, the founders of Synergy studied gang culture and youth violence, seeking to identify the factors behind the rise in these crimes. The resulting report provided a framework for a collaborative approach to youth violence.
Reverend Isaac said: ““When we looked at what was happening, one of the first things that was obvious to us was, although there were many groups, activities and charities, they were not working together. There wasn’t enough collaborative work.”
In 2015, the Trust brought together around 50 organisations and individuals to discuss working collaboratively. That event served to alert organisations about the need to work together and to raise awareness of the issues.
“People might ask why it’s taken so long, but my philosophy is, if you’re going to do something, you’ve got to spend enough time understanding the problems and, most importantly, finding the solutions.”
The Trust began discussions last year with its partners, including Delphine Duff, Operations Manager at the Young Adults and Gangs Unit at the London Community Rehabilitation Company, and Dr Anthony Goodman, professor in Community Justice at Middlesex University’s department of Criminology and Sociology.
“We began to look at what we could do to prove to people that working together is far better than working in isolation,” said Reverend Isaac.
The Ascension Trust raised £25k for a pilot scheme to get four different organisations to work together. This was followed by a meeting to share the vision of Synergy collaboration in Clapham last year, and Synergy was set up.
At the end of 2017, Southwark Cathedral hosted a large gathering of interested parties, who were encouraged to sign up. Reverend Isaac emphasises that the Trust’s lead of Synergy is merely a legality to fulfil charity laws.
The Trust has funded Synergy with the help of one or two churches: “We’ve taken that on. We just see it as part of our giving, some of it is not ring-fenced, so we said ‘Come on, let’s do something,’ as we believe in it. So we’ve carried the can, a lot of us work extra hours because we believe in it, and we’re just excited about it. Our Board is excited as well. It’s good stuff.
“People are coming to me and I’m saying, ‘Don’t start another charity. Go and find somebody who has your heart and your passion and work with them.’ It’s not more charities we need; it’s more volunteers, more expertise pooling together.
“I always say: before you talk about going somewhere else, just look at what’s happening locally. So you prove it first. It took three years before Street Pastors started to move outside London, nationally and then internationally. Give this another two years, and if it is working well, other people will want to do something similar, and I’m not really saying they’ve got to go through Synergy, I’m saying they’ve got to work together. Synergy is a brand, but if other people do other things, praise the Lord, I don’t mind.
“I want to involve everyone. This is about collaboration. Wherever I go, I carry a method of collaboration. So, for me, we’ll push it in London, we’ll sample it in London, and we’ll look at evidence in London and learn, and if we feel it’s right to push it outside London, we’ll do that.
“I’d like to see organisations say ‘We’d like to be part of Synergy. How do we work together and bring our expertise to the table, and train others and encourage others?’
“I believe very much in grassroots. I’m not a politician. I live locally. I believe we’ve got gifts and talents in the local community, and I believe that when those – like the Mayor and others – see something like this in the grassroots, it is their duty to get involved and support it; help to support the infrastructure, and give resources for capacity. Because grassroots people are usually the first people on the ground, they have intelligence, they have expertise, they have skills. When the police and Mayor go home, the grassroots people are still there.
“Part of what I’m constantly saying to the Met is, look, the police are there to prevent crime but the greatest asset that the police have is the community. The police are a professional body, but I’m constantly reminding the police that they are human beings as well. There is empathy; there is identifying with communities; there’s building those relationships, and for me it’s so important that we support the police service, but it’s also important for the police to build serious relationships with the community. I’m worried that with cuts and cybercrime and terrorism, what suffers because of the lack of community policing is the community. They only come in when there’s an incident, they do their stuff, and then they’ve gone to the next incident. It’s firefighting rather than prevention.
“Working with the police is crucial and critical. But there’s a massive gap between wishing to work and actually working together. We need to bridge the gap with Synergy.”
Background to the problem
“The realities are the victims are not adults; they’re children who are dying. They’re not even 18 yet, and some of the crimes are being committed by children as well. I’m concerned about everyone who has died, for example, that little child who was murdered up in Scotland (six-year-old Alesha MacPhail). I’m concerned about that, because there’s pain, but I’m beside myself as to why so many young Black boys are dying, and why so many are going to jail.
“The thing is, when you ask yourself how many young Black boys at the Old Bailey have been sent to jail with long sentences over the last two years, it’s something like 500. There are staggering figures out there. And the Black community has to face up to the fact that we have a problem. And it’s not just for the government or the police to solve, we as a community have got to stand up and take responsibility. Some people are doing some good things, but there needs to be a sense of collective responsibility, and it’s not just children out there; they are our children, they are our community.
“When an eight-year-old child is being used to run drugs, that says something in terms of human nature – the soul, the social conditions, even the history. And so we first of all have to take responsibility for our actions, and then we have to look at the issues around it that keep perpetrating into these kinds of outcomes.
“A charity helping young people in south London, and another organisation in north London which has been going for years, have both closed down. No money. There’s something wrong there.
“Take stop and search. Let me tell you this: I believe in stop and search, I just don’t have enough confidence in how some officers do it. If stop and search was done in a respectful way, in a dignifying way, it could be a very effective tool. I’ve been on the bus myself and seen a young boy pull out a six-inch blade on the bus to stab a guy. I’ve seen it on the bus. I’ve seen young people having knives; I’ve seen it with my own eyes. So our police need the confidence of our community. I’m wondering, is it rocket science to say to the Met, ‘Look, on these given dates, we’re going to pull in some clergymen, some schoolteachers, some lawyers, and we’re going to do a stop and search across London, and we’re going to have these people with us, assisting us do stop and search.’ Is that rocket science?
“If the police say, ‘Look, in the space of the next three months, we’re just going to say to you, during the week we’d like you to put aside a morning to be with us, voluntarily, you just come to the police station, we may go out or not, but we want to start in the morning at 7 o’clock.
“’We have a car, we have a group of people we take with us – a clergyman/woman, a lawyer, a grandmother, different people from the community – and we go out, we set up and we do random searching of children going to school.’ If we do that for three months, I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the number of knives we’d confiscate. I also guarantee it will send a clear message to children: you can go out this morning, and it’s highly likely you’ll be stopped. And we tell the children we’re doing this because we are concerned about their safety, so when we go on the bus, we say, ‘OK, children, this is part of the process, we want you all to empty your pockets, let me see your bags.’ We do it in the leafy areas, as much as in the urban areas.”
Reverend Isaac said he has not been out with the police, but is urging them to do something.
“Prevent is the Met’s big thing, but to be honest there are too many cuts in the police, so I don’t really think the police can be effective on this, because they’re short of staff, bottom line. It’s like fighting a fire with just two fire engines.”
Reverend Isaac continued: “Ask me how much the history of slavery plays a part, and I would say the legacy of slavery has a part. Drill music and all that are symptoms. When you deal with families who don’t know how to love each other, families that are broken up, kids who are unloved, men who go around impregnating women and not taking responsibility…
“Children don’t feel loved and they are angry. All these other things – like Facebook and YouTube – just feed the appetite of these kids who are messed up. Kids are getting on there and telling each other what they’re doing; girls are sending their body parts to people, and children using these tools… these are all symptoms of the problem. Government and big companies should take responsibility over what goes on the internet, and close these sites down, telling children, ‘We’ve got your name, we’ve got your account. You’re on our radar.’
“We should do this, but the reality is we’ve invented the World Wide Web without any moral conscience, without any laws. We say it’s a wonderful thing but, actually, it’s a tool for people to propagate their wickedness. The web on the whole is a good thing, you can communicate with people, but it’s also got a dark side to it.”
Reverend Isaac does not believe the government and the Home Office are doing enough: “Our prime minister has a lot on her plate, and I’m not sure that our young people killing themselves is a priority. Perhaps the Home Secretary (Sajid Javid) is trying to get it right, but for me, working on the ground for 30-odd years, I’m saying they need to convince me that there’s some meaningful strategy, which is not only going to last four years. Come up with a 25-year strategy that says we’re putting in laws the next government has to pick up and run with. You tell me that. Because the moment the Conservative government goes, the Labour one comes in, and there’s a brand new approach. So the only people who are consistent here are the criminals and those who are messing up our children, and they’re getting more sophisticated.”
How to join: Churches and individuals, who would like to be involved, are invited to the next Synergy event in November. The details are being finalised and will be available on the Synergy website at https://www.ascensiontrust.org.uk or telephone the Ascension Trust on 0208 330 2809.
Bishop Lenford Rowe
Bishop Len, former overseer and pastor of Church of God of Prophecy (CoGoP), is chair of Synergy. A mathematics teacher for many years in London schools, Bishop Len is a qualified Counsellor/Systemic Practitioner of the Wandsworth-based Pastors’ Network for Family Care, which provides mental health support.
Bishop Len describes himself as a man who cares deeply for the good of communities, cities and nations.
The Synergy Network
Synergy is a collaborative approach to youth violence. It arose out of the Synergy Partnership, a collaboration of four agencies that are addressing different societal problems and contributory factors to youth crime.
Synergy’s vision is to create a network of professionals, practitioners, clergy and others, who will work together to collaborate, coordinate and combine efforts, and find solutions to the root causes of youth violence.
Our young people are dying. You go along the streets, and you see flowers and you know someone has died… Your heart races, tears come to your eyes, and there is no outrage, and you ask why? We’ve got to do something about this, it cannot continue.
I am encouraged by the meetings we’ve had, and seeing church leaders coming together and showing willingness to get involved. Our churches are not merely places where Christ is lifted up, a good time is had by all, and we go out again; our churches are at the very coalface of our communities. We exist to help people, to open our doors and do well. The government has a responsibility to keep the nation safe, and the churches have their responsibilities.
Synergy does not exist for the short term but for the long term. We want to put strategies in place that will bear fruit. Mentors, fathers and mothers are needed – people who care and want to make a positive contribution to what is a harrowing situation.
And we need monetary help, people to put their money where their mouths are. The government must help, and the Mayor (of London) too – all of us pooling our resources together will make significant differences.
So, I say to everyone, look around and see what’s happening: our beautiful young boys and girls are dying.
Let’s stand up and fight this cancer together.
The Synergy Board of Reference: Bola Ojo
Mrs Bola Ojo is an elder at Bexley Christian Life Centre; a trustee of CRIBS (Christian Resources in Bexley Schools) Foundation Trust; works with the Sickle Cell Cohort Foundation; is a prayer coordinator for Bexley Street Pastors, and was head of Youth Services and Lifelong Learning in Bexley Council.
“Youth services have changed, and many no longer exist, which is a shame and is one of the reasons why I accessed the Synergy network. I have a passion for change, and wanted to see what we can do for our young people, and what the church can do working with other faith organisations. Partnership, networking and collaborating are probably three of the most sustainable effective ways forward, especially as in relation to gun and knife crime, but also in the sense that, without these, we are losing contact with a whole generation of young people.
“As people of faith, we know that God has gifted us in so many ways, and so many churches are working on their own and burning out, trying to tackle the issues they’re facing locally. Now wouldn’t it be awesome if there were a Synergy platform that enabled these organisations to come together, work together, while maintaining their individual expression of what God wants to do in their community? Together we’d be able to leave a lasting legacy and maybe influence policy in government – both nationally and locally – about this desperate issue facing our young people.
“Awful things are happening in our secondary schools. They are no longer as safe as they ought to be. I was in London last week, when the children came out from this particular school, the place was flooded with police officers making sure the children got onto the buses safely. Dispersal times can become a hotspot and potentially anything can happen. It’s a challenging time for bus drivers and members of the community, so the police are there as a preventative measure, to make sure the crowds clear quickly and people can get home safely. Police officers are even stationed in front of the local McDonalds, because of the unsociable behaviour of young people rushing in and making the place unusable for customers, and this is happening in many town centres across London. This is our London of today.
“So what is the role of the church? I know School Pastors are trying to do something, but there is much more the Synergy network can come up with, effective ways to support parents, young people and the general community around these issues with crime.
The number one need is for people who have time, who can be available at different times during the day. Time, rather than funding, is our most expensive resource now. If you have loads of volunteers who can make themselves available for two hours a day, working through the churches… you couldn’t possibly calculate that in money terms. The finance would come in the coordination, the training and the support.
“If we could sign up available volunteers, you could then have a pool of workers who could help address these issues 24/7. Sometimes even when you have the money, you can’t find the right person.
“Maybe because of the age I’m at now, I’m desperate to actually see the church do what it was created to do, for us to work together with government and a range of organisations, and to see this passion for change that we all have come to fruition.
“There is a lack of moral outrage. We’re asking the community: where is the moral outrage about what is happening to our young people? We should all be up in arms in one sense, saying this is not right and that together we are going to do what’s possible to try and limit it happening in our society.
“It’s awful what people are going through. It’s awful what parents are having to cope with. It’s unbearable when you see parents on TV having lost another child to knife crime. It’s not just the child that’s lost; it’s the family that’s affected, and just think of the whole potential that has been cut short.”
Synergy Board of Reference
Bishop Lenford Rowe, Church of God of Prophecy (Chair)
Reverend Ron Nathan, pastor at Ransom African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
Delphine Duff, Operations Manager Serious Group Offending, RJ &Youth Unit, London Community Rehabilitation Company, London
Mrs Bola Ojo, prayer coordinator at Street Pastors Bexley, and head of Youth Services and Lifelong Learning in Bexley Council
Mrs Caroline Miller, senior manager in the London City Mission
Miss Julaine Hedman, Trustee at Ascension Trust, former Chair of Ascension Trust (21 years) and former head teacher (30 years)
Reverend Canon Steve Coulson, Vicar of St Mark’s Church Kennington
Shirley McGreal, Founder/Editor-in-Chief at Keep the Faith magazine
Marcia Dixon, owner at MD Public Relations
Ms Karen Allen, Gang Changers UK
Reverend Les Isaac OBE, founder/director of the Ascension Trust
Micah Community Church
St Mark’s Church Kennington
Ransom African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
Pastor Delroy Davis (leadership trainer)
Reverend Alton Bell
Joanna Daley (youth trauma worker)
Ben Lindsey (pastor, deals in serious crime)
Angela Bacon (youth worker, prisons)
Ascension Trust, Synergy Partnership
The problem of serious youth violence and knife crime has been apparent in London for some time, but potential solutions are more difficult to discern. Denial of the existence of serious group offending resulted in the problem becoming established, making its resolution more difficult. So when the Ascension Trust approached me to evaluate an innovative collaborative approach to dealing with young people at high risk of becoming involved in serious group offending, I was very interested.
I had previously conducted research in young people, faith and identity, and I appreciated that young people were using many different sources to find out about their beliefs and identity. Many young people that I have researched and who are at risk of being drawn into serious youth violence, however, were very fatalistic, hypervigilant, and could see no future for themselves.
The Synergy Partnership is a pilot project in two London boroughs, Newham and Lambeth -both of which have significant challenges for their young people, ranking in the top ten of the most dangerous London boroughs. The pilot projects aim to support and encourage young people to change and, in each area, two projects – one faith-based and one not – work together to develop strengths in the young people.
The Newham component of Synergy has been working with young offenders aged 15-18 assigned to the local Youth Offending Service (YOS). Two workers have been assigned to the project, concentrating their services on 1:1 mentoring, and delivery of a six-week rolling group work programme to young men who are clients of the local YOS.
Many of the young men have been identified as ‘not in education, employment or training’ (NEET); present challenging behaviour, and all have been identified previously by YOS as “hard-to-engage young men”. Workers will report outcomes of sessions directly to the young people’s caseworkers. Individual progress will be evaluated through outcomes stars.
The Lambeth component of Synergy is delivering a programme in a secondary school, to individuals who are known to be actively involved/at risk of the harm caused by serious group offending. It is providing a combined programme of a ten-week structured group work programme to Year 10 students, followed by 1:1 mentoring to individuals who completed the group work.
In the early stages, all four projects were engaged in orientation days, which helped them to focus on and design a model of collaborative working. The Synergy Partnership has benefitted from the cross-fertilisation of learning and practice opportunities they have exchanged between them. This is noticeable in the favourable reviews received in both Newham and Lambeth projects.
In the next phase, the intention is to obtain feedback from service users and professionals, to evaluate how the outcomes of the work have been influenced by the collaborative approach.
Professor Anthony Goodman
Middlesex University, Centre for Social and Criminological Research