I grew up in an area with high levels of crime where there was no choice but to learn how to defend yourself or how to get someone to defend you.
Undoubtedly, this affected my education and development and, eventually, I became involved with that culture and behaviour. For many young people growing up in east London in the 70s this was everyday life. It was hard not to get involved.
After trying to get work and being unable to gain the skills I needed to look after myself, crime seemed like a legitimate pathway to get what I needed for social mobility. In fact, I remember saying: “I would rather be in jail than out here, broke.”
Soon I would be.
After doing six years for armed robbery, I came out and found it a massive struggle to get back to where I should have been. I even remember asking my probation officer for counselling. “If you’re asking for it, you don’t need it,” he replied.
Luckily for me, lots of people have helped me along my life’s path.
Community Links, a local charity running community projects in East London, gave me my start. That’s where I met Maureen Steer – the person who gave me my first break.
Maureen was a manager at the New Canteen Centre in Stratford. She let me volunteer for one day a week. Thanks to Maureen’s belief in my ability, my volunteering turned into a day’s paid work. A month later she took me on full-time – my first job after coming out of custody – and a year on I was running my own youth centre up the road in Three Mills.
A few years later I went for an interview with the South West London Probation Service. I knew nothing about working with offenders, but I still went – armed with only passion, enthusiasm and a prayer.
I thought I had no chance and went mainly for the experience, but it paid-off and I ended up working as a community service officer and assistant hostel manager.
I found working with offenders very rewarding but I wanted to move on and work with young people. So when I saw Newmartin Community Youth Trust advertising for a worker to join their Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme (ISSP) based at the top of my road, I applied.
I wanted more than ever to work in my community and with two daughters growing up in Newham back then, I wanted to make a real difference in the neighbourhood.
Most of the young people knew me or were friends with people that did. They respected me, not because I was an ex-offender, but because they know I had been through the same life as them.
With training, I began to develop group programmes and work with groups of young offenders. I had found my calling. I loved working with these kids, turning their lives around and, in the process, changing my life too.
I’m now studying for a Masters at Middlesex University and am progressing well. Clearly I’m not thick. I never was. I just did not have the support to achieve until much later in life. Thanks to people like Maureen, I was able to realise my potential.
Today I spend my time on the frontline, battling to stop our young people from killing each other. I’m the project manager of an innovative scheme run by Shian Housing Association, a program resulting from shocking events that took place over seven years ago.
In late 2003 in Liverpool, six-year-old Makeda Weaver was shot in the chest by a gunman who entered her home looking for her brother. Miraculously, she survived but the incident touched staff from Shian who knew members of the Weaver family.
Together with the Afro-Caribbean community Shian decided something had to be done about the increasing number of young black men drawn to crime, drugs and, in many cases, guns. And so the Makeda Weaver Project was born. In 2005, Shian asked me to join and I accepted.
At the project we offer young men the opportunity and support to change their lives. Unsurprisingly, in many cases they jump at the chance to get out. They feel trapped by the lifestyle that drew them in because they live in poor, deprived areas.
My work and life experience means I find myself constantly thinking about crime, punishment, poverty, justice – or lack of it – and how my life was whilst I was growing up.
It also makes me wonder: once our children leave the house in the morning to go to school, do we really know what goes on in their day-to-day lives? How many of our young people are suffering trauma to, from or at school?
Truth is, no matter how good a parent you are your children are getting most of their social education from their peers. If you live in a high-crime area you can guess what type of things they are being taught.
We are living in a time when many of the BME population in England will know someone that has been in custody or a person that has a friend who has been in trouble with the law. This creates a culture which normalises being involved with the criminal justice system.
Unfortunately, drugs and violence are going to be a part of our neighbourhoods but it is how we deal with these issues that determine our value as local communities.
We can continue to lock up our children in jail where they have access to all the drugs they could want (I had never seen heroin before I went to prison) or we can help them to manage their situation.
The issue of gangs and guns is not black and white and there’s no magic wand to conjure up a solution.
But with a little help and support, we can show them there is an alternative.
Steve Joseph is the project manager of Shian Housing Association’s Makeda Weaver Project.