Volume 18 Number 2
Let's Hear it for St Anns!
01 April 2005

Mary Lean visits an innercity area of Nottingham, England, and meets the residents who are determined to rescue it from guns, drugs and crime.
On the way into the Chase Neighbourhood Centre in St Anns, Nottingham, there are two police notices. They ask for people to come forward with information on the drive-by shooting of 14-year-old Danielle Beccan last October and the stabbing of 18-year-old Shane Miller last January.

The residents of St Anns won’t thank me for starting this article in this way. The killings— and that of 16-year-old Brendan Lawrence in February 2002—have made the neighbourhood notorious, and contributed to Nottingham’s tagging as the ‘gun crime capital’ of Britain.

The title is unfair: the Greater Manchester area has nearly twice as many firearms offences per 100,000 inhabitants as Nottingham. Residents feel that the picture of St Anns as a community dominated by gun crime, drug dealing and prostitution is exaggerated by the media. It blights the attempts of young people to break out of the stereotype and thus perpetuates the situation.

‘A lot of the young people feel, “I’m from St Anns, I’m not going to get anywhere”,’ says Maxine Cockett, a youth worker from the Sycamore Millennium Centre. ‘Some of them feel people look at them differently when they say they’re from St Anns.’ For some who may have been excluded from school since they were 14, the hurdle of getting into college or finding a job is quite high enough without these additional barriers.

Last July, Cockett was one of those behind an event which brought 300 residents onto the streets to ‘hold hands around St Anns’. The idea, according to another of those involved, Glen Williams, was to ‘create a special day full of positiveness at a time when there was a very negative and depressing feeling in St Anns. Many people living here have a different view: that’s why they still want to live here.’ The day culminated in everyone holding hands in silence in a huge circle at the heart of the area, committing themselves to making St Anns a better place.

‘People found it very moving,’ says Cockett. ‘One woman came who basically just goes out to the shops and library and then home again. She was overwhelmed by it all. People said we should do it once a year.’ The event gained day-long coverage on the local radio station and ‘Holding Hands Around St Anns 2005’ is scheduled for 25 June.

The day was one of the outcomes of a series of community dialogues launched by people who had attended conferences at the Initiatives of Change (IofC) centre in Caux, Switzerland. There they had experienced a model of dialogue developed by IofC’s Hope in the Cities programme, which emphasizes honest conversation, inclusiveness and personal responsibility. They returned determined to try it out in Nottingham, and four dialogues ensued—three of them in St Anns, in September and November 2003 and in February 2004.

The dialogues took place at the Chase Neighbourhood Centre, a facility at the heart of St Anns built some years ago by local residents. The Centre Coordinator, Steff Webber, was ‘dead sceptical’ when the idea of the dialogues was first mooted. ‘I can remember this guy turning up to book a room. I thought, “Oh God, here we go again. People coming from outside, wanting to do things for people and make them feel so much better, talking and getting nothing done.”’

However she came along to the first session, on a Friday evening. ‘There were all sorts of people here, sharing all sorts of things. We all came from very different backgrounds, but had very similar experiences in terms of the hardship our parents had been through. My Dad was brought up in the East End of London. I had the same sort of feeling about what I had heard from him, as other participants did about listening to their own parents, who had been brought up in India. All our parents wanted better things for their children.
By the second day I was sold on it.’

Maxine Cockett came along to the second dialogue. ‘It didn’t really move me on the Friday evening: I’d heard it all before. We had to be back quite early on the Saturday. I was debating, shall I, shan’t I?’

The next morning, when the participants were encouraged to talk about themselves, Glen Williams mentioned that he was a police officer. Cockett was horrified. ‘I thought, “I’m not sitting near him. What have I come for?”’

In spite of this, as people began to talk, the morning ‘started to move’ for Cockett. ‘By lunchtime I was crying, because I had talked about many things which were close to my heart. Glen came and gave me a big hug. We talked all afternoon.’

‘I represented to Maxine the thing that she hated most—the police,’ says Williams, who is the Deputy Chair of the Nottinghamshire Black Police Association. ‘The trust and confidence which developed between us just knocked me off my feet. So much so that I find I can’t lie to her.’

‘That afternoon I cried a lot,’ says Cockett. ‘We all wanted change. I thought we can do it—we, the everyday people who live in St Anns. Towards the end we talked about aspirations and I said in my head, but it came out aloud, that I had a dream, that it would be good to see us all join hands and work together. We sometimes work in isolation.’ The idea of Holding Hands Around St Anns was born.

Cockett was amazed how quickly things began to happen. Participants in the dialogues met regularly to plan, and through them such groups as the Racial Equality Council, Technical Aid for Nottingham Communities, the Nottinghamshire Black Police Association and the Chase Neighbourhood Centre became involved alongside Hope in the Cities.

Seven community centres in different parts agreed to lay on activities during the day, including St Anns Community Orchard, in the heart of Europe’s largest expanse of allotments. The Curzon Street Mosque opened its doors to the general community—a rare event. So did the Pakistan Centre and St Augustine’s Church and the Sycamore Millennium Centre, where Maxine Cockett works. And while some places—such as the old cinema and bingo palace, chosen for their historic associations—didn’t come at the challenge, the organizers have hopes for this year.

In the middle of the afternoon people converged on the Chase Neighbourhood Centre for a celebration of unity, with food, music, crafts, drumming and dragon dancing. Standing outside the centre, listening to the birds and enjoying the sunshine, Williams found himself wondering why, as a policeman, he had been so afraid of St Anns. ‘Where are the muggers, the drug dealers, why am I feeling so relaxed?’ he asked himself. ‘It wasn’t until I became involved in this project and met the people who lived here that I realized how unfounded that fear was.’

Steff Webber believes this fear may be one reason why the police have sometimes been heavy-handed in their dealings with St Anns. Observers say there has been a change in police attitudes since the dialogues. A planning meeting in January for this year’s event was attended by a community police officer newly appointed to the Chase area. Her first step, she said, would be to go around with a clipboard, asking local residents how they would like to be policed.

Williams believes that the relationships forged at Caux and through the dialogues are key to the Holding Hands process. ‘We didn’t realize how deep these relationships were until we found ourselves still pulling in the same direction. They’re based on coming to terms with things we didn’t like about each other, being honest and realizing that individuals all have special skills. So often we lose ourselves in the things we dislike and don’t see the good stuff.’

Barrie Brazier of Nottingham’s Racial Equality Council agrees. He is so convinced about the process that he has moved to live in St Anns, and is getting further training from Hope in the Cities in facilitating dialogues, with the aim of convening a series with residents’ groups in different ‘pockets’ of St Anns.

Brazier is no stranger to group faciliation, so what’s so special about this method? He highlights two elements. First, he says, it’s the emphasis on personal involvement: on how I can be involved rather than on what others should be doing, and on experience rather than views. Secondly, where most facilitators are afraid of silence, Hope in the Cities dialogues see it as an opportunity for reflection and a natural part of a discussion.

‘The process is about honest conversation for action: creating an atmosphere where people feel safe and can talk openly, and listen. The content is secondary to how the group shares and what conclusions they arrive at. Something happens: there’s another dimension, which I would call spiritual.’

Young people from the local Youth Inclusion Project (YIP), which works to get teenagers off the streets, have also been involved. Jourdan Blair, who was featured on a regional TV programme in January, was excluded from school as a young teenager. A teacher told him he would end up in prison. YIP helped him to begin to get his life together and now employs him as a youth mentor.

Blair and a friend, Jermain Hollis, offered to help with the refreshments for the first dialogue. ‘They participated in the conversation when they wanted to,’ says Brazier. ‘Their comments fired the residents to want to do something about the situation.’

As Blair and Hollis and their friends chatted with Brazier afterwards, one mentioned that he had a dream of having a trial for Jamaica’s national football team. ‘Go for it!’ was Brazier’s response.

With Brazier’s help, Blair, Hollis and a third young man, Curtis Shaw, set about raising the .8,000 needed to get themselves to Jamaica for the trials. They called their project, A Dream, Realize It, from the mural on the outside wall of the Chase Centre, which reads: ‘Life is a challenge, meet it; a dream, realize it; a game, play it; life is love, share it.’ They made it to Jamaica last June. Hollis has been back six times since then to play for the country’s under-20s team.

After 14-year-old Danielle Beccan was shot by a passing car as she returned from Nottingham’s Goose Fair, the young people from YIP went into action.

‘There was fear on the streets and a lot of potential for youngsters to want to seek revenge,’ says Brazier. Blair and others went out onto the streets at night with Brazier to try to calm things down. ‘We went to the place where people were leaving flowers for Danielle, to wherever there might be tension, to talk to the youngsters.’ The networking between different agencies which had begun through the dialogue made it possible to intervene positively to defuse tension, says Brazier.

Only three months later, Shane Miller was stabbed, plunging St Anns into further trauma. ‘Shane’s murder was even harder,’ says Steff Webber, ‘because it seems to have been committed by someone within the community. The kids aren’t forgetting this one.’ In a community where many of the grandparents came to Britain from the same parish in Jamaica, the shock is even greater. ‘In the past, a lot of the crime was committed outside the community,’ says Maxine Cockett. ‘Now a lot of the crime in the community is committed by people who live in the community.’

Cockett has been involved in youth work since she volunteered in a centre for latchkey kids as a 15-year-old in the late Seventies. She knows what it is like to cope with low expectations. ‘I left school at 16, with a few qualifications. The teachers just wanted me to be a runner, because I was one of the fastest. At careers advice they told me to be a nurse, because I was a black woman. When I said I might try youth work, they told me to forget it.’

At least, she says, she was able to go to school. A lot of the young people she works with today have been excluded from school at 14 for many reasons, and never returned. The transition back to college is insuperable to many. ‘Their clock has changed: many of them don’t have school or jobs to get up for. They’re afraid of being refused if they go for an interview. And if they do go to college, when they come back home many of their mates are doing nothing. They see it as freedom, even if it is boredom. And for some of their mates, who are in crime, money becomes their drive.’

She is horrified by the sight of young people attending their peers’ funerals, and by the attitudes the deaths have engendered. ‘If I say something like, “When you have children, you’ll understand,” many will reply, “Get real, we aren’t going to live that long.”’

The initiators of Holding Hands Around St Anns have clearly got their work cut out. No one is saying that change will come easily. But Williams and Brazier believe that something has begun to shift since the dialogues.

‘Some people will look in and say nothing much happened through Holding Hands,’ says Williams. ‘It’s not grandiose: it’s simple, unassuming. But when you are actually there you can see how people’s attitudes suddenly change from depression to excitement, joy, confidence, belief in themselves. Holding Hands in St Anns is about that positive empowerment.’

And in spite of the obstacles, the team that are behind it aren’t giving up.