The Child Who Is Not Embraced By The Village Will Burn It Down

Dr. Charlie Howard

Consultant Clinical Psychologist & Social Entrepreneur | featuring Olu Sowemimo, Case Worker, St Giles Trust

Dr. Charlie Howard is a clinical psychologist, who has taken mental health work out of the clinic and onto the streets, successfully engaging with young people involved in gangs and anti-social behaviour in an effort to prevent youth violence. 


She works across the public, private and voluntary sectors.


Some of the best leaders I’ve seen are making a living on the streets. They’re young, but they are natural leaders. They’re running street gangs, shifting drugs, running county lines. They’re strategic, they’re smart and highly flexible in how they operate teams, but they’re using those strengths to do something that’s ultimately negative for society.


They’re often amazing multi-taskers because they’re dealing with problems at
home, problems at school, problems with their friends, someone’s just been shot. I’m not praising what they do. I’m praising their resilience.


Developing young leaders is central to my work as a clinical psychologist where I work in the third sector with young people who come from extremely deprived, disadvantaged backgrounds.


Often I’m with these young people when they’re called into conferences, meetings and roundtables to speak about their experience of youth violence. Life is tough, and often the person called in may have an absent father and a mum who has several jobs. They may live in a crowded flat or been kicked out of school.


The overwhelming impression I have of these meetings is that it is the young people -not charities or government agencies who hold the solutions to changing the status quo.


Sadly, these meetings are usually missed opportunities – the people around the table will have different agendas and the young person who’s been called to give evidence is often the last priority. The things they say might be listened to and noted down but then somehow, the same things happen time and time again and nothing changes.


Yet, the overwhelming impression I have of these meetings is that it is the young people -not charities or government agencies who hold the solutions to changing the status quo.


But to do this we need to flip the leadership model. Aided in part by today’s business leaders, we can position young people who don’t have voices as absolutely part of the solution.



Take the issue of knife crime in the UK. Absolutely nobody is showing leadership in this crisis and that’s the problem. We have too many fractured groups crafting their own solutions and following political agendas.


The real leadership we need is in our communities and young people with ‘lived experience.’ Solving knife crime involves them coming together and designing solutions rather providing a fait accompli.


They may not be able to speak the language that politicians understand and they might come across as slightly cantankerous or disruptive, but those are the people who can mobilise change at street level. There’s an African proverb that says: “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”


At the moment in London and other cities in the UK we need to start a movement – an anti-violence movement – that begins and ends with young people.


One of the central issues we see today is young people who feel totally excluded from every part of normal life, so in order to lead change we have to adopt methods that flip that power. By asking young people for their solutions, we also begin listening ourselves.


At the moment in London and other cities in the UK we need to start a movement – an anti-violence movement – that begins and ends with young people. It’s a movement I would describe in very different ways to different audiences. So, if I was talking to politicians, I would say a movement to end violence, but for young people, I’d suggest this is a movement to highlight that they’re not being listened to and create a world where young people are part of the solutions.


Ultimately, what we’re actually trying to do is address inequalities and to give
young people a foundation and a status that is not acquired through crime.


We want to imagine a world where every young person is listened to and where they’re able to feel part of solutions and through that, we’re able to prevent them from getting into things like gangs and youth violence.


Part of the movement is about young people telling their story, so one of our
roles as adults is to start opening our doors to their networks, for those young
people that are often very bright, highly articulate. It costs a lot less than a national employment programme and it helps create social capital young people need in order to be able to move forward.


If you have young leaders at street level who can mobilise other young people and professionals who can start to open their doors for them, then you can begin to make changes.


Dr. Howard is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist in Camden and Islington NHS
Foundation Trust as well as a director of the OWLS Organisation for community collaboration and an Ashoka Fellow


Olu Sowemimo
Case worker, St Giles Trust


Everybody who commits a crime thinks: “I know what I’m doing.” But unless people value life, if they have nothing to live for, you will do things by any means necessary.


I was just 16 when I was first arrested. It was right before my GCSEs and I’d been making money by delivering drugs for a gang. I had just stepped off the train in Norwich where I was supposed to deliver an ounce of crack cocaine.


I’d never been there before, so the first person I met I asked for directions. He turned out to be a plain clothes policeman. I was imprisoned for three months.


I remember leaving the prison and walking to the nearest phone box and asking a friend to collect me. It felt so overwhelming. It would have been easy to fall back into committing crime again, but that’s when I made my mind up. It was 2011 and I made a promise that I would change my life and leave crime and gangs forever.


I began selling perfume and I would see old friends and enemies on the streets. Some of them couldn’t believe the money I was giving up. But they would also stop and share stories about how they wanted to stop the life they were living.


The key moment was some months after when my Mum recognised
how much I had changed and told me how happy it made her.


I think at different stages of my life I’ve always been a leader. People often look to me for direction and I began to see what I had to offer. I worked as an intern at Liberty. My background was never questioned.


Then, after my Mum passed away last year, I decided I wanted to become a case worker, advising clients who were going through the same issues as I was ten years ago, and helping them to understand how to deal with their own problems.


I was hosting an event at City Hall when I met Dr. Charlie Howard. She introduced herself and we talked about going into Kilburn to speak to people about how they feel about their lives. We started connecting with professionals and encouraging young people that they have a voice in meetings – and stressing that young people hold the solutions.


A lot of the time in these meetings there’s simply no young people at all, but if there are, then they can have a huge positive impact and that’s what needs to be fixed.


I know just through talking to people and bringing the lived experience that I have, I can encourage people to have a different perspective.