Sixth formers, councillors, Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, and Deputy Mayor for Policing Stephen Greenhalgh shared an innovative discussion space at St Martin’s in the Field school, Tulse Hill, earlier this week.
Big Talk, organised by Ros Griffiths, who founded it in 2013, is inspired by Samoan circle discussions. Participants are arranged in three concentric circles, in which the innermost circle has the right to speak, members of the second circle can ask inner-circle speakers to take their place when they want to take the floor, and those in the outermost circle join in the conversation on Twitter (it is unclear what the third circle would have done in the days before hashtags).
Monday’s Big Talk centred around three questions: how to improve young people’s trust in the police, how to increase young people’s confidence in seeking out mental health support, and how to encourage the youth to become entrepreneurs.
The presence of Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe prompted some emotional testimony about unfair targeting based on skin colour. One speaker told of being followed and his car being searched by police for drugs as he drove down Somerleyton Road in Brixton. Another asked that police pay as much attention to investigating crimes targeting black people as they do those targeting white people.
Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe acknowledged that the police has not always been representative of all parts of society; and a young policewoman asked students how the job could be made more attractive to them. Mr Greenhalgh said more needs to be done by both the police and the public to increase engagement. Responding to testimony about racially targeted stop-and-search, Mr Greenhalgh said: “Sir Bernard has presided over a massive drop in stop-and-search.”
Clarence Thompson, who was awarded an MBE in 1965 for his work with the Race Relations Act campaign, was also there, and said: “The Big Talk is an excellent way of getting young people to communicate in order for them to change their lives. The decision makers must listen to the young people. People say you have to walk the walk, not talk the talk – well I say you have to walk the talk!” said Thompson.
Speaking about deaths in police custody, Mr Thompson said: “The law should be the law, and it should apply to all.”
Mahamed Hashi of Brixton Soup Kitchen, said: “The Big Talk is amazing, it brings together young people and gives them the power to speak about things that are impacting their every day. To have Bernard Hogan-Howe here and Stephen Greenhalgh is amazing.”
The discussion of mental health elicited emotional testimony from students who had battled mental ill health and had lost peers to suicide. Spoken word poets Infecta and Rae the Poet performed moving pieces.
Councillor Ed Davie of Thornton ward, and Lambeth council mental health champion, said: “People get flu, people get heart disease, people get mental health issues, it’s like everything else; and we have to fight the stigma around it.”
“At the moment there’s a 45 week wait to get any treatment for serious mental health issues among our children and adolescents, which is nonsensical.
“The thing I’m most positive about is the enthusiasm of different partners, the police, schools, the council, to do something about this. The number one priority for them is mental ill health – they see it all the time as a result of bullying, poverty, social media plays a role. So it’s brilliant to see this kind of event at the forefront of trying to raise these issues and tackle the stigma.”
Rae the Poet said: “We always hear what adults have to say, but never hear what young people have to say about mental health. There’s a very big door that needs opening so that people do talk about mental health. I don’t think people realise how much damage it can cause to someone.
“I think gender roles play a big role in mental health; I think as a man you’re not allowed to show emotions, you’ve got an ego and you have to stick with that. I think the balance has to change, no matter what your genders are you’ve got to feel emotions, sometimes you want to be upset.
“Parents play a big role too starting at home. The whole thing of ‘It’s just a phase’ could really affect someone very badly.
“It is a topic that the news needs to touch more on. I think that’s why I do poetry. For people that can’t speak up, I try and do it for them in every piece that I release.”
The focus on encouraging entrepreneurship in young people saw local entrepreneurs take the centre stage and discuss their views with the students.
Michael Lythgoe, of Brixton restaurant the Hip Hop Chip Shop, spoke about his experiences of entrepreneurship.
Andrea Brown, who grew up in Angell Town and founded the It’s Your Local Market initiative, spoke as an example of a successful self-made businesswoman. She said: “It’s great to see there are so many initiatives happening in the community.
“I’ve found the Big Talk is a good way of getting through to young people.
“I think entrepreneurship should start from schools – young people need to see where they can develop their skills and make it into a business.”
Informal networking followed the discussion, enabling the young participants to engage directly with a network of successful and inspiring members of the community.
Ros Griffiths said she hoped to televise subsequent Big Talks in order to broaden the engagement with the conversation.