A hard-hitting account of life before, and then inside, a London gang is being given a new lease of life, as its author turns it into a groundbreaking educational tool. But the book itself, and its author, are a humbling testament to the power we as humans have to take insurmountable negatives, and turn them into something really positive.
Not strictly autobiographical
Rachel Dinah, who runs the Change of Thoughts project, released Change of Thoughts: from Underdog to Advocate in 2015 (originally called A Girl Called Rai: God, Girls, Gangs). The book, which you can buy here, tells the story of fictional Rai, whose church-led life, brought up by a single mother in London, spirals out of control. After violent bullying at school Rai ends up inadvertently joining a gang. And the character’s downward spiral continues from there. So, The Canary caught up with Dinah to discuss the book, its inspiration and her newest venture: turning Change of Thoughts into a toolkit for everyone involved in young girls’ lives.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Change of Thoughts was autobiographical. Because Dinah shares a lot of characteristics with the fictional heroine. And the way its author has constructed the dialogue points to a deep understanding of life for teenage girls in London, gang culture and religion. But Dinah told The Canary that ‘autobiographical’ is not strictly true:
Everything that is in the book was put in because they are things that do happen. They didn’t happen in my life, but they’ve happened in someone’s life. I’ve worked with around 90 girls doing intervention programmes, so there’s nothing imaginary, or a situation that couldn’t happen. But there are added bits. There’s bits that are a tiny bit exaggerated. But my mission was to create something so strong that people wake up to certain truths as to how they are behaving with the young people in their lives – and I had to make it as powerful as possible to give that effect.
Painting a picture
Dinah paints Rai’s story exceptionally well in the book. Change of Thoughts opens at a church service, where a preacher delivers a prophetic warning, seemingly directed at Rai. But a chance meeting and a tragic turn of events flip her world on its head. And she then recounts how life led her to arrive at that one devastating moment.
Change of Thoughts is cleverly constructed. Instead of a rambling backstory, the reader is given short bursts of detail that Dinah considers significant to understanding how Rai came to the point of being embedded in a London gang. Starting with a brief encounter, aged five, with her absent father, the book lays breadcrumbs of events which lead to the story doing a full circle and a final moving denouement.
These snippets of information make the book almost a screenplay; flitting between short, sharp scenes and more drawn-out mono and duologues, and ensemble sequences. And it’s Dinah’s structuring and the conversational, street language that makes Change of Thoughts extremely accessible. But she says this was wholly intentional:
My target audience is young girls. In the book you see Rai’s whole life and hear her thoughts from when she was five to being a 15-year-old girl. And that’s why it’s so accessible: it is just a girl, speaking. And I know when I was growing up I didn’t enjoy or read books, it was all about my phone and internet. But I thought that if there was a girl that was really in need, and she came across this book, she would be able to read it. I also needed to make it clear for parents, as well, because they need to understand a young girl’s mentality.
What also makes Change of Thoughts interesting is Dinah’s smashing of the image that gang members are always from bad backgrounds. Dinah says, for example, she knows girls who have come from “financially stable, proper homes” that have ended up in gangs. “You can try and sugarcoat your child”, Dinah says, “but you’re not with them 24/7”. But the book also gives some devastating commentary about the ‘grooming’ of young girls by older men.
Change of Thoughts details how easily grooming can happen. The book shows a man coercing then isolating his victim, then creating dependency and a false sense of security and ‘love’. But Dinah doesn’t feel the need to be graphic, which adds to the power of her work. She says she wanted to show that, while Rai was “proper and decent”, an older man, Keeper, groomed her into believing that he would provide “protection and trust”, and ultimately love. All of which was false.
The book also explores the environment that facilitated the grooming: the failings by Rai’s father, the education system, the church and her peers. The book explores them all, and it leaves the reader feeling that Rai’s situation could happen to anyone. Which is the overriding point of Dinah’s book, as she explained to The Canary:
I think all these issue are very common among young girls. When I was in school, I saw it among peers, whether it be a friend who only lived with her dad because her mum was on drugs, or whatever. But when I set up the Change of Thoughts intervention programme, and I brought it to schools, they already had girls they wanted to refer immediately. And it was then I realised what a common problem it is.
Every school has girls whose problems extend from their father not being at home; their mother being on drugs; them being under-disciplined, or their parents not listening to them. So, they go to their peers. Which is the blind leading the blind. Just come out of your house; go onto the street and you’ll see it. So, with this book I’ve tried to create a solution for a young girl, for who things are failing.
In reality, deprivation also plays a major factor in the prevalence of gangs. The most recent data available shows that gang ‘indicators’ were highest in some of the London boroughs with the worst socioeconomic data; most of which notably had housing problems:
Successive UK governments have attempted to deal with the country’s gang culture. Oddly, the government does not compile national data on gang-related crime and disorder. But figures [pdf p5] for London from 2010 onward show that gang and knife crime was generally falling until 2013, when the figures began increasing again. According [pdf p4] to Metropolitan Police intelligence reports, there are an estimated 225 recognised gangs in London, comprising of around 3,600 gang members.
The drop in gang-related offences appeared to coincide with the start of the government’s Ending Gang and Youth Violence (EGYV) programme [pdf p2] which began in 2012 in 33 “priority” areas.
A damning verdict
But in 2015, the Home Affairs Select Committee issued a critical report of the EGYV programme, saying the Home Office had “failed” to evaluate it effectively; that the number of children still being sexually exploited was “appalling”, and that the lack of progress identifying young people at risk was “lamentable”. The report was also specific in saying:
It is clear that young people feel that their experiences are not taken into account.
It went on to recommend that the government involve primary and secondary teachers, third sector organisations and local communities in tackling gang culture. And it’s this cross-organisational approach which Dinah agrees is so crucial. She says:
I don’t feel that there is enough support for young girls and young women. But also for young men. Because if someone woke up one day and said ‘Y’know what? I want to walk away from this [gang]’, there is no support in place for that young person. If they’ve dropped out of school, the government has cut so many youth programmes that they have nowhere to turn apart from the streets. They think that they have to do criminal things like selling drugs to make a living.
Grassroots engagement in communities and early intervention from year seven at secondary school is also crucial. If a young person is showing signs of certain risk behaviours, they need to be worked on, given opportunities, taught business, whatever. So, when they leave school, they have the chance to go straight into employment. It’s crucial they’re fully prepared to be citizens.
Making a change
Dinah’s point about cuts to youth programmes is an important one. Because since the Tories came to power in 2010, £387m has been shaved from youth service budgets. It was this, and as a result of Change of Thoughts , that made Dinah set up her Change of Thoughts programme. Using drama as an intervention technique, she works with girls from challenging, marginalised and disaffected backgrounds. She has successfully delivered the programme in schools across London, and with young people’s organisations. You can find out more information about Change of Thoughts here.
And it is this approach which Dinah hopes to help with the extended version of Change of Thoughts, called The Mind of a Teen: Your Story to Success. It is longer with additional backstory, but also contains guidance for parents, youth workers and young people alike. Dinah said:
The original book was the introduction, if you like. I wanted Change of Thoughts to be as simple as possible. So a young girl could pick it up, read it and go: ‘Oh my gosh! I’m in this situation! Oh my gosh! This is how my boyfriend is acting. But, oh! Rai changed over her life, so…’ But the extended version is for professionals, parents and adults working with young girls. I did it because I had so much more I wanted to add. This [the first book] was good for a young person, and maybe a parent. But I knew there needed to be more.
A message of hope
While Change of Thoughts is sad and shocking in equal measure, the final flourish of the book is unexpected and heart-warming. Because Dinah shows that however dark a person’s life can become, there is always a chink of light trying to break through. The Canary asked Dinah what she would say to anyone reading this article and realising it relates to them. She simply said:
Create a diary. Write down all the events that have happened in your life, from as young an age as possible. Then re-read it, and see where you can change.
In the book there was one moment that made Rai reflect on her whole life. And when she did, she saw how things happened and how everything spiraled out of control. And then she made a decision to go back to the community, where other people were in her situation, and expose herself and her bad mistakes, her bad choices. Healing comes from an acceptance of your mistakes, learning lessons and moving on. But the best healing you can have is giving back to the community. Rai’s healing came from giving back. And all these things in her life she didn’t understand – she began to.
Change of Thoughts is a revelation. Dinah paints a devastatingly accurate and painful picture of one girl’s life spiralling out of control. But she crafts the book so it ends with a message of hope and resolution. Dinah’s passion is obvious, but so is her unique insight. And the book is a must-read for young girls and parents or guardians alike.
Featured image via Flickr
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