Interview with Sheldon Thomas
Gangsline, a confidential phone line for those seeking information about gangs and gang culture is about to launch an online service. The AfroNews caught up with the founder Sheldon Thomas who has been running the service for three years for a quick chat.
Sheldon, how does Gangsline work?
Gangsline is about giving mums the tools to deal with their children who are involved in gangs. It is also about giving the young men and women involved in gang culture the tools to leave the gang culture, or at least get advice that leads them away from actually carrying out weapons and selling drugs, or getting involved in armed robberies and things like that.
Parents or gang members can phone and speak confidentially if they want to leave and we can give them exit strategies over the phone. We realised that the best people to deal with the gang members are ex-gang members. We are all ex-gang members so we find it easier to deal with them because we’ve got credibility.
If you do it over the phone line, there is a good chance that you can get a result, because many of the gang members we approach when we go and do our outreach will not want to talk to us straight away in front of the other gang members, but they would do so over the phone or online.
What have you found out through taking the calls?
Most of the people involved in gangs in east London and parts of south London are of African descent, and their parents don’t speak brilliant English, and many of them don’t have fathers around. A lot of the guys are from the black British or West Indian communities and mixed race communities, they are all part of it; they don’t have father figures in the house, so they manipulate and bully their mums.
What do you think are the main reasons for young people getting involved in gang culture?
There are no role models, in other words no father figures, no sense of purpose and identity. Lots of the gangs that we are working with tell us that they don’t believe that their mums love them because they don’t cook food for them; they don’t get the normal things that normal families get. They feel that there’s no love in the home, there’s no father in the home, so they go looking elsewhere for a family figure, hence why the gang becomes their family.
What makes Gangsline’s approach different to other organisations that work with gangs?
We’re not like other organisations that claim to work with gangs but don’t do it. Most of the organisations in London and the UK don’t work with gangs. They work with young people who commit anti-social behaviour, that’s a big difference.
We speak to everyone. If you’ve got a gun, we’ll speak to you; if you don’t have a gun we’ll speak to you. If you’re selling drugs, if you smoke crack, if you do armed robbery, we’ll speak to you. We speak to the most dangerous hardened gang members.
So how do you approach the gang members?
We look for them. We know where to find them; gang members hang out on their estates and darkened stairwells, we know where the gangs are so we go to them. We don’t wait for them to come to us. We find that it’s better to come to them on their terms; they respect you more, but the way the youth offending and youth service does it is wrong. They expect gang members to go to youth clubs and these guys are not interested because they carry weapons. They’re not going to go to a youth club because they know that they’re going to get searched.
We build relationships with them where they can trust us and we can help them to change. You are going to find that there are gang members that don’t want to change and I’m not expecting everybody to change. What I am saying is that my programme TAG actually works. It’s proven to work so people need to pay attention to it.
What does TAG stand for and how does it work?
Our outreach programme TAG has two meanings: Trained Army of God and Target Against Gangs. It is based on evangelism and on our experiences of credible ex-gang members. So the way we talk to these gang members is put in a way that they can understand the gospel a little bit better.
We believe for a young person to change, they need to know who they are and what they mean to God, and a lot of young people don’t understand who they are and what they mean to God. We’ve been called to train people in the church of all faiths. To train them to understand about gangs, how to be more firm with them as parents and to get them to understand what language these young people use.
We’ve been called to train the people in church because many of the gang members’ parents go to church, so that’s why we’ve called it Trained Army of God. It is also called Target Against Gangs because we target only gangs and gang members.
What successes have you had?
We’ve already got one gang member off the road. He was a drug dealer and a gunman, now he’s going to be a stockbroker. He’s going to be working for a top insurance broker in the city. Our programme works because if you go through the TAG programme, you will be changed. Now a lot of people may say that’s just one person, but that person has totally changed, whereas when the youth offending team works, none of the kids change, they go back to re-offend all the time.
To seek confidential advice on gang culture, call Gangsline: 0800 032 9538 / 07985 717 909 or visit: www.gangsline.co.uk.
By Chinwe Ojielo