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After the riots, what are the lessons, from a public health perspective?

It’s worth reading the full text of the recent speech by the British PM, David Cameron, in which he warned of a “security fightback” and “social fightback” in response to the UK riots.

As has been widely reported, he promised tough welfare reform, tightening of human rights legislation, a war on gang culture, and beefing up of police powers and presence.

But some other aspects of his speech haven’t had so much coverage. He also spoke of the need to foster a sense of belonging, and even seemed to be suggesting that he supported approaches some might label as Nanny state measures.

He also spoke of the importance of helping to improve parenting, particularly for troubled families, a heightened focus on disadvantaged schools, and plans for “an army” of community organisers to work in deprived neighbourhoods. And he said “a family test” would be applied to all domestic policy. He said:

If it hurts families, if it undermines commitment, if it tramples over the values that keeps people together, or stops families from being together, then we shouldn’t do it. More than that, we’ve got to get out there and make a positive difference to the way families work, the way people bring up their children…and we’ve got to be less sensitive to the charge that this is about interfering or nannying.

Meanwhile, the social commentator Eva Cox, in her recent analysis of the social, economic and historical context of the riots, wrote of the importance of creating “resilient social links between people based on allocating resources fairly and inclusively”.

In the article below, Associate Professor John Fitzgerald, acting CEO of the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, also stresses the importance of social and civic connections, and says that arts activities can bring many benefits for marginalised groups and the wider community.

***

The art of prevention: building connections and resilience

John Fitzgerald writes:

As the smoke clears in London, there are questions every society, including our own, must ask themselves about what are the many and complex causes which lead to behaviour such as that seen during the riots across the UK.

This sort of behaviour has been seen before. What appeared to be different this time was the diversity of the young crowd (employed, unemployed, educated and those not in school/training).

For the first time also, the young people involved did not appear to be actively demonstrating for a common political end or stated cause – they were angry, and ready to cause indiscriminate damage and senseless violence.

Confronted by these facts, a number of questions arise. How did they get so disconnected? Why does this disconnection then lead them towards abhorrent behaviour? Is this the human side/expression of longstanding social and economic problems?

If it is, then how can we make sure that the brunt of varied global crises does not irreparably damage our young people? And how do we raise a generation of young people who are resilient, positive about the future and engaged in the world around them, to prevent them from becoming so disaffected?

It’s not easy, but we mustn’t lose hope.

The real test of a society is its ability to respond to a crisis. And I’m not just talking about emergency services and the government. I’m talking about the community and how socially connected we are.

The brutal imagery splashed across the front pages of newspapers over the past few weeks has been counter-balanced by images of hope in the form of thousands of community members turning out with buckets and mops, ready to clean up their streets.

This en-masse show of support, including this weekend’s protest for peace in Birmingham is proof that the riots are not simply a manifestation of something rotten at Britain’s core. They are also a demonstration of the strengths of that society.

While it’s true social media played a role in mobilising the disaffected young people, it’s important to point out that it was used equally effectively by communities to organise the clean up.

There are many examples of this kind of community mobilisation and social connection around the world and perhaps none more remarkable than in our own backyards.

When parts of Queensland and Victoria were under water earlier this year, thousands of volunteers squeezed into buses to spend rotating 12 hour shifts to scrub fetid mud off strangers’ houses. There were a few isolated cases of looting, but given the opportunity for it, it was impressively minimal.

When Norway recently lost 77 people to the murderous actions of an extremist, 200,000 more turned out in solidarity to march for peace and to support one another. And when the earth below Christchurch shook violently and claimed 166 lives, we again saw an overwhelming outpouring of community support.

There’s no doubt the London crisis is resonant of world events in recent times that highlight the role of participation in employment, education and public life in building a community in which individuals have a place, are respectful and are respected. Socially engaged people will be strong role models, unwavering in their defence of the positive values upon which their society is built.

Pathways to participation will take some time to open up for those who are most disconnected, but what emerges for us is a clear need to connect our people (particularly young people) to community and to ensure communities have the resilience to deal with unsettling and turbulent times. They are our people and they need to feel that sense of belonging.

Research tells us this kind of civic connection is built not only through education and employment but also through taking part in sports, arts, and other community engagement such as volunteering. These activities give people the skills, connections, voice, and sense of camaraderie to act as a community when the going gets tough.

We know that taking part in arts activity contributes to reduced crime, increased employment rates, and better educational performance. Connecting through the arts in particular, can act as a platform to debate community issues, particularly from the perspective of marginalised groups.

VicHealth, in partnership with the Victorian State Government many other organisations, has invested in building social connection, reducing discrimination, preventing violence and encouraging communities to support one another for decades.

Together we run a diverse range of programs that get people – particularly young people – at risk of isolation and discrimination to meet up and connect with one another, whether through education, theatre, online communities or sports.

What the UK riots tell us is that we need to be vigilant in our work to support connected communities and to ultimately prevent violence.  Governments are increasingly beginning to realise that prevention really is better than a cure.

Currently Australia and Victoria are faring well. We have low unemployment, high rates of educational attainment and high levels of community participation.

But what we’ve clearly seen over the past few weeks is that situations can rapidly change. We must be ever vigilant to keep in touch with how our young people are faring before the fires are lit.

Related Posts

Comments 3

  1. Catherine Scott says:

    Read Ill Fares the Land, by the late great Tony Judt.

  2. micae says:

    I agree that we should keep in touch with how “young [and indeed all] people are faring before the fires are lit” because I believe people did not want to see the riots were predictable, a long time in coming –
    “And as things fell apart
    Nobody paid much attention” (Talking Heads)
    The signs of public alienation have been around for years: I remember challenging some young vandals trampling flowers and kicking over pots in a park in Lewisham (15 years ago, now). As for those who say there is nothing for the youth to do: I saw the many and varied playground toys ignored and empty, the Playground Lady’s kiosk likewise uninhabited because, I was told, everyone was scared to go in there.
    The claim that kids have nothing to do, in London, is particularly sad: “‘When you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life.”
    What about London’s libraries, parks and museums, a world of intellectual and imaginative stimulation – a world inaccessible to the numerous uneducated and illiterate humans who continue to exist at the barest level of imaginative interest, where consumerism is all.
    As for viewing riotous behaviour as unprecedented, just watch the January sales, where anyone unfortunate enough to fall is trampled over by the many – not only in London.

  3. Rebecca Gordon says:

    More and more evidence is being published about the importance of social cohesion and equality in maintaining happy and health societies. Research from the Equality Trust in the UK (http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/why/evidence) demonstrates how physical health, mental health, violence and most other health and social problems are worse in countries that may be rich but have a greater gap between the wealthy and the poor. Reducing that gap is something that we should all be striving for.
    This also again raises the discussion started by Fran Baum on Croakey in January: ‘Why we need an Australian Health and Equity Commission’ https://croakey.org/why-we-need-an-australian-health-and-equity-commission-fran-baum/

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