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Activism

Changemakers: Breaking down barriers with football

Building connections through the beautiful game

London is a big place. For young people, cuts to youth services have only made it bigger. Alex Baine knows it – that’s why he created London Football Journeys (LFJ). The charity brings young people from across the city together through football exchanges and filmmaking projects that build connections between postcodes.

Baine, 38, grew up in London. After seven years working on social inclusion in Japan and India – including a stint working with Japan’s Homeless World Cup team – he returned to the capital in 2011 inspired by how he’d seen football used as a tool for change. “At that point I was determined to start a project that celebrated London’s diversity and brought people together using football,” he tells The Big Issue.

His research coincided with the London riots. “Lots of youth workers, teachers and young people spoke to me about kids staying within their own area and group, not really venturing out, and it having to do with damaging perceptions around gang culture or postcodes,” says Baine. “As well as bringing young people together, there seemed to be growing negative perceptions of young people to fight too.”

LFJ was set up to show young people that London is theirs. “Not just their boroughs or their postcode, but the whole of London should be accessible,” Baine says. Getting the charity off the ground wasn’t easy but eventually he secured funding and launched a pilot project with Harrow and Camden youth clubs. Until 2014, LFJ did a lot of work with boys who loved football – the idea of setting positive examples for each other within the game resonated, and they examined what it meant to be a captain or leader. But in 2015 the charity moved into schools too in an attempt to target girls, who sometimes struggled to get involved at youth clubs, and for help tracking their work’s long-term impact.

The core programme lasts 16 weeks: the first five are spent working with the group to help them create a film about their community and their experiences. They’re encouraged to interview each other, youth workers and teachers, and talk about aspects of their culture that are interesting or matter to them. The final films are sent to the other youth group they’re going to meet with to watch. “It’s the first communication between them,” Baine says. “The point of swapping films is: they might be from a different background, but a lot of what they’re saying is similar to you.”

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For the football exchange, one group hosts another from a different area. The groups will mix and take part in games focused on trust and communication, as well as football exercises such as relay races. The day always finishes with full football matches, with both groups of youngsters mixed to create two teams, followed by an awards ceremony.

“Afterwards we feel it’s important they talk about their experiences, so they give a presentation to a community group or youth centre, or, if in school, to their year group or younger years that we hope will take part in following years,” Baine adds. “Difference or diversity of a person should be a learning opportunity rather than a barrier. That’s the crux of it.”

LFJ has worked with 25 groups to date, which amounts to around 1,000 young people, with another 4,000 people having seen presentations on what the charity continues to achieve.

The most crucial part of the whole operation, Baine says, is its youth board and ambassadors programme. Some who have been through the core programme stay on for workshops in leadership, public speaking, CV writing, interview skills and mental health first aid. They help plan LFJ events – including the charity’s annual celebration, due to be held at Wembley Stadium in March, recognising the nine groups currently on the programme – and play an active part in shaping the organisation. “They are crucial to the whole thing,” Baine says. “I don’t think it would go anywhere if the young people who’ve been through it don’t buy into it and help us grow.”

Now the founder is completing a course in restorative justice with a view to incorporating it into LFJ’s methods. “I’m interested in how to reintegrate people into group settings rather than punishing them,” he says, something that could be applied in schools or to the young people he works with who have been involved with crime. “It’s a cliché but we’re so divided right now. People coming together at an age when they form perceptions is crucial.

On the scoresheet

Of the 114 young people who got involved in LFJ
in 2017-18:

• More than 80 per cent felt more confident
travelling to other areas and meeting peers
from other communities

• More than three quarters had boosted self-esteem

• Nearly nine in 10 had improved communication skills

• Thirty went on to gain qualifications in leadership

londonfootballjourneys.org

@LFJProject

Illustration: Matthew Brazier

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