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From Belfast to Cape Town: tackling gang culture through sport

Queen’s Master’s student Lynsey Sloan travelled with a group of young people from Belfast to Cape Town investigating what the two cities have in common

 When it comes to research, Queen’s Master’s student Lynsey Sloan understands that there are some things that can’t be learned at a desk. Sometimes, you need to get out into the community and witness the real-life impact of the topic you are studying. For Lynsey, this meant travelling to a notoriously violent township in South Africa to meet young people embroiled in gang warfare.

"Rather than sitting in a room thinking about what a good solution would look like, we used Design Thinking to get out into the community to see what the real challenges are. You can research something all you want online but nothing beats getting out there and talking to people,” says Lynsey. 

Disrupting gang culture

Recognising a parallel between the gang culture in Bonteheuwel – a township in Cape Town – and young people living in Belfast’s most notorious interface, Lynsey recruited some inspiring travel companions. Travelling with 10 graduates and 10 young people from the Ardoyne and Shankill interface, the group looked at how to prevent young people joining gangs.

“Bonteheuwel has a big gang problem,” explains Lynsey. “Although it is on a different scale, our young people in Belfast face some of the same problems.

“A lot of young people there get involved in gangs as they are being bullied and being part of a gang is a sort of protection. Many young people also feel a lack of belonging, so they join a gang to have an identity.

“At one point we were interviewing a gang member. He was saying how many times his house had been shot at. The house we were standing in. I was terrified but one of our young girls stepped up and asked all the questions. She wasn’t scared at all. Our young people from Belfast were able to look at it from the outside and realise that this happens at home.”

Safety in sport

One of the challenges facing Lynsey and her team was looking at how sports and hobbies can give young people a healthy sense of belonging. She has been buoyed to see that some of her ideas - women’s groups, parents’ groups, drop-in sessions and getting politicians involved - have been implemented in the community she visited.

The results are more than promising: “Young people who managed to get out of gangs are now going to mentor others, so I was able to send over mentoring training and another girl was able to send stuff about parenting workshops,” says Lynsey. She adds, “We are never going to solve gang violence overnight, but it is a step in the right direction.”

Inspiring our young people

One heart-warming aspect of the trip is that many of the young people from Belfast are now going on to be leaders in their youth clubs. “They have been able to come home and share their experiences and inspire others as well,” says Lynsey.

For Lynsey, it has been a chance to pay forward the opportunities she has been given. “I work a lot with young people who haven’t had a fair deal in life but this for me widened my perspective as I am not very well travelled. There is a stigma that if you go to uni, you have it handed to you on a plate and you are advantaged, which is absolutely not the case. I was a teenage mum. I had my daughter in 5th year in school and I still managed to get to university and become a teacher.”

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Photo: Lynsey Sloan
Lynsey Sloan
Master's Student, MEd Educational Studies
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