Connecting With Young People to Turn Their Lives Around

Wednesday, 11 November 2009 - Southport, England

Connecting Young People Friendships

Presentation Summary

In this closing speech at the UK’s Annual Youth Justice Convention, Kevin Roberts encourages those working in youth justice to create frameworks of freedom through language, to be inspirational players, and to keep on making a difference.

In 2009 I’ve spoken to 150 meetings, and this one matters most to me.

I live in New Zealand, but I’m from Lancaster. I have a home in England’s most beautiful village, Grasmere.

I grew up on the unswept side of the street. Except for a few good men/mentors, I’d probably have been a guest of her majesty’s hard hotels.

Love and inspiration changed my life at the crossroads, and I took off. They are the magic in this, and the way through.

Revolutionary Saul Alinsky said: “Last guys don’t finish nice.”

Our challenge is to be there first, to make the sun rise before things turn black in an individual’s life.

And to be intelligent how we treat young people when they first come into “the system”, how we treat their first crime, because once they’re in, they’re frequently forever lost. We must be demanding yet caring.

Rates of UK imprisonment continue to rise; it’s the same in New Zealand, where Maori are 14% of the population and 50% of the prison population. In the US, imprisonment rates are off the charts.

The links to poverty and illiteracy, and then to substance abuse and crime, is so familiar. It’s a hell of a challenge. And one I’m determined to meet head on.

I have three next steps to share with you.

STEP #1 Create Frameworks of Freedom  

Language is my only weapon against the forces of darkness.

I believe that the way you frame an issue truly matters, that the right language takes you into new territory. It can create higher orders of relationship, product, service, design and performance.

Change the language, change the conversation, change a person’s world, and everyone they touch.

Four letters, TYLA, are my framework for personal involvement with youth wellbeing, and a big part of my life. I’m one of six trustees of the Turn Your Life Around trust in Auckland for youth at-risk of offending. My daughter Bex is also a trustee.

“Turn your life around”, the language says it all. It’s about return on involvement, not return on investment.

TYLA is:

  • Direct personal support for at-risk 10-16 year olds
  • Early intervention/mentoring
  • Prevention not punishment, and responsiblity
  • Close relationship with police/schools
  • Community collaborative programme
  • Long-term engagement, with unbroken support
  • Family centred and family involving
  • Hundreds of young lives turned around

I think we need more ideas, more imagination, more experiments around how to head trouble off for kids, around how to set things straight, around how to get this right.

The framing of  “The war on terror” increased, not reduced, the power of terrorists. Asked for advice by the Pentagon, I said reframe it as “The fight for a better world.” Move it into an emotionally positive and inclusive space, and get everyone in the game.

New Zealand’s Family Group Conference system of justice reframed retribution as “repairing the harm”. It’s been adopted now by some 20 countries and 30 US states. I think you should look closer at the Maori-Pakeha experience of biculturalism.

The most powerful framework for freedom is built in the heart. It’s the development of mana, a special Maori concept denoting personal bearing, presence, and character. Models of family, mana, responsibility and accountability can be potent in the public space.

So, Step One: is to reimagine how we can connect with our audience, young people. 

STEP #2 Be an Inspirational Player

Inspiration is how we connect. It means to be in spirit, to travel a path of light. It’s about community over custody, it’s about love over lock and key.

I believe you can find a spark of good in everyone – and that it can be lit. A friend John Wareham created a life-altering program for inmates at New York’s Rikers Island prison, the world’s largest penal colony. Read his book: “How to Break Out of Prison.”

Inspiration underpins my core beliefs:

  1. Nothing is Impossible.
  2. The role of business is to make the world a better place for everyone.
  3. Inspirational Players can change the world.
  • Inspiration unleashes potential.
  • Inspiration is emotional.
  • Inspiration is contagious.
  • Inspiration is about action. It delivers real results.

I’ve wanted to be at my best ever since I was a kid, and some good guys believed in me early on.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett said it was an occupational hazard to be asked the meaning of life, so he devised this: “the secret of happiness is to find something bigger than yourself, and then dedicate your life to it.”

I’m humbled by the work each of you do. You can inspire any young person by asking three questions:

  1. What’s my five year dream?
  2. When am I at my best?
  3. What will I never do?

Step Two: is to set young hearts on fire.

STEP #3 Fight on 

Dreams are where you start. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not say: “I have a Mission Statement.” Without a dream, JFK would never have put a man on the moon. Without the dream, all the practical stuff in the world doesn’t add up to enough.

I have seen wonderful things happen when people have the guts to live their dream.

And then it’s keep on keeping on, redouble your efforts and do it again – and again. Nothing is impenetrable. No task is undoable. No one is unreachable.

There are few problems that can’t be solved if enough people commit themselves.

Whether you’re working in criminal justice, education, local authorities, wherever, break the big chunks into small pieces, wear the mountain down one drip at time. At Saatchi & Saatchi Sustainability we call this DOT, do one thing, then another, then another.

Youth Justice is a never-ending crusade, it comes with casualties, but you work on. Every prevention, intervention, restoration and rehabilitation is itself a victory, so celebrate it. Revel in it.

Vince Lombardi: “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”

To sum up and go forward:

  • Create Frameworks of Freedom
    Steve Jobs says creativity is just connecting things. International exchange programs with youth workers are a great way to spark new ideas and make good stuff happen.
  • Walk out of here an Inspirational Player
    “Manager” or “Leader” is just another label. “Inspirational Player” sets people alight. Tattoo those words on your doors, bags, cards, and on the T-shirt of every kid who responds.
  • Fight on
    “Nothing is Impossible” are words that define my life. I believed this back then, and still now.

Love is the foundation. And now is the time. And you are the people to make the difference.

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