Young people at Fight 4 Change’s Levelling the Playing Field sessions on Tuesday nights in Lambeth will receive coaching, guidance and support from the very best in the game.
Fight 4 Change, one of LtPF’s Local Delivery Partners in London, place huge importance on the sporting pedigree, skillset, lived experience and relatability of their staff.
Founder Rebecca Donnelly MBE is a Muay Thai world champion and England boxing national champion. When she was five, her dad, a London bus driver, was stabbed 12 times by a gang of youths and paralysed down the side of his face. The incident spurred Rebecca to use sport as a basis for engaging youths at risk of becoming involved in gangs and crime. Fight 4 Change is the product of that personal crusade.
Emmanuel and Cherrelle are two of Rebecca’s staff who deliver the Tuesday night sessions. Both have impeccable sports pedigree as well as lived experience.
Emmanuel grew up in the Nigerian slums before relocating to London. He is an ex-Olympian and former soldier who has suffered from PTSD. He’s now a Level 2 coach. He specialises in working on Fight 4 Change’s gang intervention programme. He has a great ability to connect with young people and talk to them on their level.
Cherrelle’s sessions are high-intensity, high-volume and full of banter. She is from a deprived community and was formerly homeless, but went on to become a prize-winning pro boxer. “She has a great work ethic and really related to the young people as well as being a great technical boxer.
“I want coaches who are steeped in boxing and can relate to young people because they’ve been in that kind of situation themselves,” Rebecca explains. “I want our young people to think, ’Look what they’ve done with their lives’. That understanding helps those relationships build through our five stages of change.”
Emmanuel and Cherrelle will be undertaking Levelling the Playing Field’s package of mentoring training, which consists of the 1st4Sport Level 3 Workforce Mentoring qualification and the RSPH Level 2 Award in Improving the Public’s Health course, as well as training in trauma-responsive mentoring.
Rebecca says: “Having been doing this since 2009, what I’ve realised is you’ve got to invest in your staff. If you don’t have good staff doing fantastic work, you’re just a talking shop, you won’t get any substance out of each young person or grow them holistically.
“The training in trauma-responsive mentoring will allow us to build and broaden my staff’s range of skills even further. It complements everything we’re trying to achieve. I’m really excited about it.
“After the young people have done boxing routines, and they have those important conversations at the end, the training will help staff direct and focus those conversations more purposefully.”
The Levelling the Playing Field session is an open session consisting of 15 young people, many of whom are at risk of offending. They enjoy the less structured, vibrant, high-octane atmosphere in the gym at night. “It’s buzzing,” says Rebecca. “It’s where the positive relationships between each other and staff really thrive.”
Fight 4 Change was inspired by Rebecca’s father’s awful experience and by wanting to offer the community the same kind of nurturing and supportive coaching ‘family’ that benefited her as a pro athlete.
She started working in the Criminal Justice System, with some work in prisons and youth offending teams, before starting Fight 4 Change in an old disused school building in 2009. “It had a leaking roof and there was a bucket in the middle of the ring,” laughs Rebecca. “But people loved the community feel. We started building sessions, adding education opportunities, identifying the right staff… We weren’t just doing it for a job. We all loved boxing and wanted to make a difference. That’s how it grew.”
That growth has been hugely impressive. Pre-Covid, hundreds of young people engaged in open sessions in the gym (which has now moved from the leaky disused school to the fully-equipped Black Prince Hub in Lambeth), plus a mental health programme, a young Advisors program, activity with local PRUs, YOTs and children on alternative provision at nearby Park Campus Academy, plus gang prevention sessions.
The gang interventions are much needed. The gym is based in the Ethelred Estate which has problems with gang rivalries and violence. Fight 4 Change engages with gang members, inviting them to sessions, building relationships and trust, and opening them up to new opportunities.
Rebecca reveals: “One of our staff older mentors, pulled one lad out of a session, and was able to say to him, ‘I was once where you are now. I was stabbed six times. I let my parents down and went to jail.’ He was in awe of him. That type of impact can only happen when your staff have stature and lived experience.
“Obviously it’s not easy getting them out of that ‘system’. It takes time. But once we’ve built up trust, and they have our staff as role models, it allows them to see there might be other, more positive opportunities out there that in turn influences some of the younger ones on our programmes too.”
Fight 4 Change collaborates with the Met Police who help support some of the sessions and young people can go in the ring with police officers. “It’s great, they can beat up a proper copper!” laughs Rebecca. It also, of course, helps break down barriers and build more positive relationships.
The charity also has a young advisors group, in which 16-21-year-olds do peer-to-peer outreach work in the community and hold webinars with the police where issues like stop and search are openly discussed.
Engagement has become more difficult through the pandemic, where the gym has had to close for long periods. Staff have conducted online fitness challenges with prizes as incentives, as well as welfare checks, psychotherapy, counselling and door knocking with the police and young advisors group.
Emergency Covid funding has helped this engagement process and supplemented usual sources of funding.
Like all of us, Rebecca can’t wait for the lifting of restrictions and to be able to resume face-to-face delivery, including the charity’s Levelling the Playing Field sessions, where their work will contribute towards our common goals.
“We’re really excited to be part of something that’s bigger than ourselves and to contribute to a growing evidence base,” Rebecca says. “To be a part of national research helps highlight everything we’re doing. That was a big pull for us to join up, to contribute to a movement that will bring change.”