Social Exclusion and Urban Youth Spiritualities

Interviewer: Andy Tootell
Guest:  Dr Chris Shannahan
Recorded: 22/02/2011
Broadcast: 05/03/2011
Additional info: You can also watch a video and slideshow about the 'Bromford Dreams' project

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Andy:  Hello, I’m here with Dr Chris Shannahan who’s Research Fellow in Urban Theology in the Theology and Religion Department here at the University of Birmingham.  Hello, Chris.

Chris: Hi there, Andy, it’s good to be here. 

Andy: So urban theology, do you want to tell me a little bit about what you do?

Chris:  Urban theology is a form of Christian theology that’s often referred to as contextual theology. It’s the idea that the way we think and talk about faith and meaning arises primarily from our experience of the world and for a majority of the world citizens now and certainly for possibly 90% of people in the UK, that experience is an urban experience.  So it’s a form of Christian theology that arises from living, working, worshipping, in the city.  I’m now a Research Fellow in Urban Theology as you said and the focus of my research over the last almost three years now has been on the impact that social exclusion has on the ways in which unemployed young men think and talk about identity, community, meaning and spirituality and the ways in which young people and youth in particular are understood in the UK.  One of the things that has been used very recently is an acronym that’s often referred to as NEET – those who are Not in Employment, Education or Training – and that refers to young people between the ages of 16 and some say 18, some say 24, and according to the figures that we got just last week, February 2012, there are now just over one million ‘NEETs’ in the UK and that’s a rise of almost 100,000 over the last year.  Now I’m working in one particular Birmingham estate but the truth of the matter is that the experience of these young men in Bromford in East Birmingham is an experience that’s shared by potentially hundreds of thousands of young women and men on estates that ring our cities up and down the UK and I was particularly interested in working with this demographic because in my experience, unemployed young men, in the UK in particular, are more often written about and written off than they’re listened to. They’ve become almost the exemplars of what our current Prime Minister, David Cameron, has referred to as ‘broken Britain’.  The young man in a hoodie is a convenient myth, not just for politicians but also I would suggest for tabloid journalists and potentially for some academics as well. So I wanted to focus in on the relationship between spirituality and social exclusion amongst young unemployed men because they’re such a forgotten group.

Andy: You mentioned that you’ve been working in Bromford in East Birmingham. Just tell me a little bit about that area because you’ve obviously spent a lot of time there.

Chris: It’s a large housing estate dominated by 8 or 9 twenty storey tower blocks, about four miles from Birmingham city centre and the gleaming new Bullring and all the regeneration projects, but it might as well be on another planet. According to the English indices of deprivation for 2011, Bromford is amongst the 2% most multiply deprived neighbourhoods in England and Wales. Unemployment is running at about 18% according to last week’s figures, the second highest in the country, and it’s closer to 30, maybe even 35% amongst young men on the estate.  It’s an estate that is also physically cut off.   There's only one road on and the same road off the estate, there’s just one bus that serves the estate and the last bus from Birmingham city centre to Bromford is 6 O’clock in the evening.  So if you’re working shifts or if you’re working in a shop in the city centre then you’re stuck really.  You can see the lights of quite a smart shopping centre from the Bromford but unless you’re willing to swim across a canal, take your life in your hands by crossing the London to Birmingham railway and the M6 motorway, unless you have a car, it would take you at least an hour to get to the Fort shopping centre. But, having said that, the estate is not an estate from hell. I’m conscious of the fact that I’ve painted it in quite bleak terms and social depravation is a serious major problem but, over the last eighteen months, I’ve met and worked alongside incredibly positive, hard working people who are resisting social exclusion, who are rising above marginalisation and developing incredibly creative projects with older people, with children, with young people on the estate. So I wouldn’t want to suggest that the people of the Bromford are not organising, are not working hard to improve the quality of life on their estate. 

Andy: One of those projects that you’ve been working on in Bromford you’ve entitled ‘Bromford Dreams’, where you’ve been working with young people from the estate. Can you tell me a little bit about what that project involves?

Chris: Groups like this are often seen as disengaged from religion and spirituality and they certainly have little respect for organised religion. One young man said to me recently ‘I believe in God but he doesn’t live round here’, but what they do is they express themselves incredibly articulately through rap music and through graffiti art and so we were able to work with a Muslim graffiti artist, Mohammed Ali, Worth Unlimited youth organisation and the University of Birmingham to develop a project last week [February 13th-18th, 2012] where the young men designed a very large cube arising from their experience, their values, their ideas, their spirituality, that we’ve entitled ‘Bromford Dreams’. 

Andy: Now you were on the estate last week while this was going on, sort of a week of activities wasn’t it? And this cube basically acts as a canvas for them to put their thoughts and feelings onto in terms of design and art and that kind of thing. How did the cube come along? What did the young men design?

Chris: The week was quite remarkable and I use that word deliberately because it was an incredible journey, if you like, for these young men.  I think the first thing I would say is that they were able to learn new skills, they were able to work together as a team, they were able to visit a majority Muslim part of the city called Sparkbrook which is just a few miles away to visit a mosque for the first time, to be involved in workshops with Mohammed Ali, and out of all of that they were able to reflect on their disrespect or suspicion of organised religion but nevertheless their determination to rise above social exclusion and stereotyping and to articulate a hopeful, what you might call spirituality of resistance, that arises from their experience that I would suggest can be transposed onto other similar groups of young men on estates up and down the country.  The cube is displayed on the streets of the Bromford at the moment, we’re going to be bringing it to the University of Birmingham, right to the heart of the campus in the next three or four weeks and there will be an open air public art workshop led by the artist Mohammed Ali and we’re looking at the development of education resources, a CD-ROM, resources for faith and community groups and a co-written book by myself, the artist, the youth workers and the young men arising from the project. 

Andy: Now these young men have been taking part in this for the last week but what are the long term aims of a project like this because some might think that these young men have given a week to this and it’s all been great but then they sort of go back to their lives on this estate. What do they hope to get out of it in the long term? What will this do for them?

Chris: We’re looking at the possibility of establishing a regular dialogue meeting between these young men and Liam Byrne, the Member of Parliament for the constituency and with local city councillors.  We’re also looking at the possibility of working with young men on other urban housing estates to develop similar projects, but what I would say is this particular project arose organically from this group of young men on this estate so it may well be that exactly the kind of project that we’ve developed here is not one that we would develop in exactly the same way elsewhere, but certainly the principles of partnership between university, artists, youth project, young men, is a model that I hope others might be able to draw upon and hopefully we can advise them on that. 

Andy: Dr Chris Shannahan, thank you very much. 

Chris: Thank you, Andy, it’s been a real pleasure. 

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer was Andy Tootell.