‘Empowering teens against extremism’: Manchester youth worker builds app to prevent kids being radicalised

With the rise of ISIS has come a growing fear of our young people being radicalised like Jihadi Jack – the posh farmer’s son who became the first white British man to join the terrorist group last month.

Jack Letts has been described in the media as a ‘typical public school boy’ and the ‘class clown’ by friends who studied with him at Oxford.

The 20-year-old son of a well-known organic food farmer was supposedly turned to Islam by Muslim school friends before secretly travelling to the war-torn city of Al-Raqqah, Syria, at just 18.

And he is not the first young Brit to be ensnared by the extremist group, following in the footsteps of Jihadi Sid and Jihadi John.

So how can this radicalisation of teenagers and young people be prevented and stopped while it is still in its early stages?

A Greater Manchester entrepreneur – who has spent her life working closely with teens and to promote equality, diversity and inclusivity in schools and businesses – thinks she has the answer.

Equality and Diversity UK director Alyson Malach, from Bury, is developing an app so young people and adults can report suspicious or sudden changes in behaviour from their friends or peers to their local school or police force.

Prevent, which is in the research stages and has a crowdfunder page to get it off the ground, offers people the chance to report radicalisation completely anonymously.

This something Alyson – a former Research and Development Officer for Black and Minority Ethnic Groups at National Institute of Adult Continuing Education – feels is of absolute importance after hearing students’ views at one of the many workshops she runs.

She told MM: “We started out discussing radicalisation with tutors at Ashton Sixth Form College and Salford City College and students were invited along just to hop in and out of the conversation.

“One thing that became apparent quickly was that they needed a way of reporting it without being identified.

“So many of them had stories about how friends had changed suddenly – they had changed the way they dressed or started talking differently and having different moral values – but they were too scared to do anything.

“Others had seen things from friends on Facebook that made them feel intimidated but then the person would delete them off of Facebook and they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to report things without causing upset.

“We needed a way of empowering them, a way to give students the power to do something when they are concerned about a friend without the fear of being found out.

“That’s what it is all about, empowering young people and it’s not just about the older kids but younger kids too.”

PREVENT: Alyson’s app gives young people a way to report sudden or suspicious changes in friends anonymously

Inspiration for Prevent came from a bullying app that Alyson had seen which offered exactly what she needed – a way young people could get in touch with teachers or police but anonymously.

Once Alyson got the ball rolling with the initial idea one of the 16-year-old looked after boys she works with stepped in to work on the development of the app itself.

And it’s not just one amazing teen behind Prevent’s progress but hundreds as Alyson continues to hold workshops and create an ongoing discussion about equality and diversity with students and tutors.

This conversation is key as Alyson insists the app cannot and will not stand alone for fear of people reporting others out of ignorance.

She said: “I have got to safeguard young people and halt the issue but while still being very, very clear what the issue is.

“We have a checklist that we hand out at workshops to tell tutors and students how they would identify radicalisation.

“We need them to know exactly when and why and who to use the app to report. The app is not going to stand alone.

“This project is preventing radicalisation but one of the most important ways to do that is by getting the information out there and raising awareness of extremism in all forms.”

Because ‘extremism’ or ‘radicalism’ are treated like words synonymous with Islam nowadays, Alyson is working closely with Manchester’s Muslim community to combat this stereotyping.

Members of the Islamic community have been invited to workshops to explain to tutors, students and police what being a Muslim means, something misunderstood by most in the room.

Alyson said: “What it means to be a Muslim is not understood by even the professionals in the room. People don’t ever seem to explore the reality of Islam.

“To some ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ are just words and then a lot of people just assume they know what it means from what they see, hear or read in the media about terrorism and ISIS.

“The app is not about terrorism. It is about reporting extremist behaviour – the far right and far left, extreme animal rights activists – and staying safe.

“And your judgement shouldn’t just be based on ‘British values’, it should be based on values full stop.”

After all Alyson’s workshops aren’t just about encouraging people to report radicalisation but also encouraging schools and workplaces to promote equality, inclusivity and diversity.

One of the main ways she does this is by getting them to think about their ‘Five C’s’.

She said: “Context – what is the context of each place of work we visit?  All of our work is tailored to every organisation and about raising awareness.

“Communication – how we communicate with each other and how we foster good relationships with the people around us.

“80% of communication is non-verbal so you have to conscious of the way you act and the things you do too.

“Culture. If an institution isn’t accepting or diverse then in the long run we hope to change the culture of the organisation.

“That job does not belong to any one person, it is about working together so when you walk in to school or work you feel respected no matter who you are.

“And, yes, there is reporting but it is done respectfully and not discriminatorily.

“Challenge. If someone treats you in a way you don’t like or says something to you, challenge them so they think more about what they do and say.

“So if someone offends you challenge them. Tell them that it is not okay and how they have made you feel.

“Competence. At the moment there isn’t a systematic approach to equality and diversity and it is needed.

“We provide a systematic approach so it’s not just about ticking a diversity box.”

Equality and Diversity UK will run the workshops the whole time the app is crowdfunding and after that too.

Alyson has a clear goal in mind and a clear message to promote and she wants to have an impact even if Prevent can’t get the funding it would need to become a reality.

She said: “We are running the workshops and putting together all the material we can find from checklists to useful YouTube videos so if we don’t get the crowdfunder it will still help so many. We’re not putting all our eggs in one basket.

“But there is one clear message – we are all in this together and we all want to safeguard each other.

“This app has an important agenda and we are trying to put a stop to the radicalisation of young people in the most inclusive way.”

If you would like to donate to Prevent and help put a stop to radicalisation of young people, click here.

Or to find out more about Equality and Diversity UK’s workshops, click here.

Main image courtesy of BdwayDiva1, with thanks.

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