By Tommy Evans
Raymond Douglas is one of the UK’s leading thinkers and “doers” around reducing gang violence. A prolific social entrepreneur, Douglas has created numerous intervention programs tackling youth conflict and violence. Today his project reaches over 10,000 young people and pupils a year with his motivational and transformational workshops to reduce the number of those at risk from life-threatening behaviour involving guns, gangs and knife crime. Afropean’s Tommy Evans met up with Ray in Birmingham to discuss education, activism and “accelerating epiphanies”.
TE: Let’s set the scene to your work. What’s your family background?
RD: Born in Birmingham. Jamaican father, white Irish mother. Both of them understood prejudice. Hence why you see a lot of mixed race people my age are of that dichotomy because, essentially, “No blacks, No dogs, No Irish”. My father is a Maroon, so he’s dark; the whites of his eyes are red. He was quick to tell me that his make up, the way he approached life, was as a Maroon. As a young person I couldn’t process it but as an adult I understood what he said in terms of activism, being clear about your identity, being clear about your values and what grounds you as a person. If you look at certain parts of Maroon Jamaica, you see a connection with West Africa, yet Jamaica in 2014 is often just viewed as bashment, athletics, good food and partying.
TE: A shallow caricature.
RD: Exactly. We’re deeper than that. It’s born out of struggle. Jerk chicken is born out of struggle. Jerk chicken is born out of the runaway slaves running off to the Blue Mountains and to avoid being caught by the slave master they would cook the chicken underground so the smoke wouldn’t be seen. People just eat jerk chicken, they don’t eat the struggle. Cow foot, oxtail – they’re the cut offs from the slave master’s lion share and we turned it into a delicacy. Not to say cow foot’s my thing!
TE: Have you always been involved in activism or is it something that’s developed as you’ve matured?
RD: I think the latter. I’ve always been conscious, now I try to be righteous.
TE: How would you differentiate the two?
RD: Conscious is being awake. Righteous is acting upon your conscience. In terms of my work, this is starting to roll out as a bit of a calling; this is my mimbar. A lot of the young people who I work with have lost the connectivity with who they are.
TE: What causes that?
RD: If you want to talk from a sociological perspective, it can be anything from father defect to living in an environment where you never see the same doctor twice and you’re surrounded by Dixie Chicken and betting shops. Plus you’re told from Year 11 only to get 5 A-C [exam grades] but the school opposite are told 10 A [grades]. You’re able to grow but not blossom. That’s a baseline social injustice element; now add hyper consumerism, nihilism, secularism – it’s a serious sandwich of pain and destruction. There’s not enough reminders about your mortality. If you are just flesh and blood you’ll act like that, but if you believe in a higher purpose then you’ll act like a higher being. So when I go to a children’s prison – not an adult prison or a youth prison – a children’s prison and see a thirteen year old who’s got a sentence the same age they are for attempted murder, I just see the child again. He or she has been stripped away of the ego, been stripped away of the flossing, been stripped away of mum and dad, been stripped away of everything. They return back to being a child.
TE: How do you address these social malaises in your work?
RD: The key thing is to accelerate epiphanies. When a human goes through a process of transition they are unapologetic in terms of how far they want to go. We’ve seen it with Malcolm X but we’ve seen it with Yuri Gagarin who grew up in a mud hut but then orbited the earth. Throughout history, you see people who – everything goes against them but when that epiphany happens, they become almost superhuman.
TE: Do you think that coming from Birmingham influenced you? Do you tap into the rich tradition of activism here?
RD: The irony is I’m from Birmingham and Birmingham has a lot of ghosts around gun crime but Birmingham has deeper ghosts from supplying guns to West Africa. Birmingham’s got more canals than Venice, you know, the reason being guns were transported via the canals to avoid the nozzles being broken by road. Some of the industrialists from here – James Watt, Matthew Bolton – created the steam engine, which they used to transport sugar. If you go five minutes from here, their statues are cast in gold as symbols of the Industrial Revolution – but they ate off slavery. There’s a lot of pain and suffering. Bringing it to the modern day, as an industrialised city, If you were someone who didn’t succeed at school there were opportunities in an unskilled labour workforce so you could work at Rover, HP Sauce, Lucas, many of these places.
TE: I presume they’re all closed now, thanks to neoliberalism and globalisation.
RD: I’ve just come from Sheffield. Steel – it’s gone, exported abroad. So those cities that depended upon an unskilled labour workforce were – if you weren’t necessarily an academic you could get a career, a house, some form of social mobility – it’s gone. There’s a vacuum now.
TE: So how do you accelerate those epiphanies then?
RD: The neoliberalism agenda is about putting costs to everything. A young person in a prison cell has a cost connected to them. A pupil now has a cost connected to them. So, you see the rise in academies, the prison-industrial complex.
TE: Even the marketisation of tertiary level education.
RD: Everything. Serious business: you can’t stop that. A lot of people eat from the demise of our youth. In a post-riot era you’d think, OK, there’d be an increase in investment in young people but there’s been nearly 3000 youth workers made redundant, hundreds of youth centres closed, hundreds of programmes put to an end – in a post-riot era. If you look at any of my social media platforms you’ll see I’ve got a mantra – I should put it above my desk and get the t-shirts printed – and it goes: “If you don’t induct the youth into the village they’ll burn the village down to feel its warmth”. It’s an African proverb, a phenomenal saying. And what you saw in 2011 was the youth burning down the village because they no longer felt the warmth. I was in the Middle East during the riots where young people were walking around with iPads in the shopping malls – that can’t happen here. I really believe this: poverty is an illness – but so is gluttony.
TE: Are there elements of relative depravation theory at work? Young people growing up here assess their circumstances locally as opposed to globally.
RD: Yeah, I was just with 200 medical students and they were saying the challenges they’re facing are hard. I spoke to them about relative depravation saying, “Do you know in Africa right now, in India, in Pakistan, there’s a trainee doctor studying under candlelight – under candlelight – because the electricity cuts off at a certain time?” In the UK, which is totally opposite to America, young people do not see themselves in wider society, the public sector, in senior management, in politics. In America, it’s different. You’ll have the “rapper making it out of the hood” scenario but you’ll also see a chief of police, an attorney, a president – whether you agree with his politics or not.
TE: Or you might see a Janice Bryant Howroyd [the first African-American woman to own a billion dollar company].
RD: You’ll see it whether the person is working class, or black, or Hispanic – they’ll see that representation but that’s not here in the UK.
TE: I was looking at your Instagram account with the image of Hattie McDaniel – the first African American actress to win an Oscar but who had to sit apart from the other nominees at the awards ceremony.
RD: It’s an irony we’re having this conversation in Black History Month because once again we haven’t shaped that narrative around black history. In America, if you don’t engage a certain amount of non-whites in the academic recruitment the university can be penalised. In American football you’ve got the “Rooney Rule” [named after Dan Rooney, the owner of Pittsburgh Steelers who helped put forward the rule in 2002] where you have to interview a set number of coaches from an African-American background.
TE: There’s only two black coaches in the entire English football league – Chris Powell at Huddersfield and Keith Curle at Carlisle.
RD: See, that doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is 30 male black head teachers out of 21,600 state schools in England. They can keep the football managers, I’ll take the head teachers because they’re the architects of the mind.
TE: That’s astonishing. To conclude on a lighter note, ‘Gangology’ sounds like a bonus track on Raekwon’s ‘Only Built For Cuban Linx’!
RD: Ha ha. I’ve never heard that album you know. I was out of the game by then but I know of it.
TE: How did you coin the phrase?
RD: I’m a creative. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen me give a keynote or a workshop – I think you have actually – but if you reflect back on it, watching me’s like watching a movie: there’s highs, there’s lows, there’s suspense, there’s statistics; you don’t know what’s coming round the corner. I realised a long time ago for me to engage those most at risk I have to aspire to inspire. I met a young guy recently who stopped me on the street and said, “Remember me?” I couldn’t remember him, it only came to me when I saw his tattoos. All he said to me was, ‘Big man, you got me reading books, you know,” and he just left me with that. And that’s enough.