Success Redefined: Temi Mwale Pt 1

Temi Mwale is the founder of Get Outta The Gang, an organisation that aims to tackle gang culture and youth violence using innovative and youth-led solutions. She has also been recognised as the 'Ultimate Campaigner 2014' by Cosmopolitan and received the 'Points of Light' Award from UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, in September 2014. Alongside all this, Temi is currently in her second year at the London School of Economics studying Law.

What is your definition of success?

As I was growing up I was always taught you have to have a long term plan but I’ve learnt that life doesn’t always work like that. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is that it is okay to stray from your plan, as you gain more information about yourself and the world, especially as the education system that we experience tells us  ‘pick these subjects’, then specialise in one and then you have your career. It’s like a funnel and I’m like why do I have to choose? I’m experiencing the world as I’m going along and right now, I don’t have a universal definition of success. A lot of people assign it to monetary value or usually something quite commercial but that’s because we live in a capitalist world. I don’t aspire to capitalism so I don’t really define my success like that. For me success is a very individual thing and it’s about having a vision and being able to deconstruct that into goals that you work towards to reach your dream.

What are your long-term goals?

People ask that a lot, especially because I do law, it leads to the assumption I want to become a lawyer. I’ve always known that I wanted to study law even though there was a short period at the age of 13 where I considered PPE. When I was applying I separated the academic discipline from the profession simply because a lot of people go into the profession without having studied law specifically. From my degree there are two routes: either I go into law or I stay in academia. If I do go straight into practising I would want to be a barrister and not a solicitor. But as I said I would also like to continue in academia, get my masters, do a PhD. 

It’s been said that knowledge is power – what fundamental lessons should be taught to stop gang involvement amongst youth?

It’s very complicated. Firstly I’d like to make the distinction between gangs and youth violence, the latter is the predominant phenomenon. Violence is key - the stabbings, the shooting, the violence enacted upon young women, their families - then we look at what form this takes place. Gangs might come under that but the main thing that unifies everyone is the violence. Plus the term ‘gangs’ is a troubling notion, and I should probably say we are rebranding, as we want to make it clear that we think the notion of gangs is problematic.       

Gangs might come under that [youth violence phenomenon] but the main thing that unifies everyone is the violence.

The papers, without making that distinction, are very quick to say an issue is ‘gang-related’ just because it’s two groups of black boys. When I first came into it I was quite naïve to how racial this idea of ‘gangs’ was. A lot of times you’ll see a group of friends who’ve grown up together, and who’s labelling them as gangs? Not themselves but other people forcing that notion onto them. These definitions become very problematic because they’re used very indifferently. So instead of what people need to be taught, it’s what needs to happen. Last week on the fifth anniversary of my friends murder I wrote about trauma. For me, that’s the key because violence stems from these different traumas that are left unaddressed. Our new film Don’t Close Your Eyes, coming out in next spring is going to touch on this.

What role do women have to play within these environments?

A lot of the time people don’t focus on the violence that is enacted upon women. And I use the term ‘women’ loosely because we’re talking about a lot of female perspectives that are often categorised into one. There’s the mother whose son has been killed, to the sister who’s older brother is involved in this, to the girlfriend and so many other female key individuals of different ages. I’ve worked with mothers who sons have started physically beating them because of part of a broader de-valuing of women. It’s not as simple as the girlfriend carrying drugs and weapons or the sexual exploitation, which is what we’re often shown. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen but it is much more complicated than that.

That hyper sexualisation that’s forced upon young women in impoverished communities is also so forced upon you that you begin to work towards that stereotype. As a young girl I was dressing like an older woman and trying to get into 18+ clubs; ultimately putting myself in situations that could have been very dangerous. But because I see this standard of beauty and sexuality, I’m 14 and thinking that’s what I should aspire to. I wouldn’t be able to count the number of my friends that were victims of rape and other sexual violence in my teenage years on one hand - one was even gang raped and as I said before, those traumas were left unaddressed. Sadly, this is the impact of the devaluation of women, which stems beyond just transportation of drugs but to sexual and domestic violence as well. No one ever wants to look back at a girl who is now using her house as a trap house for guys to come sell their drugs and figure out why she is doing that. It’s because of this fundamental trauma that’s created because of the deep devaluation of women in these environments. 

These young women are forced to grow up too fast. Domestic violence made me grow up quickly, and you think because you can handle the difficult situations at home, you can do all these other adult things, which ultimately; you’re not ready for. A lot of our young women aren’t given the chance to just be a child. 

No one ever wants to look back at a girl who is now using her house as a trap house for guys to come sell their drugs and figure out why she is doing that.

How can people from different backgrounds get to a place of understanding violence/gang activity (as opposed to judging), not having been exposed to it?

We first have to look at the media because as people we tend to believe everything we read. What you read about gangs and youth violence tends to be sensationalised because that’s how papers sell. If we’re talking about ‘gang epidemic’ people are going to want to read about that hence that’s the only narrative within the media. Its super glamorised.

We need to debate these things – ask the question ‘why are people carrying weapons?’ and we’ll tell you that people don’t carry weapons for fun. A lot of these people fear for their safety; there’s a perpetual state of fear and anxiety that these people live in. You’re 14/15 thinking constantly that you could be killed and I think that’s a very abhorrent state for our children to be living in. One thing I find, especially with race, is that black people often aren’t allowed to be children. All these stereotypes and bias that are pushed onto people form a hyper sexualised, mature perception of a young black boy who is in actual fact just a child. Within our communities we further perpetuate this stereotypes by believing that this is all young people are and projecting this into them.

Finally speak directly to organisations like us so you can get first hand information about the people who have experienced exactly what is being misrepresented. 

More to come in PT 2 of Temi's interview! 

Also let me know your thoughts in the comment section below!