Teenagers : The Draw of Gangs & Street-Cred

Teenage-hood is a time of identity exploration. A phase through which we find out about ourselves and our place in this world. We experience the urge for independence while also searching for a sense of belonging in a social group. 

In recent times, as I chart the path of growth in Forest School, I have often encountered various “Teenage Programs”. It is this opportunity that led me to be involved in endeavours that explore the ideas of “Teenage Programs”. As I wander into this realm, I realise that teenhood is a time where we don’t actually need programs, as a teenager would benefit more from developing a sense of belonging and cultivating relationships rather than go through specific programs. 

In my time in the Education sector, I have spent some of it volunteering at a social service centre, engaged in some of their youth programs. I was assigned to be a mentor to some of the youths who participated in these programs (ranging from Tuition to National Youth Achievement Award). The social workers loved to pair me up with the Teens who were more aggressive or gang-related, probably due to my “rugged and ah-beng” outlook. 

In those times of volunteering, I realised that the “programs” could never challenge the gangs and religious youth groups out there. The youth spend only 2-hours a week in these programs, while they spend 5-7 hours a DAY on the streets. The programs would easily lose out just on the account of the lack of time spent in contrast. 

On top of that, the youths that I worked with at that time were smart enough to “perform” as they should during the time that they were in the program, so that they would not need to deal with the inquisition into their life outside. It was only when I coincidentally met them outside on the street that I got into genuine conversations with them that allowed me to know more about their stories and activities. Only then did I really connect with them deeply. 

But even then, with all the various elements in their life, compounded with the lack of time together, these relationships were eventually lost. 

In my view, programs are not necessary for Teenagers. Instead, having a space for building relationships would better help in their growth and learning. 

I love to take the example of street gangs as the example of how to be part of our teenagers’ lives in their journey.

In street gangs, they recruit by having youth join them to HANG OUT in the malls, basketball courts or parks. There is no designated program or objective to be met. Then slowly through the hangouts, they build relationships. They also task the teenagers with assignments that matter, not just some showcase for the public to feel good. I remember speaking with a gang-leader once, and he told me how they task the youths. He said that many of the teenagers do not like to study or be forced to do things they don’t like, hence simply tasking them with what they like to do will be sufficient to ensure their responsibility at the task. And on days that they do not accomplish their tasks, always check on what has happened to them in their personal life, as it is usually because of personal issues that one’s work is affected. 

Interestingly, the teenagers in gangs do adhere to the rules and boundaries of the gang, because of how realistic these rules are as they bind the community members who are part of it. It is not some policy that is made by someone they do not know, but rules that are formed by the people who actually live in this community. 

Lastly, the gang space is accepting of a wider range of individuals than the programs out there. This acceptance of others draws many teenagers who are learning how to accept themselves for who they are. 

Gangs have been around for thousands of years in many civilisations, they must have done something right to be able to always attract and maintain the youth population. There must be some things that we can learn from them in how we engage youths in our society. 

With the above in mind, I feel that Teenagers do not need programs; they need a place to hang out and gather. 

This place allows them to be themselves. It gives them time to unwind, and make mistakes. Teenagers can build their own activities and boundaries of engagement in this space over time. The space also allows them to express themselves through a variety of tools that they choose to use. In this space, adults can organically guide them with tools of life through the adults’ own experiences in life and develop the relationships that the teenagers and the adults would eventually share. 

You may wonder if there are such spaces in Singapore? The answer is yes. There are some youth centers and groups who are already doing it. But due to the funds being tied to more “program” oriented KPI, many of them are unable to be fully “gang” like. (Disclaimer: We are not not advocating gangs, just focusing on how they are able to foster that strong relationship)

However, there is one space/initiative in my view that absolutely exemplifies this space that I have mentioned. It is the Tak Takut Kids Club (by 3 Pumpkins) at Boon Lay Drive. Many of my realisations and learning about an open and organic space was due to my time spent in this unique community space. They show that it is possible to give space and time to our youths in their journey as they grow in Singapore.

Written by: Coach Darren
Editted by: Coach Shimin
Forest School Singapore

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