Music and change the Rowley Way

Ian Florance talks to Charlie Alcock about psychology in the community with hard-to-reach groups

Some people call the Music and Change project a Trojan horse,’ says Charlie Alcock, clinical psychologist. The Rowley Way Estate in Camden, north London, doesn’t resemble the fabled city of Troy: stacked concrete flats; dark stairwells; ramps leading down to a car park, off which is the door to Charlie’s office. She founded the project last year, aiming to develop innovative community-based ways of addressing the complex social, emotional and occupational needs of some of the UK’s most challenging and marginalised young people, many of whom are at risk of either offending or engaging in highly antisocial and/or gang-related activities.

Since the project is rooted so deeply in Charlie’s experiences and training, we started from there. 

From Cheltenham to New York
‘I grew up in a little Gloucestershire village and went to school in Cheltenham. My mum used to drive me to school through St Pauls, an area with significant social deprivation and a high crime rate. At the age of 12 I started to wonder why people broke the law and lived in different ways. My training and work address those rather precocious questions.’

Charlie did a first degree in sociology then took a conversion course at Oxford Brookes and qualified as a clinical psychologist in October 2007 after taking her doctorate at Salomons. Why this transition? ‘It seems to me that sociology explains how society’s structures, legislation and the state arbitrate people’s behaviour and activities. But this isn’t the whole story. You cannot ignore the individual. Salomons had very good community psychology training and my aim had always been to bring about changes in communities. So my training armed me with two perspectives which can be summed up in a question: “How far do the difficulties we treat start in society’s structures, how much within the individual?” For me, community psychology brings the two together.’

Several experiences during her training were important in developing Music and Change. ‘Working in the NHS, I thought one-to-one work in a clinic was ineffective with certain groups. The people you work with will go back to the environment where their problems developed. And in the case of gang cultures, which I’m interested in, you may well be causing the client problems with other gang members who by their nature are paranoid.’

Experience of gang culture in New York was another influence on Music and Change. ‘Salomons supported me to spend eight weeks there working at the DOME (Development of Meaningful Education) Juvenile Justice Project where I came into contact with young people attached to New York gangs, including the most famous ones – the Bloods and the Crips. I feel that more traditional therapies have a key role with particular client groups but that we need a different  approach to engage some of our hardest-to-reach young people. I learnt in New York that doing one-to-one work with a young person in a gang can actually put them at physical risk from their gang peers.’

Making connections
So, how did Music and Change start  in Rowley Way? ‘I found the estate via Google! Groundwork had funding for a project here but hadn’t got a subject. My dissertation was about an intergenerational study using photography. So they funded it.’

Charlie says that Rowley Way is a 1960s estate that is listed – and therefore difficult to change – but in need of urban regeneration. It contains 2000 units and has big Somali and eastern European communities. ‘Probably 95 per cent of the flats are council owned. There were two youth stabbings here last year.’

‘While I was working on my dissertation project I went to New York and came back with a DVD I’d made with some of the young people there. There were a number on the estate who had slipped through the net and had no connection with services. When I came back from New York, they approached me. They’d heard where I’d been, asked me to tell them about it and I showed them the DVD, hung around with them and then asked them what they wanted to do. They said “We want to do a project based on hip hop.” I needed an organisation to get funding so I founded MAC-UK. Music and Change is its pilot project. That, rather breathlessly, is how it all came about.’

So, music wasn’t the point of the project as such. ‘No. I hadn’t thought of that. It’s a tool for engagement and it also gives a way for young people to express themselves. Young people’s lyrics describe their experiences and emotions. I don’t ask them to talk about themselves, they tell me what they want to. Their lyrics and music can be part of this material. But music happens to be the key here. In another group it might be a different focus – street art for instance, or football.’

According to Charlie, ‘young people lead what we do. They chose music and it became the reason they decided to learn other more conventional psychology-based skills. People were very shy about getting up on a stage and performing, so I suggested courses in self-confidence and self-esteem. Anger affects life here so we introduced anger management workshops.

‘There’s another central point. I don’t say “I’m the psychologist – you need to learn this, I’m going to teach you”. They say what they need and I co-lead workshops with them. In New York I saw that peer-to-peer training, development and coaching works. It defuses power issues; it helps overcome innate fear of services and authority. It also prevents me making a fool of myself by trying to use the latest slang and ending up looking out of touch and condescending. The work is mutual. I help train them and they help train me. When they went on a music production course, I was a student too – and not a particularly knowledgeable one. This is all essential to working with these young people.’

The Music and Change crew
The police told Charlie that the estate houses some of the most challenging young people in Camden. A significant majority of her Music and Change team grew up in care, were on a child protection order or were homeless in hostels. Most had a serious substance abuse habit; by the age of 13 most of them had been thrown out of full-time education and several had started on offending careers.

‘And as one would suspect, many have psychological issues: self-harm and attempted suicide are examples. I’m not keen on DSM-IV labels and prefer looking at and working with symptoms. One young man hadn’t left his flat for eight months so I talked to him through his letter box. He’s now our technical guru.’

There’s also the issue of territories. ‘An invisible map overlies many inner-city areas. Members of one gang can’t move out of their territory without risking attack from the gang that controls the new area. This is a powerful influence. The founder of the Global Music Foundation invited us to a concert at Ronnie Scott’s. Quite apart from it being the first experience that some of them have had of seeing real instruments played live – two of them have since had drum lessons – it was also the first time some of them had left the area. One of them said “Now, I feel like a normal human being”.’

Where is Music and Change now? ‘There are 25 young people on the books and a wider group of 40 who want to join. We don’t take referrals: young people refer each other. Everyone involved as a young person also has a role and a job title. Some of them have even had cards printed. Having a job title might seem a minor point, but it changes the dynamics. If asked what’s going on, they don’t say “I’m getting help”; they answer “I’m helping Charlie”. So, we used to have tutors from outside the estate to get the music workshops started but now two DJs from the estate run them. The project only has two paid employees – me and Carolyn Martino our Mental Health Consultant. Everyone else listed on our website is a volunteer and many of them are young people – we have two young people from Rowley Way on our Board of Trustees.’

All staff and volunteers get mental health training. ‘They choose the topics themselves, and we’ve done sessions on building on strengths and anger which are of huge interest to them. I also insist on a staff support group once a month. Youth workers are not used to this, but it’s hugely important.’

The project is currently funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Social Justice Programme, but Charlie is constantly looking for funding from sponsors and from the project’s own activities. ‘We sell Music and Change hoodies which are getting pretty popular! Insofar as there is such a thing, what’s a typical day like? ‘I can talk to you on a Monday because it’s an administration day. This afternoon I’m meeting an organisation to discuss new opportunities. Tuesday and Wednesday involves Mini Macs – people from the main Music and Change passing things on to a younger group in schools and colleges. Thursday is a big day. Drop-in sessions in the morning; ‘street’ sessions carried out around the estate. From 3.30 we run workshops on a variety of issues and at 5.30 we start the main music workshop. Friday involves processing what’s happened; planning; getting involved in evaluation. I also meet people who are interested in funding or volunteering.’

Working as a psychologist in the community
News of the project has spread, Charlie says. ‘Many psychologists have offered to work here – a lot have agreed with my reservations about the standard model of traditional therapies with this hard-to-reach group. But I’d love to work with conventional psychological services, to have NHS clinical psychologists working one or two days a week on secondment with us. We can influence other people’s practice and they can improve ours. We work with clients on their terms, and one of the things we do is to explore the advantages and disadvantages of linking into a statutory service. This approach – doing counselling sat on an estate stairwell – is designed for a particular group. By focusing too much on within-person factors we might ignore society’s role in creating problems.

‘It’s curious to me that most multidisciplinary teams working with young people do not involve youth workers. I train youth workers on the estate and I‘ve been accused of giving skills away. I’m not – I’m trying to support young people and those that work with them.’

I tell Charlie that it seems as though she’s running a project that has nothing overtly to do with psychology, but that is underpinned by psychological knowledge and techniques – hence the Trojan Horse comparison. This must be a challenge as a professional psychologist? ‘Yes. For instance, a lot of my young people don’t want written records kept. Some of them may be involved in illegal activities. It’s crucial that you’re helping and not colluding. I work alongside other agencies, but there’s a delicate line if you’re going to win the trust of the young people. These sorts of issues challenge you. And that’s why Dr Peter Fuggle, my clinical supervisor, is such a critical figure. He’s available to guide me and to help me to reflect. We’re creating our own clinical, organisational and managerial systems from scratch.’

This unusual way of working must make the project difficult to evaluate. ‘Yes, but evaluation is critical. Dr Chris Barker of UCL – who’s also on our Board of Trustees – is helping us to wrestle with this now. Given clients’ suspicion of records and photos you can imagine it’s not an easy task.’

The future
What are your future plans? ‘In the short term we’re going to the studio to record tracks, and some of the girls are interested in dance so we’ll make a dance DVD. It’s very exciting. In the longer term, I’d like to spread the approach. Maybe in five to six years I’ll be on the Board of Trustees and other people will be running specific projects. We’re actively planning this with help from a business consultant. I need to get my idea out of my head and into the heads of others. And, of course, it’s going to be fascinating to watch young people from this project move on to other projects as paid employees of MAC with a wide range of social, psychological, counselling and musical skills.’

Two obvious questions remained. Charlie is a young, white, middle-class girl from rural Gloucestershire with an accent to match. Is she really accepted? And given where she works, has she ever been in physical danger? ‘I think I’m accepted because I took the time to go to young people, learn and work with them rather than expect them to come to me. Obviously I have to be very aware of my environment at all times. I do take advice regarding personal safety. But this is where I want to be – it’s my dream to be doing this work in the community.’

Before I left, Charlie asked if she could see a draft of this article since she’s recently had ‘a bad experience with a local journalist. The article talked about problems in a way which I though clients might object to, though I’d specifically asked the journalist not to. As it happens the young people thought it was great, but you have to be very careful not to abuse trust.’ This is good advice for any psychologist talking about sensitive projects where trust is a critical component in young person relationships.

Walking back to the tube, the estate looked slightly more welcoming thanks to Charlie’s enthusiasm. And her reply to an e-mail next day only confirmed what the interview had displayed. ‘I love talking about Music and Change to anyone who will listen’ she wrote.

- To find out more about the project see


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