Romsey Mill is a youth charity that has been creating opportunities for disadvantaged young people in Cambridge since 1980. And for over 37 years, music has been an effective part of the charity’s work in helping to transform young lives.
Despite Cambridge’s reputation for academic success, high-tech industries and affluence, children and young people living in poverty in Cambridge achieve less well at school than almost anywhere in the country and are nearly three times more likely to be NEET (not in employment, education or training) than their better-off peers. A new report by the Centre for Cities (The Cities Outlook 2018) has revealed that Cambridge is the most unequal city in the UK. The impact of all this on young lives and their futures is even more acute.
Romsey Mill works with over 750 disadvantaged young people in and around Cambridge each year, providing them with opportunities s to engage in positive activities that interest them and help them to learn new skills that raise their aspirations and create positive cycles of change of them as individuals and for their communities.
Romsey Mill’s music programme (the Sounds Like Change project, funded by the National Foundation for Youth Music) helps those young people who find themselves in the most vulnerable situations and who are at most risk.
Recent consultation with partner agencies (Youth Offending Service, Police, local authorities) to identify the most at risk young people in the Cambridge area (i.e. potentially involved in the supply and use of drugs, violent behaviour etc.) revealed that over 75% were already engaged in Romsey Mill’s music programme on a regular basis.
Part of the success of Sounds Like Change has been that the person who leads the project, Romsey Mill’s music specialist youth worker, Karl Lewis, fully understands the situations faced by the young people with whom he works.
That’s because Karl was once one of the young people who was helped by Romsey Mill when he was a teenager.
“I first got involved with Romsey Mill when I was a young person myself. Me and my mates used to throw raves in the Barnwell area of Cambridge but the Police didn’t like it and neither did the locals.”
“The prospect of being shut down was real and I don’t know where that would have led us – because we would just have been bored, frustrated and would have got into all sorts of trouble.”
Fortunately for us, Romsey Mill got involved. The youth workers listened to what we were saying and what we wanted to do. They helped us put on Open Mic nights – so we could still do our thing, without upsetting people in a safe setting where we could enjoy ourselves and the music we wanted to play.”
Things didn’t automatically get easier for Karl though. He said: “I struggled at college, and dropped out and ended up being a labourer, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do and I wasn’t feeling very fulfilled or happy about life.”.
“But at this time, I then started doing DJ sessions at Romsey Mill as a volunteer and my involvement with Romsey Mill grew from there.”
“I knew that I could engage with young people well through music and I relished the opportunity that Romsey Mill gave me to do something positive with what I had.”
Karl’s leadership potential was recognised by the youth development workers at Romsey Mill and he was supported in becoming a young leader, and eventually a youth worker, specialising in music.
Karl explained why he loves working with young people through music: “I love hearing young people’s stories. They don’t always talk about their lives in other situations but they open up a lot more when they write lyrics. I love watching them get better and becoming more confident and seeing them grow through music. I love helping them realise that they can do well in music even if they haven’t done well in school, and can believe in themselves.”
“I love my work especially because I’m from this community, and now have the opportunity to help impact young people’s lives here in Cambridge.”
Romsey Mill believes in creating positive cycles of change and putting indigenous young leaders at the heart of that work, so that they can be effective role models for future generations of young people.
In his work at a music specialist youth worker with Romsey Mill, Karl is now helping to continue that ongoing process of identifying young talented leaders who can go on to support the next generations of young people into music and engage them in activities that will help them to bring about positive change in their own lives.
One example of this continuing work is seen with Brandon, who is just about to turn 17 in February 2018.
When Brandon (who turns 17 in February) first started attending Romsey Mill he felt his life lacked direction and purpose. In addition home-life was difficult, with his dad absent, his step-dad in prison and his mum struggling with a disability and 5 children.
Brandon started attending a Romsey Mill open-access studio session with friends and although he had always enjoyed listening to music, he had no experience playing instruments or making music. Nevertheless, he quickly discovered a natural affinity and ability for music and became hungry to learn new skills. Over the next year Brandon attended two studio sessions a week working with Karl, Romsey Mill’s music specialist youth worker. He learned to build beats using the Native Instruments ‘Maschine’ and began to operate a recording studio using the production software Logic Pro X. This enabled him to learn how to DJ.
Reflecting on his experience with Romsey Mill, Brandon said: “I first started not knowing anything about music production. I am now able to build my own beats and am learning how mix down when I record”.
Brandon has not only improved in his skill set – including now being a resident DJ at a local club night – but discovered renewed confidence, purpose and energy for life. He is now studying a Level 3 music course at college.
In view of the positive influence of Romsey Mill’s youth workers on his own life, Brandon wanted to give back and support future generations of young people. To this end he enrolled in Romsey Mill’s Young Leaders Programme and now leads weekly studio sessions enabling young people aged 10-12 to record tracks in the studio.
Brandon said: “Romsey Mill’s music programme has given me something to look forward to every week and introduced me to a new world of music. It has also introduced me to DJ’ing which I now do on a regular basis. It also has helped me be more responsible and helped me decide what I want to do in life.”