There can be few Londoners who have not now heard of Camila Batmangeilidjh and her visionary creation, Kids Company. Camila has been working her extraordinary magic on kids for over 10 years now, sweeping the streets of those left behind, the ones that fall through the social net, the children no-one knows what to do with. The charity is now well established and much admired, and there are plans to replicate it all over the place…but things ain’t always been easy for Camila.
She was born into relative luxury in Tehran, but things fell apart for her after the revolution when her family’s goods were seized and the family effectively exiled. She has struggled with dyslexia and has known material hardship: hey, she even re-mortgaged her flat twice to raise funds for Kids Co when things were bad.
Her philosophy that ‘love is all it takes’, and her belief that even the roughest tearaways can be put back on the rails with kindness have been pooh-poohed by mainstream child therapists, but her results speak for themselves.
Camila is about as special as it comes in human form: a meeting with her leaves a warm glow, a feeling that this roving Londonist reporter can only describe as having been ‘Camila-ed’. She is one of London’s real treasures, and we all owe her a debt of real gratitude for showing us how to roll up our sleeves and get on with it.
How do you feel that London compares with other cities in terms of child friendliness? Do you feel that there is greater alienation here than in other places?
London is full of diverse cultures with differing attitudes to children. However, institutionally, in terms of national politics and narratives in the media, there is subtle hostility towards children. Hostility expresses itself in inadequate provisions across key agencies dealing with children. Child mental health in London is shockingly under resourced. Deprived social work departments have developed a culture where they try to find reasons to why they shouldn’t take a case rather than afford children the protection against neglect and abuse which has been pledged them. In education children with learning problems are not helped robustly. More than half the children in London live in jaw-dropping poverty. There are barely any leisure facilities available to children whose parents have low incomes. Nationally some 553,000 children a year are referred to child protection agencies because of neglect and abuse, but we only have capacity to take on some 30,700 and protect them through the Child Protection Register. Is that children’s fault or are the adults failing to honour their childhood?
Sorry ‘bout this, as we’re sure there’s no simple answer, but we’re real puzzled… Why on earth is there so much teenage violence in the capital at the moment?
There is an escalation in teenage violence which, to the public, looks inexplicable and random. However, the violence can be traced back to its source both at individual and systemic bases. A violent teenager was years in the making, often incubated in terror for much of their childhood. These are young people who, behind closed doors, in the intimacies of the family home, were often violated, abused and deprived of maternal love. The consequence of such catastrophic levels of neglect and abuse is that the human mind and body becomes preoccupied with violence. A child’s brain denied the soothing of a loving mother will not know how to calm its own agitation. Years of horrific experiences are banked in these children’s emotional brain areas. The terrorising and terrifying memories create tension. They colour the child’s perception of the world with tints of violence, preoccupation with sadistic functioning and understanding of the world in the context of victim and perpetrator. Initially the vulnerable child is the victim. But when they become teenagers and physically bigger, they discover their own strength and their own capacity to cause harm. It’s better to be the perpetrator rather than the victim because victims are humiliated and powerless, whereas perpetrators have the strength to cause the pain rather than experience it. Such children primed in violence then engage with the street culture and economy; so if the neighbourhood trades in drugs and defines boundaries in gangs, then the abused child will add to and participate in this cocktail, using their own capacities for interpersonal violence. These violent teenagers have a passive suicidality; they don’t care if they live or die so they take more risks. In turn, their well cared-for peers who do not have personal experiences of being violated end up mimicking violence. They pretend to be tough, they force themselves to join gangs so that they can be safe and not be victims of the very disturbed young people who have become perverse leaders on the street. In this way violence spreads like a virus amongst teenagers whose brains are already vulnerable and whose capacities for control, by virtue of renewed brain development in adolescence, are diminished. So reduced control, elevated levels of violence, both personal and environmental, and irresponsible levels of adult protection create terror on the streets.
You set up shop initially in Camberwell and Peckham, areas which have for many years been associated with gangs and trouble. Are things getting better there? Are they still the neediest parts of the capital?
I love Peckham and Camberwell. They are vibrant environments, but like all other inner-city localities where demand outweighs resources, criminality and violence are high. This is not because the residents are bad, it’s just that a lot of emotional and practical abandonment of people is propelling individuals to use savage means in order to survive. I think firearms are made more available to younger children. Sexual assaults on girls are under reported and, repeatedly, victims are created whose rage and despair can manifest itself in revenge, creating new victims. The problem is solvable if our leaders have the moral courage to deal with it and prioritise resources for it.
Quite apart from your HQ in Lambeth, you’ve set up an Urban Academy in Southwark: how does that work?
We have a centre in Lambeth called Arches II where some 700 children use the facility. It is 97% self-referral – children telling other children about our services. I would describe our function as the three S’s of parenting: strengthening the biological parent to care for the child better; supplementing the biological parent’s parenting, i.e. adding to it by being an extra resource to the family; or substituting parenting where the biological parent cannot manage. A team of multi-disciplinary staff help the children through the challenges of growing up in depleted conditions. We stay with our children through key developmental years and see them through to university, college and employment. The centre is open six days a week, offering two meals a day and a programme of educational, social and health care.
Our second centre is in Bermondsey and it’s called the Urban Academy. It’s a place where we deliver education, tailor-made to the needs of young people. This is with a view to finding a talent in each young person and nurturing it so that it can give otherwise despairing young people a sense of aspiration and the will to strive towards being valued and valuing citizens. We problem-solve young people’s circumstances so that they can take up legitimate spaces in mainstream society.
You trained in drama as well as psychotherapy, and your work with children is inspiringly arts orientated: in your opinion is there enough mainstream stuff in London for kids to get involved in (bearing in mind that we’re meant to be the cultural capital of the universe)?
There are lots of attempts to include children in mainstream arts provisions, but many of these are sadly from the perspective of adults and sometimes too tokenistic. I think we could do better.
You’ve had a few problems with the neighbours (who hasn’t?) and NIMBYism: how do you find most Londoners see you now?
Most Londoners have been extraordinarily helpful and generous in helping Kids Company serve its children. We have had the odd self-serving neighbours who haven’t understood their responsibility as adults to vulnerable children. Their bitterness is polluting their own lives. In the short term they harm us, but in the long term they pay the price. The rest of London has been inspirational in its generosity and commitment.
In your opinion, what should change in London to make things better for kids
I’m hoping with the new Mayor, Boris Johnson, that provisions will be created for kids in London which are more meaningful and relevant to the lives of children who are surviving their childhood.
What do you dislike about London?
I dislike London’s oppressive parking culture.
What’s your favourite London experience?
All the markets and second hand shops are my favourite London experiences.
What can Londonist readers do to help you?
People can help me by sharing a little of their resources with children who need it and who would be nurtured by their kindness. It could be money, time, or donations of goods and experiences. If you don’t feel you have anything to share, don’t underestimate the power of a kind smile; it makes the difference to a child who may feel disliked for them to be embraced by your welcome and acknowledgement.
This Summer see Kids Co involved in a project with the Serpentine Gallery, and designing a window for the flagship Mulberry store in Bond Street.
Kids Company will be 12 years old in November.
Pictures borrowed from the Kids Company website with thanks.