This blog is to capture all articles relating to good work including initiatives and successes with regards to gangs (predominantly in London), but also good news stories involving young people more generally.
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Tuesday, 8 October 2013
Our gangs initiative backs event company spearheaded by former gang leader and pastor
Karl Lokko with Pastor Mimi and his fiancee Cassandra Swaby, who works for their wedding planning enterprise NewBiggz
DAVID COHEN, CAMPAIGNS EDITOR
Published: 08 October 2013
It all started when a vigilant single mother decided to get her son out of a gang — and realised that the only way to save him was to save the whole gang.
Pastor Mimi Asher had little idea what her teenage son Michael was up to, but one day the police came and told her that he was a major member of a criminal gang.
“There were about 20 of them running around the Myatts Field Estate in Brixton causing mayhem and involved in territory wars, and as they started going to friend’s funerals, I got desperate,” said Pastor Mimi. So she did what few mothers would ever imagine — she invited the entire gang into her home and began to befriend them.
But to get back her son, she had to win over the leader, the formidable Karl Lokko, a 6ft 5in prize fighter with a ruthless reputation. “I didn’t like Karl because I thought he was a terrible influence on Michael and hard to reach, but I knew I had to try,” she recalled.
So Pastor Mimi asked Karl and the gang for dinner every evening and began to engage them in conversation about their lives.
The extraordinary relationship they forged would transform Karl’s life and lead — with the support of the charity Kids Company — to the creation of NewBiggz, a unique event planning social enterprise that we hope our readers will support.
Before Karl was a gang leader, he wanted to be an astronaut. He was a bright, voracious reader earmarked by his teachers as “gifted and talented” and he achieved top sets.
He came from a hard-working home on a south London estate; his father worked in security, his mother, a nurse, proudly called him “my genius”. But by his early teens, Karl’s life had taken a different turn.
From guns to roses: Karl Lokko, with gun, poses with his MAD gang in a picture that made the front pages of newspapers“There was no single turning point, just a gradual realisation that my studious ways did not serve me,” said Karl, now 23, whose quietly spoken manner belies his violent past. “I was a tall boy, but timid, and from the age of 12, I started getting mugged. They took my bike, my phone, they broke into my mum’s car, they beat me up, and I lived in fear of being robbed the moment I stepped outside our front door.”
For Karl, how to avoid being a target of crime became all-consuming. “I realised that in order to have immunity, I needed to join a gang, but none would have me, so I formed my own. There were three of us and we called ourselves MAD — for Max, Addict and Drowsy. I was Addict.”
It was innocent at first but things soon escalated. MAD grew to a 40-strong group that stood for “Mayhem And Disaster” and was known by the tabloids as the “Man Dem Crew” — especially after they made headlines for posting a provocative picture on the internet of themselves posing with guns. “I was apprehended at school and ordered to hand over the gun,” recalled Karl. “The police believed it was a real gun, but it was a replica and I got a caution. Other gangs, though, got the impression that we had a real live pump-action shotgun and suddenly we had big status.”
MAD dissolved as suddenly as it was formed and Karl, then 15, entered one of the main gangs in Brixton with considerable swagger. They were about 80 strong, with 20 core members. “It took one ambitious summer for me to go from victim to victimising,” he said. “The gang ran riot, mugging people for phones, selling drugs, stealing cars, joyriding.” But in 2006 Karl’s close friend was murdered by a rival gang.
“The night before our GCSEs, he got stabbed in the heart. His blood gushed from his body and propelled his T-shirt in the air. He and I had made the front pages for our gun picture and now he was dead. That night I did a lot of crying. It would be the last time I cried for years. It strengthened my resolve to scale up our defences and ensure that we never took another loss. It darkened me. That day I put on the mask of violence and then the mask took over me and I lost my core.”
Karl had taken his GCSEs in a blur, passed four, and was kicked out of sixth-form college on his first day. He had become totally embroiled in gang life and had been stabbed in the head, back and chest. “Normal local conflict,” he calls it.
Ordinary Londoners looked on helplessly as gang wars across the city intensified and the body count soared. In 2008, the year Karl turned 18, 30 teenagers were murdered in London, up from 26 in 2007, the worst two years on record.
To Karl, this extreme ratcheting up of violence was just regular life. “We had became the most feared, violent gang in south London,” he said.
He described the “natural progression” from knives to guns. “In 2003 when I was 13, if somebody had a knife, it was like ‘wow’, but by 2006, a knife wasn’t enough because everybody had a knife and who takes a knife to a gunfight?
“A gang member had to have a gun to be significant. Then, to be significant, he had to discharge that weapon. Then it became, he’s got a gun, but has he hit anybody? Finally it was okay, so a couple people got hit, but nobody has died. It was the common journey.”
It was at this point that Pastor Mimi entered Karl’s life. “Her son was deeply involved with me but she couldn’t perceive the scale of what we were up to,” Karl said. “She invited all of us into her home and cooked for us.
“At first she connected with one of my peers who opened up to her and laid it all bare. She didn’t judge him but tried to help. It gave me licence to do the same thing.
“She reeked of sincerity — she didn’t understand but she understood. After I laid it all bare, I remember seeing in her eyes this blend of fear, anxiety, empathy and pain. I remember looking at myself through her eyes.”
He lowered his head. “Words had never reached me or even scratched the surface, but the look in her eyes made me think, maybe there is something wrong with the way I’m living. At that stage, it was just a ‘maybe’. She saw potential in us, treated us like we were significant, like we were born to do something great.”
Watching them together — Karl towering over Pastor Mimi but gently deferring to her judgment — the respect between them was palpable. They laughed as Pastor Mimi recalled teaching him ethics as they baked apple crumble, “getting flour all over us, acting like children”. But leaving the gang was “the hardest thing I ever had to do”, said Karl. “I felt like I was divorcing my family. But once I had seen through the ideology, what I called gangsterism, there was no backsliding. I moved into Pastor Mimi’s place.
“I had grown up believing in a lie that had consumed my life and now I felt like the bearer of a great revelation, that gangsterism was not the answer. I felt I needed to tell other young people. It became my burden.”
At 21, Karl met Camila Batmanghelidjh who took him under her wing and he became a youth ambassador for Kids Company, helping to extricate people from gangs. “I have helped about 20 people come out of gangs,” he said. “One of the hardest things is they can’t get jobs. It can be so demoralising that it sends them back into the gang.”
MEANWHILE Karl, Pastor Mimi, Karl’s friends and some former gang members started organising community events, getting a name for their balloon artistry, cake decorating and for unearthing local talent, including DJs, MCs and singing groups such as The Soloettes.
In the last year they have organised a series of highly successful events, including a Black and White Christmas Ball for 400 people on a local estate, a Lambeth Love Feast for 300, weddings, community barbecues, sports days, movie nights, engagement parties and christenings.
Now, backed by a £10,000 grant from the Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund and supported by Kids Company, they have drawn up a business plan and formed a social enterprise.
When I met them at Pastor Mimi’s place, all they needed to get started was a name. My suggestion — “Karl and the Gang” — was laughed out of the room. “Epic fail!” said Karl. But my idea of a one-liner to advertise their group — “when you hire us, no need to bother about security!” — went down rather better. They had a sense of humour about themselves and an easy confidence about how far they had come. The next day they came up with NewBiggz.
Sonal Shah, chief executive of The London Community Foundation, the charity that looks after the Dispossessed Fund, was impressed by their creativity and passion: “Karl and his friends have been on a massive journey. They have found something they love doing, and can make money from, and with six people pitching in, and the right mentor support, this group have great potential.”
Karl, who plans to marry fellow wedding planner Cassandra Swaby next year, said: “We can’t wait to get our first bookings. We are six people with enormous energy and diverse talents. I promise that anyone who hires us for their event, however big or small, will get a dynamic, amazingly special event they will never forget!”
NEWBIGGZ EVENT PLANNING
What are they? Founded by Karl Lokko, 23, and Pastor Mimi Asher, 43, this company — run by them and four friends — offers wedding planning, corporate events and private parties.
In their words: “NewBiggz stands for New Beginnings, the need to give second chances to people who didn’t get the best start in life. Some of us experienced violence and crime and have struggled to find support from society, so the temptation to embrace criminal gangs was ever-present. With backing, we steered away from this and have created something positive for ourselves and our community.”
Why choose them? Hiring event planning services is often perceived as a luxury only the wealthy can afford. They seek to make these services accessible to all and to offer customers a highly creative service at a competitive price.
What experience do they have? In the past two years, they have organised many community events in Brixton on an ad-hoc basis, including weddings, engagements, christenings, a Black and White Christmas Ball, themed parties and sports days.
Their social goals? They will offer employment and training to local youngsters with similarly disadvantaged backgrounds to themselves and source talent — such as live bands, solo artists, dancers, DJs, MCs and caterers — from their community network. They will reinvest 10 per cent of their net profit in community projects. By becoming a self-sufficient business, they will send out a positive message to the community.
How will their £10,000 grant from the Dispossessed Fund be spent? On a new website, logo and essential equipment, such as a van, balloon-inflating machine and infrastructure support.
How can you help? Ask them to quote on your special event. If you are an industry expert, offer to mentor them. To get the ball rolling, simply log on to standard.co.uk/frontlinelondon. You can also help Kids Company by making a donation at kidsco.org.uk