Participatory Research & design: gang violence reduction

My participatory design processes are rooted in the work of Paulo Freire, critical theorists, and grounded theory.  As a designer, it is my role to work reflexively alongside community and stakeholder groups as a facilitator rather than as a singular agent of change.

 

Location: Cairo Egypt

Timeline: August 2008 - November 2010

Gang territories highlighted in orange.

Problem: Egypt hosts the largest refugee population in the world.  As a signatory to the  1951 UN Convention on Refugees and the 68 Organization of African Unity Refugee Convention, its unique geographic position situates Egypt as a "catch-all" for asylum seekers throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan East Africa.  Though obligated to provide asylum, the state otherwise is highly intolerant of hosting these foreign communities, and thus denies secondary and territery rights to all refugees such as the right to employment, healthcare or education.

Hip Hop in the streets of Ain Shemz

Hip Hop in the streets of Ain Shemz

In the early 2000s, many young Sudanese men were swept up within the violence of civil war in South Sudan and the plight of militia groups in Northern Sudan.  Thousands of families fled to Egypt and settled on the outskirts of Cairo, frequently bringing their sons with them.  These young men grew up segregated from Egyptian society by racism and xenophobic policy, yet living in Cairo, also found themselves likewise alienated from their own traditional Sudanese communities.  

Several hundred resorted to the systems of violence they had long understood, organizing into criminal gangs and causing great disturbance within their neighborhoods.  Other African youths living within the neighborhoods often aligned themselves with particular gangs or gang members for protection. Sudanese and African youth outside of the gang structures became victims of robbery, physical assault, mutilation, or worse.

Late night recording session in Ain Shemz

Process: In partnership with Natalie Forcier and Cynthia Okerfelt, we built the Youth LEAD project, an intervention designed to reduce inter-gang violence. The project consisted of extensive ethnographic processes, integrating into the groups, building relationships and establishing trust.  Natalie initiated this process in 2007, and Cynthia and me joined her one year later.  By developing real relationships with the gang members we were able to craft programming in their interests.

My contribution focussed on the use of hip hop music as a means of identity construction and conflict management.  It was clear from discussion that gang members held hip hop music in high esteem and that an individual who can "do" hip hop maintains a high level of respect without the necessity of committing criminal acts.

The hip hop program was simple.  Using a Macbook, Logic MIDI studio, and a Shure 57 microphone, I was able to fit all the needs of a studio into a backpack.  Several nights a week I would travel into the neighborhoods where our project operated safe-houses or I would visit the private residences of participants.  We would modify the rooms as possible to improve acoustics and I would work with them to craft beats, write lyrics, and construct songs.   Nearly 20 songs and 2 music videos were generated from this process.  A small group of participants generated exceptional materials which are shared on this page.

Outputs

Unigunz in Cairo Egypt single Usa Una Day, Produced by Mitchell Sipus. 2008

More important than the music, the YOUTH LEAD Project was a vehicle for personal and community transformation for our participants. Although initially founded with zero funds, the project grew to include 260 at-risk youth and gang members and in our second year of operation LEAD acquired over $60,000 USD in grant money. 

Outcomes

After Egyptian security expelled the leadership of the gangs (as they were seen as a threat to the state) gang members voted for new leadership with different values.  One gang leader was even a school teacher!  Programming expanded to included english language classes and organized sporting events. In the third year of operation I departed for Kenya but trained a replacement. Soon after, the two primary gangs, who operated as umbrella organizations for smaller groups, dissolved by their own accord into less threatening community youth groups.  Occasionally violent and criminal acts continued in the neighborhoods, yet their frequency had dropped over 80% from the time we started LEAD to the time we had finished.