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UK: Amnesty goes local with the control arms message

In February 2006, young people from Hackney Borough took part in a unique project with Brazilian performers AfroReggae and Amnesty International UK. Using their inspirational music,dance, acrobatic and theatre skills to create engaging educational workshops, Afro reggae showed the students the value of taking action against guns, locally and globally.

"Through these workshops, we declared war on violence, but instead of using guns, our weapons were music, arts and culture.’ Altair Martins" – AfroReggae

AfroReggae is a cultural group that was established in the favela (shantytown) of Vigário Geral in 1993. They work within the poorest and most violent communities in Rio de Janeiro and have one clear aim: to take young people out of the violence of the drug trade through arts-based activities.

AfroReggae's success as artists has been extraordinary. They arrived in the UK on 20th February 2006 -- two days after opening the Rolling Stones' concert on Copacabana Beach. At the beginning of March, they performed at the Barbican Arts Centre, East London. Their presence in London gave Amnesty International UK the opportunity to work with them to share their anti-gun message with young people in Hackney schools. The project was part of a wider programme of AfroReggae workshops, called ‘From the Favela to the World’ produced by People’s Palace Productions, Queen Mary’s London.

The members of AfroReggae were raised in the favelas and many of them were involved in guns and drugs in the past, but chose to take a different path through arts and culture. Because of their skills and background, the AfroReggae workshop leaders were able to bring a very powerful message to young people in Hackney – showing them through their own experience that respect and achievement are not gained through guns and crime, but through hard work, self-respect and confidence in your own abilities.

The young people involved in the project live in various parts of Hackney borough where there is an increasing problem with gun crime. Amnesty International UK conducted a survey with the young people taking part before the workshops began and found that 37% know someone personally who owns a gun and 31% felt that people who own guns get more respect.

Before AfroReggae arrived in the country, Amnesty staff from the UK Education and Student team conducted assemblies and ran workshops in the schools taking part to enable the young people to link their own experiences locally to the global picture and the importance of the Control Arms campaign.

The workshops with Amnesty and AfroReggae involved 110 young people directly, from Stoke Newington Media Arts College and Hackney Free and Parochial C.of.E school, and over 2500 in-directly through assemblies and performances. The materials developed in the Amnesty assemblies and workshops will be re-reproduced so they can be used in any UK school to explore the issues surrounding guns locally and globally.

At the end of the workshop week, the young people taking part came to Amnesty’s Human Rights Action Centre in London to demonstrate their new found skills in drumming, theatre and acrobatics in-front of parents and guests from the local area. Their performances were mixed in with talks and short films from Amnesty making the links between local gun crime and the Control Arms campaign. The event was a huge success, the performances from the young people were stunning and it was clear that they had understood the local and the global message when, at the end of the event, they added their faces to the Control Arms million faces petition.

“Bring involved in AfroReggae was more than I expected. At first I thought it was just going to be dancing and stuff, then I found out there was more to it, that their roots were involved in gun crime, and they were coming here to give us advice, and that there is a way out of such things, and that we mustn’t let the situation here in Hackney get as bad as in Vigario Geral.”

Helga Da Cunha, year 10, Hackney Free and Parochial School

“Here in the Behaviour Improvement Programme (BIP) at Hackney Free, we are always trying to find creative ways of engaging young people with behavioural difficulties and building relationships with those at risk of exclusion. The project was challenging for all of us, but seeing the energy and engagement of the young people, both in the performance in school and at the Amnesty Human Rights Action Centre was abolsutely amazing and made it all completely worthwhile. These are young people that do not always have a huge amount of positive feelings towards school, and watching them support each other, and perform with pride was fantastic. I think this experience will help them recognise that if they believe in themselves, then others will do too.”

Isabel Hallett BIP Co-ordinator Hackney Free and Parochial C of E School

The new book about AfroReggae is now available through the Latin American Bureau. Culture is our weapon: AfroReggae in the Favelas of Rio by Patrick Neate and former Amnesty campaigner Damian Platt tells the extraordinary story of AfroReggae and gives the background to their amazing work. Find out more

Isobel Mitchell Amnesty International UK

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