This month we speak to Ben Eckett, director of Gloves Not Gunz, a youth initiative programme based out of Croydon. They use movement as tool to keep young people off the street - evading gang violence and anti-social behaviour. Most of the programmes have boxing at the heart; but yoga, calisthenics, martial arts, music and art (amongst others) are also regular features. We talk to Ben about his background in movement, the challenges faced working with the community, and the bigger picture.
First of all, tell us about your background and how you got to where you are today
I was born and grew up in Torbay (Devon). From an early age I was very active - playing football, surfing and being outdoors. My family was spread all over the place so I spent time up North, London and Portugal. I disliked school and that feeling was reciprocated from my teachers. Between the ages of 13 - 16 I stopped sports and took a few years off to get involved in some anti-social behaviour, terrorising my mother and partying. After getting arrested I soon realised I needed to fix up and was given the opportunity to play football for Exeter City FC college academy. I spent a few years playing football and studying sports fitness and development - my love for sport was back. Unsure of what to do after college I decided to travel and 'find myself' - what better place than the Gold Coast of Australia with all the other English twats. I came back after 12 months with a hefty debt and even more confused than before.
During my befuddled state I was offered a football coaching role on a local estate, alongside a trainee youth worker role - I spent 3 amazing years as a youth worker in Torbay. During this time set up a youth project with a friend called Y-Surf - this project aimed to give young people the opportunity to learn surfing whilst teaching about environment and personal health. We supported over 300 young people to learn how to surf and helped lots of them to overcome barriers in their lives.
The projects success was noticed by government and we were invited to the Houses of Commons as an example of good practice within equal opportunities. This project was my first conscious encounter of how movement can create change in the community. Sadly, government cuts hit youth services and the project stopped...
At this point I decided to move to London and continue my youth work career but also train as a personal trainer. I've now been in London for 10/11 years working within youth offending, social care and education - I personal trained alongside these jobs for 8 years. 3 years ago I decided to give up personal training and start Gloves Not Gunz with Adam Ballard (Co-Founder). This year I became a yoga teacher after receiving funding to pilot a yoga programme through our organisation. I teach yoga twice a week to young people and once a week to adults through my yoga company (@thesquatyoga).
I also had a beautiful daughter 18 months ago with my wife Morgan.
What drove you to start ‘Gloves Not Gunz'?
In the area we were both living there had been lots of murders and it was becoming more evident that youth crime and violence was on the rise. Adam had run Croydon Boxing Club for 7 years and I had the experience of 13 years of youth work and running projects. We met at a boxing club and found we both shared the same passion and drive to want change our community and to better the lives of young people. A few weeks later we set up Gloves Not Gunz as a diversion to crime and violence using boxing as the tool to engage them. It started with community sessions that were free to young people aged 8 - 19, teaching them boxing, fitness and educational self development workshops. Over the 3 years we built up the organisation so that we now deliver education in schools, mentoring with the communities and satellite community sessions in crime hotspots all over Croydon and other areas of London.
We started to add other sports and forms of exercise into our sessions and yoga recently became one of our interventions. We then received funding in August to pilot a yoga programme called BoxFlow Yoga. In a nutshell, we use yoga and boxing as a tool to manage emotions, learn strategies to relax and find space, and improved physical fitness.
Yoga has physical benefits like improving flexibility and mobility, building whole body strength. Within the yoga philosophy you learn how to focus on 'self' and build resilience to external factors. Yoga teaches us how to manage emotions and gives a space to relax from lives pressures. We’re predominantly teaching Vinyasa and Ashtanga.
What’s the biggest challenge you face working in the industry you do?
Keeping young people safe. Serious youth violence continues to increase and as workers it can be tough not knowing if someone you work with is going to be seriously hurt. You can attempt to put all the support in place but when they continue to return to the same area each night and face the same pressures it's a real challenge.
Engaging young people when they're entrenched far into the criminal lifestyle is a challenge. It's tough to get a 16 year old to give up making £500 - £1000 a week and then try to engage them in education or employment.
In regards to yoga, breaking down the stereotypes can be hard. It's not seen as a masculine form of movement by many people and often seen as a 'white middle class' activity. We strive to show the young people and men that anyone can do yoga and that it does in-fact have strictly masculine origins. It's then great to explore the whole idea of masculinity with the young people as they often think to be a man you need to be tough.
Our dream is for the project to be funded full time so that we can reach more young people and work more intensively with the ones we currently support.
What makes you optimistic about the future of movement and wellness?
There are so many projects like us using movement as a tool to engage and better communities. I'm sure all these projects will have lots of successful stories. If you can change a few peoples lives for the better then it's all worth it. During my whole career I have used movement to engage young people and communities, I've seen first hand the impact of how it can change someones life. It's a beautiful thing.
What type of movement do you practice yourself?
I practice Ashtanga (Mysore) 5/6 days per week. I also practice calisthenics, boxing and triathlon - plus surf when ever I can! Since becoming a father it's been a challenge (much to my wife's anger) but I have found a way to practice most days. Movement is very important to me and has helped me through tough parts of my life. The work can be emotionally challenging as you're inhaling trauma all the time. When I practice I'm able to relax the body and mind - looking after ourselves needs to be a priority.
Who - individual or organisation - is inspiring you at the moment?
There are lots of yogi's and calisthenic people I follow on social media that inspire me daily. Joshua Buatsi (boxer) and John Macvoy (triathlete) are two people that have become involved in Gloves Not Gunz and both of their stories are very inspiring. I suppose I tend to lean towards people that have come through hardship to reach the top.
How do see ’Gloves Not Gunz’ evolving in the future?
Each year we seem to be growing as an organisation - our staffing, interventions and funding gradually improve year by year. Next year we want to concentrate on all of the above and engage more young people with yoga. I really believe that yoga is a beautiful tool for becoming healthier inside and out. We will continue to explore movement as our tool to engage and change communities.
What is the one piece of advice you would offer to someone wanting to use movement as a tool for positive change?
Whatever the movement you use make it inclusive so that anyone can do it.
It's also about moving past excuses. I often hear people saying 'I don't have time to train or practice'. Prioritise time for yourself - it's important for your physical and mental health.
Why should people move more?
It's good for the soul and body. It helps you connect with your environment and community.
Career: Director of Gloves Not Gunz, youth worker and yoga teacher
Likes: Food, sunshine, rum, yoga, surfing, calisthenics, triathlon and boxing
Dislikes: Mushrooms - I do wish I liked them...
Book: Animal Farm is one of my favourites
Film: Moana - I have to watch it everyday with my 18 month old daughter
Album: Nick Drake - Pink Moon
Career ambition: Gloves Not Gunz to become a full-time sustainable organisation. Supporting communities all over the UK.
Life ambition: To be a good father and husband.
Tell us something we don’t know: My Great Grandad (Rafiq) was a professional dancer and danced in the James Bond Film 'The Spy Who Loved Me'.
Photo credit to Luke Diboll @lrad.cr2