‘Changing negative belief systems can stop gang violence’

Former gang member Simeon Moore took control of his own life, before helping set up peace talks between Birmingham gangs. Now working to help young people, he tells Laura Smith about his vision for tackling the root problems

Simeon Moore is tired of talking about gangs. As the head of One Mile Away, a social enterprise founded by former gang members to discourage young people from gang life, it might seem an unusual position. But Moore, known locally as Zimbo, believes gangs are just a symptom of much deeper problems.

“We need to look at the root causes,” he says. “If we focus on the gangs we would not be focusing on the real issues: the culture, the way of life, the negative belief system. Addressing that is what’s going to stop the gang violence.”

As a former gang member who has lost countless friends and spent time in prison for firearms and drugs offences, Moore knows all about the downsides of gang life. But he says that too many people in his neighbourhood in a poor part of Birmingham see it as their only option. His organisation wants to change that.

“When I’m talking to a 15-year-old or to the men I used to roll with, I talk about progress. I ask: ‘Are you happy with the way you are living right now?’ If they have children I say: ‘What are you raising them to be?’ We are not telling them to change right now because for some people that’s impossible. But once you’ve planted the seed, you can start the conversation. It’s all about the mind and what people believe they can do.”

“It’s all about the mind and what people believe they can do”

One Mile Away was set up in the wake of a feature-length documentary of the same name, released nationwide in April, which documented attempts to bring an end to a 20-year war between two notorious Birmingham gangs: the Johnson Crew, based in Aston, and the Burger Bar Boys, based a mile away in Handsworth.

Once filming was over, Moore and several other men involved in starting peace talks between the gangs set up the organisation to take the work forward. One Mile Away now delivers a mentoring programme called Big Brother, Little Brother; runs courses for young people in schools and others for those who have left or been excluded; and gives school assemblies.

All of the approaches push the same central message: that gang life is neither cool nor glamorous; that it leads only to heartache, prison and death; that other choices are possible.

The results have been positive. Police figures show that the crime rate in Aston and Handsworth fell sharply during the filming of One Mile Away and has remained around 40 per cent lower since. Moore talks of a new attitude in the communities – of people aspiring to open businesses, educate themselves and have a new kind of life.

Moore’s own life has changed beyond recognition. Growing up in Aston, he says he was a well-behaved child but was “led astray” by the “glamorisation of a gangster lifestyle.” He was 15 the first time he was shot at and from then on he carried a gun every day. Stealing, selling drugs and violence became normal.

He says he began to question his choices five years ago: “I read The Secret and got the idea that I am in control of my own reality.” He began to look for work and approached community groups for help but when support was not forthcoming he slipped back into crime. After numerous arrests he was given an electronic tag for six months. It proved a turning point.

“It could have gone either way at that time,” he says. “But being on tag forced me to stay indoors so I read a lot and took in a lot of information. The more I learnt, the more I knew I couldn’t live like that any more.”

Most of his team at One Mile Away have gone on a similar journey and it’s this that gives the organisation credibility. But not everybody locally is supportive.

“I face negativity all the time,” he says. “People say I am working with the police – when in fact we get the biggest fight from the police all the time. They would rather stay where they are because that’s what they know but I refuse to keep living that way. Yes, change is scary but it was more scary for me thinking I am going to still be doing this in four or five years time.”

Moore, who lives with his partner and two children, believes One Mile Away’s work can be replicated across the country. Moves have begun to start a project in Nottingham, which has a similar profile in terms of gang violence. “This can happen everywhere, even if it’s not us doing it,” he says. “They might not do exactly what we are doing but once we all start thinking the same way the possibilities are endless.”

How does he sustain himself in the face of so many pressures? “It’s about mental strength and determination but also support from those around me,” he says. “People need to come together to make progress; this is how we overcome everything: being together with the right state of mind. We are the majority and we have a lot of power. It’s time to start using it.”

Simeon Moore will speak at TEDx Brixton on Saturday 13 July 2013