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Published 15 September 2011

The recent violence on the streets of England has been the topic on

everyone’s lips over the last few weeks. When talking to people about the potential reasons as to why it occurred and how to prevent a repeat of the action, opinion has been divided.

Some have blamed it on a culture of consumerism, others on moral breakdown. Some stated the increasing divide between "the rich and everyone else", as being at fault, linking to this the apparent culture within government of "one rule for us, another rule for them" (Bullingdon Club, anyone?). One friend said to me: "I don't condone what happened but I think it's very unfair that one kid got a six month sentence for stealing a case of fizzy drinks but ministers can fiddle their expenses, something that is basically fraud, and get away with a slapped wrist."

The role of gangs in organising much of the looting was also an issue raised by those I spoke to with one creative agency director making a somewhat contentious suggestion: that charities wanting to work with groups of young people should replicate the dynamics and structures of gangs. "If you look at gangs, they offer a lot of what charities aim to offer," he said. "A sense of community, belonging, common identity and cause, clear roles and hierarchy, competitive rivalry, code of conduct..."

It is controversial, but he has a point. As Iain Duncan Smith and his team at the Centre for Social Justice confirm in their report, Dying to Belong, being a gang member provides "purpose, identity and belonging", (hence many gangs being found in areas of high unemployment) while "the lack of positive male role models has meant the masculinity being modelled to gang-involved young men is that of a hyper-alpha male." In other words, kids join gangs because they have no one to look up to and no natural cause to gravitate to. Charities are ideally placed to step in and fill these gaps.

Even the visual identities associated with gang membership - the use of bandanas and graffiti tags, for example - could be replicated within uniforms and communications materials, enabling young people to develop their own sub-identities within an organisation, while at the same time helping make 'charity' that little bit cooler.

Alternative ways of how the voluntary sector might help the young people involved in the riots are discussed within our main article over the page. Coverage will also continue on charityinsight.com. Please add your thoughts to the debate.

The country's response to the riots will also feature prominently during the party conferences, which take place at the end of September, particularly given that all three are located in cities affected by the trouble. Although whether delegates will be brave enough to put forward the idea that charities should learn from the dynamics of gang culture has yet to be confirmed.

Starting on Saturday 17 September in Birmingham with the Liberal Democrats who will be celebrating 500 days in power, and closing the Prime Minister's speech in Manchester on Wednesday 5 October, party conference season offers charities a fantastic opportunity to network with politicians, business leaders and interest groups who may be able to help their cause (see The CharityInsight Debate: How to change the World).

CharityInsight will be joining colleagues at the NewStatesmanfringe events. Covering topics such as big society, localism and education, they are free to attend and located outside of the main arena so open to anyone. Why not come along and say hello?

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