How two Birmingham gangs became allies

Tenesha is only 17 but has already lost four of her friends to stabbings or shootings. When she was eight, she saw her dad get shot. "I remember being scared by the bang and scared because I thought they were going to shoot me," she says. "But he was talking and walking and he just went to the hospital, so it didn't seem such a big deal. He was calm, so I was calm."

Tenesha and four other teenagers are discussing what they see as everyday violence as part of a programme run by One Mile Away, a social enterprise founded by former gang members to discourage young people from gang life.

The One Mile Away organisation is the outcome of a feature-length documentary of the same name, released nationwide on Friday. In the film, director Penny Woolcock documents 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 in neighbouring Handsworth. The two postcodes where the gangs operate – B6 and B21 – are only one mile apart. The violence that has plagued the two communities came to national attention in 2003 with the drive-by shootings of teenagers Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis outside a New Year's Day party. Four men were jailed for their murders in 2005.

It was Matthias "Shabba" Thompson, 33, affiliated to the Johnsons, who took it upon himself to try to change things. In September 2010, he contacted Woolcock, whom he had met five years earlier when she was researching her hip-hop musical, 1 Day, in his neighbourhood. He knew she had built up trust with the Burger Bar Boys and thought she might be able to help him start a dialogue between the two sides. Through Woolcock, he approached Dylan Duffus, the star of 1 Day and affiliated to the Burgers. Over the course of a year, they began the slow and painful process of breaking down the brick wall of mistrust between the two communities, in front of the camera. At their first meeting, in a hotel room, they look suspicious but hopeful. By the end of the film a year later they describe each other as "brothers from another mother".

When filming ended, Thompson and Duffus set up One Mile Away with Simeon "Zimbo" Moore to ensure the message of the film would continue. Moore, 30, is a former member of the Johnsons who spent time in prison for firearms and drugs offences.

"Most of the youths in gangs today are from good homes but without their fathers," he says. "There's no role model to follow, someone to look up to, to model yourself on. When I was 15 the men I was looking up to were 18. They are still doing childish things but that's what you want to emulate."

Moore has been instrumental in broadening the scope of the organisation's work after the truce. "It's about the mentality: what we aspire to, the perceptions we have of ourselves," he says. "Our care for our life is low, our care for each other is low. We don't believe we are worth anything. We don't believe we can do anything."

In its first six months, the organisation has put together a range of approaches to challenge these negative attitudes. There are school assemblies, a highly personalised mentoring programme called Big Brother, Little Brother, and courses aimed at those in school and those who have left or been excluded. It has worked with around 45 young people at two schools and a youth centre and it is in talks with four other schools. Its central message is clear: the gang is a trap that will lead only to prison or death. There is no glamour or kinship. You can make other choices.

Crucially, they aim to show, through their success, that it is possible to do positive work and still "live good" – have money to support yourself and your family. With one in four young people in Birmingham out of work – double the national average – and Aston and Handsworth among the most deprived areas in the UK, this is an important message.

The approach seems to be paying off. Police figures show that the crime rate in Aston and Handsworth fell sharply during the filming of One Mile Away and has remained up to 40% lower ever since – reductions that do not appear to have been replicated in other parts of the city or in other cities with equivalent gang problems.

Duffus says he has seen a change. "Before, it was hard to do anything productive. Now people are aspiring – to open businesses, to start companies, to educate ourselves." Joel "YT" Ecclestone, 21, a former member of the Burgers, who is now one of the course facilitators, says this kind of change could only have come from within. "The young people we work with are my people," he says. "They are the people I grew up with, who I shared a joke with. They have been through the same things that I have. They respected me before, now they can respect me for this."

Back at the community centre, the morning session is over. YT and co-facilitator Daniel Davidson, 25, joke with the young people. "They don't come out like they're higher than us," says Javett, 17, who was excluded from school "loads of times" before leaving last year. "They talk to us on a level. When we talk slang they understand, we don't have to translate." Tenesha agrees. "They have changed my perspective. Before, I used to be like: 'Team Aston'. Now I just think the whole postcode thing is rubbish. They are showing us that it's not normal that we know about shootings, that we know people who have guns. It shouldn't be normal."



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