the canary review
A hard-hitting account of life before, and then inside, a London gang is being given a new lease of The Mind of a teen, as its author turns it into a groundbreaking educational tool. But the book itself, and its author, are a humbling testament to the power we as humans have to take insurmountable negatives, and tu*rn them into something really positive.Not strictly autobiographical
Rachel Dinah released CHANGE OF THOUGHTS From underdog to advocate and the THE MIND OF A TEEN: YOUR SUCCESS YOUR STORY in 2020. The book tells the story of fictional girl called Rai, whose church-led life, brought up by a single mother in London, spirals out of control. After violent bullying at school, and abuse at home, Rai ends up inadvertently joining a gang. And the character downward spiral continues from there. So, The Canary caught up with Dinah to discuss the book, its inspiration and her newest venture: turning the mind of a teen, into a toolkit for everyone involved in young girls lives. You be forgiven for thinking the mind of a teen, was autobiographical. because Dinah shares a lot of characteristics with the fictional heroine. And the way its author has constructed the dialogue points to a deep understanding of life for teenage girls in London, gang culture and religion.
But Dinah told The Canary that it’s a fictional autobiographical is not strictly true:
Everything that is in the book was put in because they are things that do happen. They didn’t happen in my life, but they have happened in other young people’s lives I have worked with. I have worked with over 500 girls doing intervention programmes, so there is nothing imaginary, or a situation that couldn’t happen. But there are added bits. There are bits that are a tiny bit exaggerated. But my mission was to create something so strong that people wake up to certain truths as to how they are behaving with the young people in their lives - and I had to make it as powerful as possible to give that effect.
Painting a picture, Dinah paints Rai’s story exceptionally well in the book. A Girl Called Rai opens at a church service, where a preacher delivers a prophetic warning, seemingly directed at Rai. But a chance meeting and a tragic turn of events flip her world on its head. And she then recounts how life led her to arrive at that one, devastating moment.
A Girl Called Rai is cleverly constructed. Instead of a rambling back story, the reader is given short . Bursts of detail that Dinah considers significant to understanding how Rai came to the point of ending up embedded in a London gang. Starting with a brief encounter, aged five, with her absent father, the book lays breadcrumbs of events which lead to the story doing a full circle and a final,
These snippets of information make the book almost a screenplay; flitting between short, sharp scenes and more drawn-out mono and ideologues, and ensemble sequences. And its Dinah’s structuring and the conversational, street language that makes A Girl Called Rai extremely accessible. But she says this was wholly intentional:
My target audience is young girls. In the book you see Rai’s whole life and hear her thoughts from five to fifteen year old, to twenty one. And that’s why it’s so accessible: it is just a girl, -------speaking. And I know when I was growing up I didn’t enjoy or read books; it was all about my phone and internet. But I thought that if there was a girl that was really in need, and she came across this book, she would be able to read it. I also needed to make it clear for parents, as well, because they need to understand a young girl’s mentality.
Devastating truths . What also makes the mind of a teen so interesting is Dinah’s smashing of the image that gang members are not always from urban backgrounds. Dinah says, for example, she knows girls who have come from financially stable, proper homes that have ended up in gangs. You can try and sugar-coat your child, Dinah says, but you’re not with them 24/7. But the book also gives some devastating commentary about the grooming of young girls by older men.
The books details how easily grooming can happen. The book shows a man coercing then isolating his victim, then creating dependency and a false sense of security, But Dinah doesn’t feel the need to be graphic, which adds to the power of her work. She says she wanted to show that, while Rai was proper and decent, an older teen, Keeper, groomed her into believing that he would provide protection and trust and ultimately love. All of which was false.
The book also explores the environment that facilitated the grooming: the failings by Rai’s father, the education system, the church, her peers and, possibly most importantly, her mother. The book explores them all, and it leaves the reader feeling that Rai’s situation could happen to anyone. Which is the overriding point of Dinah’s book, as she explained to The Canary?
I think all these issue are very common among young girls. When I was in school, I saw it among peers, whether it be a friend who only lived with her dad because her mum was on drugs, or
Whatever. But when I set up the Change of Thoughts intervention programme, and I brought it to schools, they already had girls they wanted to refer immediately. And it was then I realized what a common problem it is.
Every school has girls whose problems extend from their father not being at home; their mother being on drugs; them being under-disciplined, or their parents not listening to them. So, they go to their peers. Which is the blind leading the blind. Just come out of your house; go onto the street and you see it. So, with this book I’ve tried to create a solution for a young girl, for who things are failing. Gang realities in reality, deprivation also plays a major factor in the prevalence of gangs. The most recent data available shows that a gang indicates were highest in some of the London boroughs with the worst social economic data; most which notably had housing problems:
Successive UK government have attempted to deal with the countries gang culture. Oddly, the government does not compile national data on gang-related crime and disorder. But figures for London from 2010 onward show that gang and knife crime was falling until 2013, when the figures began increasing again. According to Metropolitan Police intelligence reports, there are an estimated 225 recognised gangs in London, comprising of around 3,600 gang members. The drop in gang-related offences appeared to coincide with the start of the governments. Ending Gang and Youth Violence (EGYV) programme which began in 2012 in 33 areas.
A damning verdict
But in 2015, the Home Affairs Select Committee issued a critical report of the EGYV programme, saying the Home Office had; that the number of girls still being sexually exploited was, and that the lack of progress identifying young people at risk was.
The report also was specific in saying: It is clear that young people feel that their experiences are not taken into account. It went on to recommend that the government involved primary and secondary teachers, third sector organisations and local communities in tackling gang culture. And it' s this cross-organisational approach which Dinah agrees is so crucial. She says:
I don’t feel that there is enough support for young girls and young women. But also for young men. Because if someone woke up one day and said know what? I want to walk away from this [gang]; there is no support in place for that young person. If they’ve dropped out of school, the government has cut so many youth programmes that they have nowhere to turn apart from the streets. They think that they have to do criminal things like selling drugs to make a living.
Grassroots engagement in communities and early intervention from year seven at secondary school is also crucial. If a young person is showing signs of certain risk behaviours, they need to be worked on, given opportunities, taught business, whatever. So, when they leave school, they have the chance to go straight into employment. It’s crucial they’re fully prepared to be citizens.
Making a change
As a result of A Girl Called Rai, Dinah set up her Change of Thoughts programme. Using drama as an intervention technique, she works with girls from challenging, marginalised and disaffected backgrounds. She has successfully delivered the programme in schools across London, and with young people’s organisations. You can find out more information about Change of Thoughts here.
And it is this approach which Dinah hopes to help with the extended version of A Girl Called Rai. It is longer with additional back story, but also contains guidance for parents, youth workers and young people alike. Dinah said:
The original book was the introduction, if you like. I wanted A Girl Called Rai to be as simple as
Possible. So a young girl could pick it up, read it and go: Oh my gosh! I’m in this situation! Oh my
Gosh! This is how my boyfriend is acting. But, oh! Rai changed over her life, so... But the extended version is for professionals, parents and adults working with young girls. I did it because I had so much more I wanted to add. This [the first book] was good for a young person, and maybe a parent.
But I knew there needed to be more. A message of hope
While A Girl Called Rai is sad and shocking in equal measure, the final flourish of the book is unexpected and heart-warming. Because Dinah shows that however dark a person’s life can become, there is always a chink of light trying to break through. The Canary asked Dinah what she would say to anyone reading this article and realising it relates to them. She simply said:
Create a diary. Write down all the events that have happened in your life, from as young an age as possible. Then re-read it, and see where you can change.
In the book there was one moment that made Rai reflect on her whole life. And when she did, she saw how things happened and how everything spiralled out of control. And then she made a decision to go back to the community, where other people were in her situation, and expose herself and her bad mistakes, her bad choices. Healing comes from an acceptance of your mistakes, learning lessons and moving on. But the best healing you can have is giving back to the community. Rai’s healing came from giving back. And all these things in her life she didn’t understand - she began to.
The mind of a teen is a revelation. Dinah paints a devastatingly accurate and painful picture of one girl’s life spiralling out of control. But she crafts the book so it ends with a message of hope and resolution. Dinah’s passion is obvious, but so is here unique insight. And the book is a must-read for young girls and parents or guardians alike.