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Written By

Hannah Gray


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

24 August 2021

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Dedicated to making a difference in youth outcomes

JCU Associate Professor Glenn Dawes is passionate about the importance of communities — from academics and government representatives to parents, teachers and neighbours — working together to give young people and teenagers their best chance for success. Recently, Glenn has been working with a local mentorship and leadership program that strives to do just that.

Beginning his professional life in Indigenous student-focused education, Glenn transferred to Sociology at JCU in the late 1990s. Finding that the program didn’t include a youth perspective, Glenn took on the challenge of pioneering a subject on youth studies, SY2019: Youth, Identity and Popular Culture, which still runs today. A few years later, Glenn worked together with JCU Senior Lecturer Mervyn Bendle to start the University’s criminology program.

“The study of young people and the study of youth crime go together, and that’s what my teaching and research is about,” Glenn says.

While conversations around youth crime can often involve pointed fingers and harsh indictments, Glenn says the key to reaching positive solutions to the issue is a compassionate approach that seeks to understand young people and the factors that shape their behaviours.

A local Cairns program, called SPAYC+PLACE, has this ethos at its heart. The program is run by Cairns Safer Streets, a partnership between State Government representatives and a range of Cairns community leaders, volunteers, partners and providers. The CSS team brings together people from the State Government as well as community leaders and volunteers who provide targeted services and programs to ensure these communities are safe, connected and healthy environments.

“In 2019, I got a phone call from the man who is both in charge of Youth Justice as well as the chair of Cairns Safer Streets,” Glenn says. “The SPAYC+PLACE program had just received a large amount of funding that they hadn’t been expecting and he asked me if I wanted to do an evaluation of the program.”

Since the program focused on mentoring and assisting at-risk young people in low-socioeconomic areas, Glenn immediately took up the offer.

A program with potential

Cairns Safer Streets has its focus on the Cairns West area, which is comprised of three major neighbourhoods: Mooroobool, Manunda, and Manoora. The government and community members run the SPAYC+PLACE program in the parks and outside gathering places in these neighbourhoods. From sports to structured games, the program uses engaging activities to create opportunities for mentorship and impact.

“These neighbourhoods have very high cultural diversity, including recently arrived refugees,” Glenn says. “This area also has two schools, Trinity Bay State High School and Cairns West State School, where most of the kids go. There are a lot of young people here and a lot of factors that contribute to the area’s low-socioeconomic status.”

After waiting for COVID-19 restrictions to ease, as well as memorandums of understanding between government departments to be established, the SPAYC+PLACE evaluation started in February 2021.

“I was really excited to be a part of this project because it involved young people who are at-risk, potentially, of disengaging from school, of going into crime, and who may be coming from dysfunctional family situations," Glen says. “Potentially is the key here, because environmental factors have the potential to lead young people to the road of criminal behaviour. But community members mentoring and engaging with young people can help them find paths to healthier lifestyles and empowerment.”

Programs like SPAYC+PLACE target young people who could potentially become involved in youth crime by investigating the social factors that lead to criminal behaviour. Rather than trying to solve the impacts of youth crime, these programs aim to solve the issue at its roots.

“I’ve always been an advocate for finding compassionate, effective solutions to youth-related issues,” Glenn says. “I think there are better approaches to dealing with young people than throwing them in detention or fining them or fining their parents. That only makes the young person come back and become a better criminal.”

SPAYC stands for Space + Place Activities for Youth in Cairns. PLACE stands for Parks to clubs, Leadership and mentoring, Activities for young people, Culture and Early family intervention. The SPAYC programs focus on engaging young people in activities that focus on health and fun — such as sports and games — while the PLACE programs focus on making a deeper, more lasting impact on youth and their families in the Cairns West community.

“One really exciting program is Parks to Clubs, which identifies kids who are coming to the free  sporting activities and are really keen to improve their skills,” Glen says.

“The program subsidises $500 for each youth to be a part of a  sporting club. It covers the cost of membership, uniforms, sport equipment and the like. Some of these young people have gone on to have some really great achievements in sport.”

“Despite all the doom and gloom you read in the newspaper or online about young people and youth crime, this salient program showcases how a joint effort from the community and government departments can have a lasting impact on the lives of individual young people.”

JCU Associate Professor Glenn Dawes

Compassionate approaches lead to lasting impacts

One of the programs that Glenn is the most passionate about is SPAYC +. It focuses on at-risk young people who have been referred to the program by their high school, parents or other contacts, and who may be on the verge of rejecting their education or adopting criminal behaviours.

“This program provides these young people with opportunities three nights per week to go out with program members and volunteers on things like fishing trips or hiking tracks,” Glenn says. “It seems simple, but while they’re doing that, there’s a lot of mentoring going on. Although the activities and sporting opportunities help engage the young people, mentorship is the strongest aspect of the program.”

The youths who are a part of the SPAYC + program can then be chosen for the next stage called SPAYC Cadets. The program members carefully choose up to 15 youths from SPAYC + who are responsive and engaging and they do a six-month intensive program around leadership and mentorship.

“Different professionals come in and talk to the youths and mentor them. Often it leads these young people on pathways to jobs or study or sporting opportunities. So far, it has a 100 per cent success rate, with no one dropping out. Every individual has gone all the way through to graduation, even in its third rendition."

Glenn says it has been fantastic to see the successes of the youths after graduating from the program. “One particular girl had been struggling with her learning and was about to drop out of school when she entered this program. Now she’s working at the Jonathan Thurston Institute. Another girl has gone on to do modelling in Sydney. Other youths have gone on to university or various forms of employment,” Glenn says.

Seeing young people’s empowerment through the program, Glenn hopes the evaluations can provide additional insights into how person-oriented approaches to youth behaviour can create new life pathways and opportunities.. “Hopefully programs like this can be done in other places, and this program can be re-funded next year. It’ll be bigger, better and more effective than it already is.”

Want to know more about the many programs of SPAYC+PLACE? Find out about the projects they’re currently running or get involved in making a difference to the young people in our communities.

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Featured researcher

Associate Professor Glenn Dawes

Associate Professor

Glenn Dawes is Associate Dean of Research for the Faculty of Arts Education and Social Sciences. He teaches sociology and criminology. In addition he conducts research in the areas of youth studies with an emphasis on young people and the criminal justice system.

Glenn's research interests are closely linked to his work in North Queensland communities in areas such as school disengagement among young people, young people and crime on the North Queensland and safety in family environments.