Feature: Former gangster Gwenton Sloley talks to journalist Pavan Amara
Published: 15 March, 2012
by PAVAN AMARA
Gwenton Sloley works out of a modest Hackney office, undertaking gruelling, vital work.
Every day drug pushers and gang members, desperate to confide in someone, open up to him.
Wanting to escape an ever-accelerating cycle of street crime, prison, and violence, they look to him to wrench them out.
“They come in here, they look tough, they try and talk tough,” says the 29-year-old. “But then it all comes out. They’ll break down in tears once they start talking about the abusive childhoods, the way they were treated, the things they did to escape it... and now they’re going down the same road everyone expected them to anyway. It’s the same old story, I know the ending before they even begin.”
Gwenton works for the Makeda Weaver Project, a venture started in the late 1990s to work with young offenders in north London. It snatched him out of a cycle he was clamouring to escape from.
A couple of years ago he wrote a book, From The Streets To Scotland Yard, telling how life selling crack cocaine in Camden Town, and being a key member of the Hackney gang Love Of Money, began to lose its appeal, as he moved forward to help others like him – eventually working with the police.
“It was a release to write that,” he says. “I knew when I wrote it that I’d left all that behind, because for the first time I could be completely honest about myself to the world. I hope it inspires people. How many more are out there like I used to be?”
When Gwenton was eight, he arrived in London from Jamaica.
“Primary school was fine,” he says. “But during secondary school at Homerton High, it was a disaster waiting to happen. I was growing up on the Pembury estate, and I got to know a lot of guys in Love Of Money.”
At 11 years old, he became the gang’s youngest member, going on to commit shootings and robberies in his early teens under the direction of known criminals in their thirties.
At 17 he was handed down a six-year sentence for armed robbery, and spent time in nine different prisons including Pentonville and Belmarsh.
When he came out, the Makeda Weaver Project took him under its wing.
“I didn’t think I could be good,” he says. “I didn’t think I could do anything else. Then I started a counselling course, and it changed me. It sounds so clichéd but it’s real life – it really did change me. I thought ‘When I can do this, why do I want to be a hood rat for the rest of my life?’
“The truth is these kids do it because they see it in the films. They want to be like the American gangsters they see in the films, because there’s no other image of success for them to aspire to. So they want to be like that big drug dealer on the screen, or that hard guy in New York, because what else is there in real life away from film land?”
When he was 24, his son was born.
“All my mum’s family lived in Kentish Town, and I wanted to sort myself out,” he says, “so I started to get in contact with them again. I started to find out more about men who inspired me. I started thinking of the idea of being an ‘informer’ and if that was really a bad thing. My friend died, he had been so loyal to the lifestyle, and for what? He was blown apart, killed. I started to think when you go, you don’t take any of these attachments with you. I thought about what was important, it was my son.”
The same year, in 2006, he applied for a job as a project worker with Makeda Weaver, the organisation which had helped him.
“I needed to give back,” he says, after being housed in an anonymous location by the organisation.
Gwenton began work on Scotland Yard’s first lower end witness protection project, with the resources to move vulnerable and threatened people to other parts of London, to start fresh lives.
Sometimes that meant changing victim’s names and hiding their identity from the public altogether.
He worked in a senior role in Islington Council’s Gang Prevention Team for two years, in the Britannia Row office.
Now a mentor and resettlement officer, he says: “I do all the risk assessments, I help them get benefits while they try and get into some sort of training or a job. Really, what we do here is create entrepreneurs out of offenders. There’s nothing stopping them. If you’re a drug dealer, you can be a business man, it’s a similar skill set, just one’s used for positive and the other for negative.
“The people that come into my office every day – they can do it – they just don’t know they can. My job is convincing them they can, and getting them to use those skills to turn their lives around. It isn’t easy, which is why you see and hear all sorts of things in my office every day, from broken down people all over north London, but I wouldn’t do anything else.
“Sometimes I think, what if I hadn’t done all that? What if I’d done well in school? What if I had no criminal record? I wish that was the way, but then I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now. I wouldn’t understand the people I work with, and someone needs to be there to understand them.”
• From the Streets to Scotland Yard, by Gwenton Sloley, is published by lulu.com