Steel Warriors is a charity, founded by Ben Wintour and Pia Fontes in 2017, that aims to minimize the number of young people carrying knives in the UK. The organization recycles the steel from confiscated knives by melting it down and turning it into outdoor callisthenics gyms. They hope that the physical confidence provided by using the gym will substitute the need felt by youngsters to carry around a knife. Furthermore, the gym is an indication to raise awareness of knife crime.
“The Steel Warriors gym raises awareness of knife crime whilst providing a safe, positive community space and an outlet for young people, helping to take knives off the streets and drive home the message that carrying one is more likely to ruin your life than save it.”
— Sophie Linden (Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime)
What’s especially brilliant about this though is the thought process that brought it into being. The idea came to Ben (like a light bulb switched on in his mind) after hearing that police confiscate over a ton of surrendered knives every month.
“I wondered if there was a way of taking all that steel, melting it down and turning it into something that directly counteracts the motives for carrying a knife,” he says. “The knife as an object has become socially accepted for groups, so we need to deglamorize a knife, to turn it into a pink Tamagotchi. It’s about symbolism as well as protection, to show how tough you are. If you get people thinking this way, then we may see more knives off the street. Knives are now carried for protection, muscle flexing and bravado.”
Callisthenics is a form of exercise, using one’s own body weight, that is part parkour and part gymnastics. It’s one of the world’s most popular and fastest-growing fitness disciplines. Which is why (when flexing is concerned) it was obviously the best choice.
“Just before we got our first gym off the ground last year in Tower Hamlets, an area suffering from high levels of knife crime, some people found a callisthenics park hard to visualise, but, since it’s been built, we’ve had really good feedback from the community, and lots of people writing in. The director of the youth centre over the road from it tells us young people, old people and women with hijabs have been working out on it. It’s even drawn in callisthenics tourists, because it’s a new bar setup.”
With design help and approval from Barsparta, a callisthenics World Champion, the gym is cutting edge in more ways than one. The park itself is widely considered one of the best of its kind in Europe. Like that wasn’t enough, Ben and fellow co-founder Fontes have enlisted a number of other reformed ex-gang members to provide lessons on the bars for youngsters and locals.
A project like this gives at-risk youth a healthy outlet by empowering them to choose health and fitness over crime. “A lot of young people from less wealthy backgrounds don’t have access to gyms,” says Ben, “and so by placing these parks in areas affected by high levels of knife crime, we can distract younger people and bring them together, building enough physical confidence that they can walk the streets unarmed.”
The gym is right next to a youth centre called Spotlight (which focuses on the creative arts) and is within easy reach of nearby Stratford, Poplar and Bow. These are all areas that have been blighted by knife crime. Daniel Rose, director at Spotlight youth centre, sees first hand the effects of the gym.
She admits to being pleasantly surprised by the outcome and explains that: “From day one people have been using it; kids doing their usual exploring and games, older women in their hijabs – this area has a big Bengali population – using it for a daily workout in the morning. The whole community has embraced it, even if it’s just to test it out for a few minutes. Young people who are into this kind of thing have set up their own clubs. We’ve also had the callisthenics tourists, who’ve travelled here to come and use the space because they’ve seen it in the news – a lot of people filming blogs and workout demonstrations. It’s a great addition to the area.”
The project was met with a lot of positive feedback and Steel Warriors is already planning to build more gyms. They say, “We plan to fail; when there’s no more knife steel to build with then our job has been a success. Sadly, at the moment, there’s more than enough to utilize but hopefully one day we’ll run out.”