Step Together caught up with Peta Lowe this month, to talk about how we can all help in preventing the path to extremism. Peta worked in Juvenile Justice, from 2006 until recently, in a variety of roles across custodial, community and policy settings. Peta is currently Principal Consultant at Phronesis Consulting and Training, and specialises in Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). She has a Masters in Social Work and a Masters in Terrorism and Security Studies.

Step Together (ST): Can you tell us about your history working with young people at risk of violent extremism?

Peta Lowe (PL): I have been involved in working with young people at risk of violent extremism for about three years now, mostly in the Youth Justice system as Director of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). I started working in this space as part of a much broader role, but as I began to research and speak to other practitioners in the field, I realised this was a very critical area of work, which required a more focused and specialised approach. To build my knowledge on how to better respond to the issues, I completed a Masters in Terrorism and Security Studies. Through that formal education, the practical experience, and the support of very knowledgeable colleagues here and overseas, I have worked to continue to raise the issue and develop and deliver appropriate interventions.

ST: How is violent extremism similar or different, to other social health issues?

PL: Violent extremism is similar to many other social health issues in that prevention and early identification and intervention are far more effective than reactive treatment.

Identifying and responding to indicators or risk factors that a young person may be developing some violent extremist beliefs has far better outcomes for everyone than trying to disengage a young person who has already formed those beliefs – whether they have acted on them or not.

While there are some common themes, there many complex and individual contributing factors which influence a person’s journey to violent extremism. Each person’s risks and needs are unique. Intervention requires specific, individualised assessments and strategies.

Like other social health issues, violent extremism also has community and societal impacts. The presence of violent extremist beliefs in the community impacts individuals, families, and our broader society. These acts and beliefs have created division, threatened cohesion, and impacted everyone’s experience of safety and belonging.

ST: In your work, what strategies have worked in helping young people avoid the path to extremism?

PL: Like other interventions, early identification is critical. Being able to have open and honest communication is essential. It’s important to take an ‘appreciative enquiry’ approach to discussions with young people about how they form opinions, and why they believe particular things, and assist them in building important critical thinking skills.

When working with young people who have demonstrated vulnerabilities to forming violent extremist beliefs, it is very important to remain non-judgmental in all your interactions. Young people are at a crucial stage of cognitive, social, moral and emotional development, and whilst this can make them susceptible to the messages or narratives of violent extremist groups, it also means that they are open to the positive guidance and support they may need.

We need to try to understand why someone may be forming different beliefs or engaging in risky behaviours, what motivations they may have, and what contextual factors may be impacting on them. Then work with them to find alternate, pro-social, non-violent beliefs and pursuits.

It is also important to recognise and work to address any structural or systemic issues which may be contributing to the young person’s level of risk or vulnerability. Factors such as disengagement from formal education, problems at home with family, lack of community or peer support. Education about violent extremism is also important – informing young people about the risks of being approached by violent extremist groups, and the kinds of narratives and messages they may receive if they are being recruited. It’s also important to try to teach some strategies for rejecting or declining contact from recruiters, or offers to join a violent extremist group.

Step Together (ST): How can families and friends help?

Family and friends can help by listening, observing and communicating. Listen to what the young person is saying, as well as what they are not saying, observe changes in behavior or appearance, communicate with the young person and ask questions about what may be going on for them.

And if they are concerned a young person is at risk of adopting violent extremist beliefs or behaviors, tell someone. Contact Step Together, reach out to a teacher or youth worker, or anyone who can provide advice and help.

If you need advice on how best to help someone you care about, call our Step Together helpline workers on 1800 875 204, 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. 

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