Writing to make a difference

Melissa Knight (MSc Social Policy and Planning 2008) describes her journey from a difficult childhood to London youth worker, and what inspired her to write her debut novel

I hope my book creates a better understanding for young people. Youth is such a short window, and we should do more to celebrate it.

Melissa Knight (MSc Social Policy and Administration)

Melissa Knight sits in front of a curtained window with her chin resting on her hand

For National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this November, we are celebrating the stories of alumni who have become published novelists. Melissa Knight decided to become a youth worker following her own experiences growing up in Greenwich. Concerned about the narratives around marginalised young people following the 2011 London Riots, Melissa was inspired to write her first novel, Since the Riots.

A difficult start 

I grew up attending a state school where the prevailing pupil culture was to treat school as a laugh. Between that and growing up in a single parent family where money was tight, I was going off the rails. I truanted school, I smoked, I drank.  
In the end, the school gave me an ultimatum: run for election in a new initiative where each student represents their school in Greenwich Borough Council - or face being expelled. I ran and became the first elected member of the first-ever Greenwich Young People’s Council. 
So, that was the start of my journey into youth and community work. We went to Ghana with the Queen’s visit when I was 16, and I met so many young Ghanaian people desperate to go to school. At first, I thought they were joking, but then something clicked, and I returned a new person. I studied in the Head’s office every day, my grades improved, and then I passed my A-levels and got a university offer. Going to university is a normal state of affairs for many people, but it was life-changing for me. 

A career in social work 

Once at university, I decided I wanted to work with teenagers at risk of school exclusion. I used solution-focused thinking to bring out their best qualities, build their own confidence, and help them see the value of self-investment. By 2011, the time of the London riots, I’d attended both Goldsmiths and LSE, and my knowledge had been solidified by thinkers such as Henry Bordeaux, Paul Willis, and lecturers like Tim Newburn and John Hills. Poverty narrows life chances. Poverty is policy. What I learned from my MSc in Social Policy from LSE now threads through everything I write. 

By this time, I had also been a youth worker in Lewisham for eight years. I got to know the lives of so many struggling teenagers. Some found their parents dead from suicide or drugs. Others had parents in prison. Some were being sexually abused. Many teens were simply experiencing life being poor. Life can be so hard when you don’t have enough money.  

I’ve seen some real differences in my career. One early evening on a packed train a young man recognised me and when I asked him how he was, he told me that he became a youth worker because of me and that I had changed his life. It was intense - the people on the train were in awe!  As soon as I got off, I burst into tears. You hear the saying, even if you just help one, it’s worth it.

Illustration showing the silhouette of a teenage girl against a twilight sky


Deciding to write

When the 2011 London Riots hit, the political response from the government was to use water tanks and rubber bullets, and the response from some of the public was to lock the kids up. This was at such odds with what I believed was needed. I wanted to write a story that showed the individual's agency and the wider local and national frameworks wrapped around youth at the time. 

My novel, Since the Riots, is not only about how economics and politics impact the lives of these young people, it’s also about the environment of Issy, my main protagonist. My own school life was a bottomless cocktail of gossip, pirate radio, school fights, crushes, boys going to prison and sex. So, I created the character of Issy who lives on a council estate with friends and a boyfriend who smoke weed, sell drugs, and make music with lyrical battles which spill into postcode violence.   
However, my novel is also the story of posh Emily and how the pain of “rich kids” isn’t validated because society still sees wealth as a problem-free existence silencing the emotional experiences of many young people. Being young is a messy obstacle course, which sometimes felt like playing a game of snakes and ladders.

Inspiring change

I hope my book creates a better understanding for young people. Youth is such a short window, and we should do more to celebrate it. I love the Jewish tradition of the Bat Mitzvah, which celebrates the start of youth. I think the UK could do more to celebrate that fragile and precious time of coming of age. I hope my book helps the reader appreciate the teenagers in their own lives. 

I also hope people feel something. One of the things I’m most proud of is the response from members of the Black community about my book. I’ve had messages, especially from Black women, with thanks for writing the narrative of crime involving Black males with nuance and care. It was thanks to London’s Black Lives Matter group that I had over 500 copies ordered the day they posted my book on their Facebook page.

Plans for the future

I‘m about a third of the way into my current project,  an interclass love story between a northern lass from Doncaster and a multimillionaire boy - a fellow writer coined it: “Jane Austen for the generation of Love Island.”  

I self-published Since the Riots as I wanted my own book cover. I would still love to make my own covers, but more than that, I’d love an agent and team who get me and my books. I will always want to write entertaining, engaging and moving fiction.

Advice for alumni 

A free, easy and fun way to get writing is to join or start a writer’s group. I also recommend online writing courses for anyone with a busy work or home life but who also wants good quality information and support from people who know the business side.  
If you want to write, but not necessarily for publication, just put a block in your calendar and treat writing as a commitment like anything else. Writing is such an art form; it’s beautiful, clever, it’s giving. If you enjoy it, you have to do it. The niggling feeling that something is in you won’t leave until you put pen to paper. So, muster enough confidence to believe what you want to write matters. Then open your laptop and write these two words: “Chapter One”!

Since the Riots is available for purchase on Amazon

November 2023