top of page

Research Highlight: 'Life of a Top Boy' with Dr Ronald Dodzro

In this blog post, we dive into Dr. Ronald Dodzro's groundbreaking research, "The Life of a Top Boy: a Qualitative Exploration of Young, Black Men and their Stories of Experiencing Violent Activity in the Context of Gang Affiliation and Trauma". Explore how Dr. Dodzro's insights are challenging stereotypes and paving the way for trauma-informed care and systemic change.


What is Life of a Top Boy?

The Life of a Top Boy was my doctoral thesis which focused on young black men [YBM] exposed to gang-affiliated violence. It was aptly named after the TV series because I wanted to unpick the psychological impact of gang-affiliated violence in the real world, focusing on victims, perpetrators and witnesses. It focused on the voices of eight YBM aged 19-32, who painted an honest picture of the devastating effects of gang violence on their mental health. 

Motivation behind the research

The culmination of my personal experiences directed my interest in exploring this research topic. I am a Black man. I was born in South London in the 1990s. My teenage years were at a time when South London boroughs had some of the highest rates of gang-affiliated violence and murder. So as a young Black boy living in Wandsworth, I was heavily affected by gangs. I grew up with gangs in the area, I went to school with gang members, had family that were gang members. I have witnessed firsthand the trauma that surrounds violent activity that people have perpetrated, witnessed and been victims of. 

Reflecting on my clinical experience spanning many years and locations, I have never seen anyone gang-affiliated willingly seek formal support for their mental health. I am often left wondering about my position within a system failing in its provision of care towards these men; men I heavily relate to who are deemed ‘hard to reach’ which is why I did this research. 

When I initially sought out to do research on this topic, my systematic literature review showed that UK-based research in this field is heavily lacking; with much of the media and scholarly attention focused on the perpetration of violence for gang-affiliated individuals as opposed to their psychological well-being. How often have we seen narratives around “Black on Black” crime? How often do we see Black men in the media portrayed with hoodies up and on the block in ends? I’ve heard people say “well if they’re going to be in a gang they have to deal with the consequences”. And whilst that is true, does this mean we forget the context and circumstances that might have put them in this place to begin with?

The importance of considering your methodology

I used a qualitative approach for many reasons with one being I did not want the voices of YBM to be reduced to numerical, statistical data. This would have limited my ability to make sense of contextual factors impacting their experiences. I am very much aware that when safety and comfort are facilitated, Black men have strong, loud voices. However, society often curtails them and denies them opportunities to be heard. This research then became a unique opportunity to magnify the voices of, and contest societal narratives about YBM exposed to gang-affiliated violence. 

Prior to the interviews, participants were invited to express any specific needs, such as the provision of food and drink or a preview of the interview schedule, to ensure their comfort. Sharing the interview schedule beforehand allowed participants to be well-informed and eased their engagement with the topics. Instead of traditional dictaphones, podcast equipment was used to foster a relaxed and engaging environment, especially crucial when discussing intense subjects. This approach was influenced by the rise of podcasts by former gang members, like "Ok Let’s Talk" (Tricky, 2022-present), and the "RTM podcast show"(Young Spray, 2021-present) and was chosen to avoid the formal and potentially traumatic connotations of police-style interviews.

“This research report will hold accountable the systems around young people which create violent social environments. Gang-affiliated violence is not a disease but rather a symptom of an unequal society plagued with racism, inequality, and poverty. While society allows communities to be plagued by these issues, the cycle of gang-related violence will continue.” 

Bringing yourself to the research

When reflecting on my research experience, it was vital that I brought my whole, authentic self. This has been a project I have thought about doing long before I started the doctorate. My racialised experiences, closeness to this research and my interpretations felt inseparable. I witnessed how this put participants at ease. I perceived our shared slang and understanding of concepts as the reasons to why participants responded openly and honestly to sensitive questions.

I love UK rap and I wanted to showcase this in my work so I actually included lots of different rap lyrics from Ghett’s album (Conflict of Interest) to introduce each section. This is a reminder to you all to be creative. Show who you are in your writing. 

How did the research impact you?

As a Black man from London, I felt I had experienced many scenarios in my lifetime which desensitised me to the normality of systemic injustice and discrimination. And yet I found myself feeling overwhelmed at various points, hearing about additional layers of racism and systemic and structural violence. These experiences resonate with my lived reality and so it was difficult at times to hear. The reflective journaling helped with this, as did socialising with friends and frequent trips to the gym to physically release tension. I was not fully prepared for the emotional labour I would be taking on.

It has been an honour to hear participants speak so openly, especially knowing Black men don’t talk! I was given a massive responsibility with the stories and trust afforded to me by the participants in this study. I needed to do everything in my power and spirit to create something memorable for them, which is why I hope I have kept them central within this research. Throughout the process I have endeavoured to be transparent and reflexive, considering my biases and influence. I am proud to have written such a thesis and proud of what I have been able to achieve with the research team around me. 

Key takeaways from the research

I can’t stress enough the importance of building relationships with gatekeepers and participants. Based on centuries of racism, discrimination, and violence, it is understandable Black communities are suspicious of researchers and mental health professionals. This mistrust is justified! If it is your aim to work with this population, you need to demonstrate yourself as trustworthy. You need to go where YBM are. You need to connect with them on a human level and build genuine relationships. This may take time, but this is the price to pay for asking them to disclose sensitive and serious life experiences in a research interview. If all this is achieved, rich, powerful data can be produced. 


Dodzro, R. N. A. (2023). The Life of a Top Boy: A qualitative exploration of young, Black men and their stories of experiencing violent activity in the context of gang affiliation and trauma.

Tricky (Host). (2022-present). Ok Let’s Talk [Video Podcast]. 

Young Spray (Host). (2021-present). RTM Podcast Show [Video Podcast]. 



bottom of page