RARE  RISINGSTARS - The UK’s Top 10 Black Students
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No. 1


Junior Smart

PhD in Families and Gangs
University of Middlesex
Charity and Academics

Junior’s story captures the dynamism that exists between ourselves and the environments in which we exist. His is a story of vulnerability to, and triumph over, circumstance.

Junior’s story begins in south London in the 1980s where he grew up with his mother and two younger sisters. Amidst the blur of childhood, two “turning points” vividly stand out to Junior. At the age of 14, Junior was attacked and badly hurt by a group of older boys. This, in combination with an unsupportive teacher at school, significantly dented Junior’s sense of self-worth. He dropped out of school and only returned to take his GCSEs under pressure from his mother. When Junior failed his exams, he began to work full-time in administration and DJ’ed on the side. Junior’s “selfish behaviour” worsened when his mother died. He was only 21 years old. Plunged into homelessness, attracted by the lure of quick money and his burgeoning need to “feel respected,” Junior got more and more involved in gang activity. Lost in a cocktail of getting high, girls and criminality, Junior soon suffered the consequences. Despite being a peripheral member, Junior was sentenced to twelve years in prison for serious drug-related offences.

“Before I found myself, I was living a very selfish life…I ended up being criminalised.”

The experience of being in custody was a sharp wake up call for Junior who never saw himself as a “bad guy”. During the year he spent on remand, Junior noticed the failings of a system that meant prison was a revolving door for many of his fellow inmates. As a result, he decided to get involved with projects aimed at preventing young people from following in his misplaced footsteps. Originally a beneficiary of the programme, Junior successfully persuaded The Samaritans to train him as a Listener, even though he had not been convicted at the time. As a Listener, Junior reassured new arrivals and guided them through their first days inside. Although he was motivated by the injustice of the prison system, Junior’s involvement with the Listeners was more than a kind-hearted gesture of giving back. During a time when he was blighted by frequent suicidal thoughts, being able to help others was the only thing Junior had to live for.

Junior was inspired by his experience with the Listeners and decided to set up initiatives while serving his sentence. He set up a reading and writing scheme which enabled prisoners to communicate with their loved ones at home. Junior also sacrificed the relative freedom of his semi-open prison when he transferred to Rochester Youth Prison, a closed prison, in order to work with vulnerable young people. Junior soon began to establish a record of success: none of the young people he worked with reoffended. Alongside his voluntary work, Junior also retook his basic GCSEs and completed a number of other courses. His hard work did not go unnoticed. Junior’s sentence was reduced from twelve to ten years when his case was taken to appeal.

A fortuitous meeting on a prison visit became a key turning point for Junior. A lady from the St Giles Trust, a charity that works with ex-offenders, notified Junior of a vacancy at the organisation and suggested that he apply. With only a few months left of his sentence, Junior interviewed and secured a job at the charity. Junior was tasked with investing the Trust’s funding into community projects. This was a perfect match for Junior who had been itching to set up his own fully fledged initiative.

Upon his release from prison in 2006, Junior, then aged 30, founded the SOS Gangs Project. The now award-winning service provides intensive support to vulnerable young people who are at risk of violence and exploitation. Junior initially ran the programme single-handedly. The SOS Gangs project is now the largest ex-offender led project in the UK with over 30 former criminal employees. The project runs in twelve London boroughs and supports over 600 young people a year. Fewer than 20% of those helped by the SOS Gangs Project go on to reoffend. Testament to its success, the SOS Gangs Project won the Advice, Support and Advocacy category at the Charity Awards 2014.

Junior has since expanded his reach with youth work. He founded SOS Plus, a sister programme to the major gangs project, that targets primary and secondary schools, Pupil Referral Units as well as colleges and universities. Junior graduated from the School of Social Entrepreneurs in 2010 and is now a recognised consultant, advising organisations on how to work with young people. He recently became a Board Member on The Prison Reform Trust’s Board of Trustees. Junior is the first ex-offender to sit on the Board.

Junior is a man of theory and practice. Alongside running the SOS Gangs Project, Junior has been in formal education for the past seven years. He achieved a first class in his undergraduate degree in Youth Work at the University of Middlesex. He went on to gain a distinction in his master’s in Youth Justice, Community Safety and Applied Criminology. Junior developed a new theory of gangs in his master’s which he decided to develop in his current PhD focusing on families and gangs.

“By changing the game regarding young people, we’re changing people’s lives.”

Despite his widely acknowledged success, featuring in The Evening Standard, The Independent, The Guardian and appearing on television, Junior’s humility is marked. He describes himself as “just a layman trying to change the landscape and language” society uses to discuss gangs. Through his groundbreaking research into gangs and his SOS project, Junior is trying to change the rhetoric around young people and, ultimately, to change people’s lives.

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