RARE  RISINGSTARS - The UK’s Top 10 Black Students
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Catching up with Junior

photo of Tim Adelani
One year on after becoming 2017’s number one Rare Rising Star, Junior Smart shares what Rare Rising Stars means to him and what he has been getting up to since then.

Years ago I could not have ever imagined such a recognition, I mean me? I am the kid who had dropped out of education at the age of 14. I was the child who had been told by teachers that I would never achieve anything, I was that mixed-up pupil that other kids hated. Later, much later, I was the person that the law had condemned as a criminal.

That night I was in the House of Commons, with me I had brought my nephew Joshua and a student nurse who was shadowing me for the week as part of her student placement and I remember meeting all of the other award winners. These were real change-makers; determined, talented individuals who had made it their aim to make society a better place. I just remember thinking, yes I deserved to sit among them, yes there were merits to what I had done but to come first was not only a shock but a real humbling experience for me. And, it was an honour.

A year on, I still consider myself fortunate to be a Founder and Project lead for SOS Project, a year later it stands as the largest ex-offender led project in the country. We are currently working in 14 London boroughs to help young people leave gangs and create new, positive futures. Its ex-offender led approach uses the insights of those who have been in the criminal justice system to connect with the most marginalised young people trapped in gang lifestyles. Today, the project is ever more needed. Today, we once again find ourselves in the midst of record numbers of young people being stabbed or shot on our streets, each and every one of them with bright positive futures being extinguished before they have had the chance to realise their potential. Today, we live in a society where we are building walls instead of bridges, creating divides instead of cohesion and making cuts instead of restoration. I continually work hard for the day where the streets no longer scream out with the names and ages of young people lost through violent means.

A year later I still believe there is no-one better qualified than those with lived experience to understand the complex realities facing young people trapped in the deadly and destructive lifestyle choices. Over the past year with the support of St Giles Trust I have built up a 40-plus team staff and volunteers with unparalleled expertise and knowledge. They offer practical and emotional support to help young people overcome barriers and make a permanent exit from their gang life. As ex-offenders themselves, they have a first-hand insight into the lives of their young people and the difficulties involved in leaving negative co-offending groups such as gangs. Over the last year, we smashed our target of engaging over 600 young people and helping them to get better outcomes.

SOS+ carries out preventative work in schools and other settings with young people at risk of gang involvement. Our aim is to give young people different perspectives and impart real tools that they can use. Over the past year I am really pleased to report we have held over 237 sessions, reaching 14,844 young people.

In terms of my educational progression, I still continue with my PhD in criminology at Middlesex University but I am pleased to announce that I was awarded an Honourary Doctorate from the University of Greenwich and will receive it this year, again a real humbling experience. I have also started the Keep It Moving Initiative through my own company - Smart Training and Consultancy featuring passionate speakers talking about moments of change.

In terms of progression over the last year, I am happy to report that I was invited to sit on the Home Office Taskforce for Serious Youth Violence in London, and I have also been invited to sit on the Ofsted scrutiny panel seeking to address violence in schools. Last year I was invited by the Mayor of Greece to talk to the Government about how the peer advice model could be adapted to suit the needs of the country. I also have to state that in many ways over the last year I have really grown and am seen as a youth intervention specialist in my own right.

I’ll never forget that night at the ceremony. There is something that it truly inspiring and overdue about having an award that recognises the achievements of Black Students, that praises the aspirations of a group that is often over-typicalised and represented for all the wrong reasons. There are so many of us out there that are doing incredible work. Regardless of where they come from, they are all winners because they are all change-makers.