The Ascension ProjectThe Ascension Project

Replacing "Road Models" with Role Models

London's Eastside Young Leaders' Academy (EYLA) was created in 1995 to develop the potential of African and Caribbean males ages 8-18. It provides educational and emotional support for these boys, particularly those identified as being at risk of social exclusion.

Eastside is based in Newham, five miles east of the City of London. It is a challenging borough for a number of reasons. Newham has one of the highest ethnic minority populations in England as well as the largest youth population.

It has the busiest youth court in the country, and the worst record of academic performance. These dismal statistics aren't a surprise, given the endless stream of research on the disadvantages and social exclusion experienced by young black males in the UK. Here are the cold, hard facts:

  • The percentage of black children achieving grades A-C in their academic qualitications is well below the national average
  • Unemployment amongst black African and Caribbean people is 9% higher than the national average
  • Black boys are six times more likely to be excluded from school than their white counterparts
  • The black population of England is 4.6%, yet the percentage of black prisoners is almost 17%.
  • Black students account for just 3% of undergraduates at university.

Educational underachievement amongst African Caribbean males has been a serious issue since the Windrush generation of the 1950s. This in turn led to the 'Saturday School' movement of the 1960s and other intervention initiatives. At present there are more than 1,500 so-called supplementary schools in the UK.

EYLA is one such institution.

The academy works hand in hand with local schools, community groups and the private sector. EYLA's partnerships with corporates and local businesses ensure that the boys have exposure to the world of work and to high-profile business leaders. There is a particular focus on building respect and self-worth, and on inculcating a culture of hard work, academic excellence and civic responsibility. We seek to develop the interpersonal skills of each child as well, unlocking their creative flair and while building their confidence.

An integral part of the program is mentoring. EYLA recruits and trains male role models who play an important role in the development of these young men. We push the concept of positive masculinity whenever possible.

It is our experience that many of men with whom we work have not had access to strong, localised, moral men, even in the school environment. Most of the families here are headed by single female parents. And while most mothers are doing an excellent job with their sons in tough circumstances, we are acutely aware of the devastating effect of broken families. These boys are forced to deal with rejection, anger, pain, and transitional issues as they move from boyhood to manhood.

After parents, the next significant male role model in a boy's life is likely found at primary school. Almost half of 800 men interviewed by the Training & Development Agency for Schools said that a male teacher had been a positive influence. However, according to the General Teaching Council of England, men make up just 13% of primary school teachers. Worse, more than 4,500 primary schools in England do not have a single male teacher.

In the absence of positive male role models in their daily lives, boys have often found quick-fix replacements amongst their peers, on TV, and through music, sport and popular culture. All too often the school bully, gangs, rap artists, footballers and celebrities fill the void left by absent fathers, male-teachers and community leaders.

In truth, many of our youth look up to 'road' models, an altogether negative influence, in the absence of 'role' models. That reinforces the need for EYLA's mentor-style approach.

The gateway to greatness
There are two broad strands to Eastside's mentoring scheme. First is that a good education is the gateway to greatness. The second is to insist on high expectations. Both approaches are designed to arouse the genius in each mentee.

Keeping aspirations high is perhaps the greatest struggle we have. One black headmaster said to me that so many of his students and their families have been down for so long that getting up doesn't cross their mind. Most boys are trapped in a cycle of low expectations, so underachievement is a self-fulfilling prophesy. To break that cycle, the boys have to learn how to set a goal, figure out a way to work toward it, and find the mettle to stay the course, even if they have no one's direct path to follow. As one young man told me, “the boys in my school all aspire to be at least as successful as their parents. In my home there are no such aspirations. I compensate for this by competing with them to see if I have what it takes.” Clearly, he does; he earned a scholarship at a very good independent school.

Eastside's mentoring programme works through both formal and informal methods. There is the mentoring that happens naturally through relationships that are built over time between adults and individual boys or groups of boys. Then there is the formal style, using a system of recruitment, selection, training, matching, supervision and support that lasts a minimum of one year.

Encouraging signs
Over the years EYLA has sought to manage the risks and overcome the challenges when establishing successful mentoring relationships.

There are plenty of encouraging signs that our approach is working. One boy claims, “My mentor was there to make sure I stayed on the right path that Eastside had helped me plan. I was very tempted to go off course as I could see what crime could do for me financially. I get fed up with always being poor but my mentor has helped me see the importance of delayed gratification. If I work hard now I will reap the benefits later but without the risk of imprisonment or even an early death.”

Over the past eight years we have seen nearly 200 boys comes through our doors. Some have come and gone quickly. Others are now in prison, awaiting trial or living on the margins. Others still have gone on to do great things, and will inspire the next generations of boys, replacing a negative cycle with a virtuous one.

Ray Lewis, Founder and Head of Eastside Young Leaders' Academy
About Ray Lewis