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Watering the seeds of ambition one Stephen at a time

UNDER THREAT: Stephen Lawrence Centre in Deptford, south east London

PINNED TO the iron gates of the Stephen Lawrence Centre in Deptford, south London are the withered remains of a bouquet of flowers left by well-wishers in the wake of the recent trial that thrust the teenager’s life and death back into the spotlight.

The trial reawakened the conscience of a nation who spared a thought for the Lawrence family who must suffer over their loss every day whether Stephen’s smiling face is on the front cover of a newspaper or not.

But all too quickly, just like those floral tributes, the memory fades and it is back to business as usual. For the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust that might not be so easy.

It has until April to plug a shortfall of £150,000 or the £10 million centre could face closure; and the living legacy of Stephen Lawrence would be gone.

Paul Anderson-Walsh, chief executive of the Stephen Lawrence Trust, said: “After the trial we received more money in text donations in three days than we did in three years. It was amazing that people wanted to do something.

“The challenge for us now is to create a compelling enough proposition that the community wants to invest  in us because we are worth saving.

“There is a lot at stake. It is not as simple as losing Woolworths. Doreen Lawrence is our Rosa Parks. Stephen Lawrence is our civil rights struggle. They changed the landscape for equality. Stephen’s name has the power to galvanise people and open doors. His death and the eyebrow raising way the investigation into his death was handled gives us the right to have that conversation.”


CHALLENGE: Doreen Lawrence (left) with centre staff

Designed by architect David Adjaye, the Stephen Lawrence Centre opened in 2008 as a place of opportunity for young people to achieve their potential in a way Stephen, who dreamed of becoming an architect, was unable to. The Trust was founded 10 years earlier.

The Centre has been an attractive target to vandals, the majority racially-motivated, who have caused hundreds of thousands of pounds in damage driving up insurance premiums.

EQUALITY

Yet each year the Trust, whose ethos is equality, education, employment and enterprise, has continued to add value to the lives of up to 2,000 young people through various engagement programmes.

It has awarded more than 100 bursaries to help fund disadvantaged students through university and has helped to create eight architects.

The Trust’s focus is creating opportunities for the “invisible middle” – young people who are neither exceptionally gifted but who also haven’t got into trouble with the law. At the Trust, they’re affectionately referred to as ‘the Stephens.’

“Because the wheels don’t squeak, they don’t get oil,” explained Anderson-Walsh. “Yet these young people – the 80 per cent – have so much potential if only they get the chance. Stephen Lawrence would have fallen into this bracket. He was a good kid who had the capacity to be a great kid.


CALL FOR UNITY: Paul Anderson-Walsh

“It is also very likely that even if he had got on the bus safely that night, he would have still been confronted with a whole series of socially deadening obstacles that would have stood in his way of becoming an architect.”

Anderson-Walsh reeled off a range of professions from journalism to law where young people from not only African or Caribbean backgrounds were grossly under-represented but also those from socially-deprived backgrounds.

This is why all of the Trust’s initiatives from skills sessions, apprenticeship open days and grants are designed to level the playing field.

He continued: “For people like Stephen, social mobility is not just restricted by the colour of your skin – it is also informed by the colour of your parent’s money.

“There is no difference in intelligence between wealthy people and those who aren’t well-off. The difference lies in education, what they are exposed to and what they are encouraged to aspire to.
“If we want to really tackle institutional racism, we need young people who embody the positivity and good attitude that Stephen was about and what the Trust is about. They can change the perception of what some people think a young black man or black woman is about if someone spends just one hour in their time. But they’ve got to have that hour. That’s our job.”

EMPHASIS

Ironically, it is the trust’s emphasis on the so-called invisible middle that has played a part in its financial difficulties.

Programmes that get priority are those that target young people who are most at risk of falling prey to gangs or getting in trouble with the law.

And like other third sector organisations, the financial climate and the Coalition government’s tightening on public spending has meant that many of its grants are all gone.

The Centre now has only one major funder – the Big Lottery – and now relies on private donations and the money it raises itself through renting out room space or sponsorship deals.

Even if the trust meets its £150,000 target, it will still have to look at ways to drive down costs. Its team of six staff is to be reduced to four-and-a-half with selfless volunteers helping to make up the shortfall.

Anderson-Walsh said: “The Stephen Lawrence Trust does not have a divine right to exist. You have to have a compelling answer for why you are doing what you are doing and we really do. There isn’t another organisation that can unite people in the way we can. In October last year we had a gala dinner. On one table we had the Home Secretary and the Leader of the Opposition. We had the editor of the Daily Mail and the editor of the Mirror. We had the Met police chief Bernard Hogan Howe mixing with race equality campaigners. The point is, despite their differences, they came together and that is what is powerful. After Stephen’s death the country took a hard look itself. Just because two of the five or six people involved in his murder have been imprisoned it is no justification for us to excuse ourselves. Racism is as rampant as it ever was. The criminal justice question has been answered but the search for social justice goes on. The blood of Stephen Lawrence still speaks.”

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