Comic Relief Dispossessed Fund: The African activist sparking a revolution for young Londoners

by DAVID COHEN
Activist: Kwame Ocloo helps disadvantaged children get education: Lucy Young

On the 176 bus from Elephant and Castle to Dulwich, two black teenagers started brawling on the upper deck over a mobile phone.

One punched the other in the face - but while the other passengers shrank back, Kwame Ocloo jumped in and stopped the fight before it escalated.

The potential for petty disputes to spiral among black youths, sometimes fatally, alarmed Kwame, and as a school governor he had noticed another trend: “All I heard at governor meetings was how black children were failing to meet national targets and other ethnic minorities like the Chinese were doing better. I got fed up. I decided - enough speeches, time for action.”

So in 2007 he founded the Youth Learning Network - one of hundreds of grassroots projects backed with £5 million the Standard’s Dispossessed Fund has received from Comic Relief, whose Red Nose Appeal the newspaper is once again supporting this year.

The learning network, a parent-led charity, supports the resolution of disputes and offers supplementary Saturday classes for black and minority ethnic children.

Kwame with young people and parents participating in the scheme (Lucy Young)

In 10 years it has helped more than 500 re-engage with their studies and more than 70 per cent have gone on to pass their GCSEs, with many taking up places at universities such as Imperial College and Cambridge.

A father of six, and governor of two Southwark schools, Kwame runs the charity as an unpaid volunteer. So why is he so passionate about helping other people’s children?

“I was brought up in rural Ghana where it wasn’t just the responsibility of your parents to bring you up, but the whole village,” he said.

“My children have all gone to university, but I look at other people’s children as my children as well.”

Sometimes this attitude gets him into trouble. “I used to frequent a sandwich shop next to Peckham Academy and when I saw students there after 8.45am I would tap my watch at them and say, ‘You’re supposed to be in school, does your mother know you’re here?’

Community project: The school offers extra classes for BME children (Lucy Young)

“After a few weeks they would see me and shout, ‘Grandad’s coming’ and hastily leave,” he laughed. “I became this self-appointed policeman. I only stopped because my wife told me I wasn’t living in a village in Ghana. I did it because I believe in community.”

Kwame has a history as an activist, having been deported almost 30 years ago by Jerry Rawlings who took power in Ghana in a coup d’état.

“I was general secretary of Ghana’s largest trade union and a high-profile thorn in the side of the government,” he said.

“I was often interviewed by the BBC World Service and twice I was arrested and beaten up. The third time I was told to leave because they were going to kill me.”

He arrived in 1989 as an exile aged 34, moved into a council flat in Southwark and rebuilt his life, working for a trade union that has since merged with Unite.

Kwame said the network was built on principles he holds dear: “Discipline and strict timekeeping ... Children come on Saturdays for half an hour of help with homework, but English and maths classes start promptly at 1pm and if they are late without a good excuse, they get sent home.

"I used to be the letter writer for my grandfathers in my village and I could be called at 4am and if I was late I got punished. I learned the importance of timekeeping and respecting others.

"We also make sure the children dress properly. I don’t want to see pants hanging halfway down their bottom and I don’t allow mobile phones in class.”

The Youth Learning Network is one of 340 projects tackling inequality that the Dispossessed Fund has supported with cash from Comic Relief in the past five years.

This year the Standard and Comic Relief aim to raise even more money for inspirational groups addressing poverty and social exclusion.

“The £14,486 grant from the Dispossessed Fund has been a lifeline,” said Kwame, 62. “Parents pay £50 a month for their children to attend our classes, but many can’t afford to pay a penny and we never turn anyone away.

“The grant pays for hall hire and the project co-ordinator and we pay six teachers £20 an hour, so we could not operate this programme without it.”

The Standard visited on a Saturday when 25 children and parents were attending a careers seminar at the church hall next to Goose Green in East Dulwich.

There were questions about how to become a stockbroker. Afterwards, when a 13-year-old took a call from a friend to meet on the common, Kwame was adamant: “No. From here you go straight home. I will call your parents to check.”

The students seem to appreciate his fierce care. Jordan Opoku-Baah, 13, said that when his father brought him there two years ago he couldn’t read: “I was missing a lot of classes at school because I couldn’t even read the timetable. I was falling behind and getting a bad attitude,” he said.

“Now I have learned to read and my dad is shocked at how my learning has improved. I feel very proud of myself.” What has made the difference? He smiled nervously. “Kwame showed me the Youth Offending Unit on the other side of Goose Green and told me that if I didn’t take school seriously I’d end up there.”

For Kwame, these are not idle threats. A 2014 report by the Runnymede Trust revealed that more young black men are in prison in Britain today than are attending university.

Another student, Sophia Bekoe, 13, added: “Kwame is strict but encouraging. If he sees you not performing, he will find out what’s happening and get you back on track. I am top of my class at school because of this place.”

One of the things Kwame is proudest of is the trip in which he takes the children to Ghana with tickets provided free by British Airways: “I take them to my village and show them where I went to school under the mango tree.

"I tell them how we used to carry our desk and chair to the tree every day.

“One girl we took was in a Brixton gang and in trouble with the police. The Ghana trip changed her life. She left the gang and ended up studying law at Cambridge.”

The aim of the trip, he said, is to show black Britons a country where black people are in positions of responsibility. “Many children in the village have no electricity and use the bush for a toilet, yet they have more aspirations than the children from London, who arrive feeling hard done by.

"At Youth Learning Network, we get children to understand how much they have in London. And we get them to see that if they study well, the sky is the limit.”

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