Saturday, 7 April 2012

Interview : Morris Samuels (Unity Project)

Well over a year ago, BFTF saw an article in the Guardian (or Guardigan as No1 son used to call it) about a really inspirational project in Nottingham that was trying to get young people out of gun and gang cultures. The project was called the Unity project and was run by Morris Samuels.

BFTF knew instantly that this was someone who needed to be given a spot on the radio show. And, praise be, that interview recently came to pass. As usual, the best bits are here for you to enjoy and be inspired by :

BFTF : Morris, lets go back to 2004, could you tell us what really provoked you into starting the Unity Project?

Morris : I’ve lived in St Annes since the age of six and I’ve seen how the estate revolved, how people, when they are young, have really good intentions of being good citizens and getting on but as they get to the age of 14, 15,16 they don’t get employment, they lack education, and then their good intentions turn to something else. You can use your imagination about what I’m trying to say.

All through those times I’ve been a guy in the community, a very physical guy that looks after myself and my family. The reason I’m saying this is that when you are looking to set up things, if you have credibility within the community it sometimes helps to get things moving on.

As a semi-professional footballer, by 2002 I had got to the stage where I was thinking about retiring because the legs won’t move anymore and I was thinking that 1999 to 2002 was a really critical time for Nottingham in terms of the gun and gang crime that was blighting Nottingham, resulting in the word “Shottingham”. Unfortunately a number of young people were injured or killed and I just felt that it was my time to do something in late 2005.

So I started to look around to see what I could do. At the time my forte was football but I knew that a lot of young people from the three areas that were involved in this crime - St Annes, Meadows and Radford - liked playing football. So I started trying to get young people together but I had to target one or two of the main people to get this project running. I think the difficult elements were “When they meet up, what happens then?” I can recall a young man who was a prominent guy from Radford called Ali Scott who came in to help me behind the scenes. People like Mohammed Yaseen, Jean Pardoe (Chief Executive of Connexions) and Neil Parnell -they were an integral part behind the scenes making things happen. I think it’s very important that I had the backing behind me.

Because of my semi-pro background with Ilkeston Town, I was able to get Ilkeston Town to sponsor everything and we were able to play at Ilkeston Town under lights in front of about 200 people. So the guys now aren’t focussing on themselves, they’re thinking “Oh my God, we’re playing in front of 200 people - we’ve got to be one. We’ve got to be a family or we are going to get hammered on the pitch”. BBC news came down, filmed half the game, interviewed some of the lads and it blossomed from there really.
Ilkeston Town are known as "The Robins"

but should not be confused with the Australian Robin, which is rubbish at football

BFTF : I’m perhaps not as outgoing as you and I’d be a bit nervous about approaching people to get involved in this project. So I’m interested in asking “what was your pitch!”
Morris: When you know that someone you know has been shot, you are not bothered about being rejected, that’s the least of your problems, the problems are that people are saying “We’re not happy with this, we are going to get revenge”. You can feel the atmosphere and that drives you, that takes you through all the worries, the “I don’t want to approach people”. I will approach people because I want Nottingham to be the best city in the  country. I’m no different to a lot of people in Nottingham, the only difference is, I’ve gone and done it. I can honestly say is that when I set Unity up my aim was to work with everybody, We didn’t want to be rivals with anybody. We’ve worked with Nottingham Forest in the past, Notts County have just come on board. Last night our U16’s played against Chesterfield.
I believe that when Unity has no use or ornament to the community, I’m more than willing to go and work in ASDA because that will be my time done. I haven’t done it to earn loads of money. I’ve done it because I want young people to understand that we don’t have to fight. Blacks, Whites, Asians - we can all get on.

Also, I don’t want to keep these young people. They come to Unity because they are at risk, by this I mean they may have problems with education, employment, staying in school, homelessness, have a gang problem that they want to get out of. And one thing you have to remember is that if I was a drug dealer or I was in the gangs and guns and I wanted to get out, how can I say it ? I can’t stand on top of Victoria Centre and shout “I’m coming out of a gang” - it just doesn’t work like that.

But if you are in Unity, you’re saying that “I’m playing for Unity. I want to get on with Meadows, I want to get on with Radford, I want to get on with Broxtowe, I want to get on with everybody. I’ve done wrong and I want to get out”. Joining Unity is one of the ways of saying all that.

Nottingham - A Great City

BFTF. I think you have used Unity as a springboard to give people some of the skills they may have missed out on. Can you give us a little more information on that ?
Morris : The beautiful thing about Unity, the reason why it works, is that we use workshops to address all the social issues that we have at present. Let’s say, for arguments sake, that it was brought to my attention or some of the staffs attention that there was a massive homelessness problem, the next workshop would be on homelessness. We wouldn’t’ talk about guns and gangs if that wasn’t prevalent or relevant to what is happening now.

The reason I say homelessness is that, at the moment, this is one of the biggest issues that young people are facing. 
We would get agencies to come in and talk about homelessness, give them (the youngsters) leaflets and forms and educate them about where they should go if they become homeless. 
Everybody who plays for Unity has to turn up in a shirt and tie, they sit in on an hour workshop and we talk about issues that are relevant. And that should give them sufficient tools to address the needs that are facing at that moment.
Get a shirt and tie if you want to play for Unity

BFTF: Can you give a flavour of the success Unity has had on the outcomes for young people who have been part of the organisation?
Morris : If we look at unemployment, about three years ago there was a niche for people to be employed as door supervisors (for clubs etc) and so what we did was to set up a partnership with South Notts College and a security company called Elite Security so that we could run courses for people who wanted to be door supervisors. They would go to college, do the course, get the qualifications and there would be an interview at the end of it, guaranteed. In 2009 we won an award as best employer in terms of going through that method in Nottingham. What we have seen is that you walk round the streets of Nottingham in the evening, we have something like 52 young people that are working on the doors. Sometimes you see them and it can be a guy from Meadows and a guy from St Annes - to me that is not relevant but someone else might think that two years ago they were arguing, people who have come through Unity now get on. 

Also we have set up young people to be self-sufficient, to give them interviewing techniques, to let them come into our office and look for jobs, to give them mock interviews. And we try and niche the market in terms of getting people the opportunity. But it’s got to be right, some young people think they can do a job, and they probably can, but before they go into the workplace they are wearing jeans and a sweatshirt when really, appropriately, they should be wearing trousers, a shirt and a tie - and we pay for that. 

Unity is about trying to shape society so that we have good role models, but with that has to come opportunity. If people don’t see opportunities they are going to do what they feel they need to do.

Nelson Ogunshakin OBE  - A role model for us all.

BFTF : So where is the Unity project now?
Morris : We are starting to get accolades, starting to get a reputation. We have moved on from 300 young people in 2006/78 to now having 1,400 young people at the start of 2012. We have two full time staff, seven part time staff and three or four volunteers. To be honest, it’s still not enough to cater for the young people that we have. We want more Asian people, coaches and players because I do believe there is talent in the Asian community. We certainly want to educate and support Asian Football coaches. If people are interested but are already playing in a league, it is worth knowing that we don’t play in a league, we just play friendlies. 

In 2009 we won an award for the best project in the East Midlands out of 47 projects that applied. The award was for how sport has helped change young people. We have had the Chief of Police come on national TV and say that the Unity project has been a success in its own right in terms of breaking down crime. 

We recently started a Youth Work course with South Nottingham College, expected a maximum of 20 people to show interest and had 44 turn up for the induction day. 

Anybody can join Unity, as well as the high profile games against professional football clubs, we do a lot of community events, a lot of charity events. We do all that to raise money. For example, we recently linked up with Notts Police to raise over £1,000 for the QMC. In this way we have one or two ex-gang members going back and giving something back to the community.  
It’s also worth saying that there are a number of other similar projects going on in various parts of the city and they all deserve a pat on the back.
Click here to see what Unity has been up to. . .

BFTF: Moving onto something a little different, my own perspective of the voluntary work done by the Black Community is that it is done in a very focussed, very professional manner and I just wondered what your perspective of the Asian community was, from the outside as it were?
Morris : From my own point of view, and some of my colleagues point of view, we think that the Asian community is well organised because you have your own businesses and you put a percentage of that, I believe, into setting up your own projects so that you can be self-funding -and then you use some government funding. 

I think some parts of the Black and White communities do similar things but one thing I notice about the Asian community is that you stick together and built it within - and that is a skill that is good practice within any culture.
BFTF : Thinking about young people who are listening and thinking about getting involved in voluntary activities, what tips can you give them on making projects a success?
Morris : All you have to do is to have the confidence to do it! Volunteering is the best way of getting into a job because there is no pressure, you are not getting paid - so it allows you to make mistakes, to suss out what is going on. And then, when you feel comfortable, you can apply for a job. Any youngsters out there - don’t think a job is going to come to you, you have to go out and seek it.
BFTF : And taking that a bit further, some youngsters think that because they have tried something once and it hasn’t worked, they can now give up. But the reality is that to achieve success you may need to come at a problem from two or three different angles before you achieve what you are after. In short, you need Sabr (patience). What is your view on this?
Morris : When we were setting up Unity, I faced a lot of barriers. We had high powered people saying that there wasn’t a gun or gang problem in Nottingham in 2005. We had certain community leaders who I went to on a one-to-one who wouldn’t even give me two pence. Then when you look behind the scenes there are other rival football schemes that were trying to close the door, say we don’t want another project in Nottingham. But we weren’t coming at this from a football sense. Football within the Unity project is just a hub, to get the people in. All the spokes are the other activities we do - working with people at risk, employment, training, aspiration building, self esteem, mentoring, youth work. 

I don’t want these young people to stay with me, I know projects that want to keep these young people as gangsters so that they can pull in money. I don’t want them to be gangsters, I want them to go and get a job, to look after themselves so that when I get to sixty, I can walk down the road and not be fearful that something is going to happen to me, my children or my grandkids.
BFTF : Thank you for those heartfelt words. Lastly, all guests on the show get asked “The Special Question” - What do you think is the best thing about living in the UK?
Morris : I think it’s diversity. I think we have moved a long way, I can remember when I was a youngster that racism would be right in your face. People may argue that it is a bit covert now but the thing is you can go down streets now and go in houses and see dual heritage family with blacks and whites living together with, from previous relationships, a black child, a white child and then a dual heritage child that they have had together. We are going to have our setbacks, but it is getting better.

Image source : Robin, Australasian robin : M&S

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